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5 October 2012 / jenbusse

Traffic and Trade: Seeking Balance

Vendors on a street in Cairo (photo credit:

Street vendors in Egypt make up a substantial part of the informal economy, a powerhouse that is responsible for 25% to 60% of GDP according to some estimates.  When unemployment is high (over 12% at the end of 2011), and bureaucratic red tape and corruption make opening a bricks-and-mortar establishment an obstacle course of permits and bribes, selling on the street is often the only work within reach.  According to Sherif Delawar of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology, the informal economy is what has kept the economy going during and since the revolution. Vendors have thrived, in part, due to diminished harassment from police, who have turned their focus elsewhere.  While their success speaks for itself, the vendors are not universally welcomed.  They are blamed for undercutting established shops, producing trash and noise and making Cairo’s famous traffic even worse.

Congestion is a significant and well-documented problem.  According to the 2010 World Bank Cairo Traffic Congestion Study, congestion costs the city $13-14 billion LE ($2.1-2.3 billion USD) annually in wasted fuel and time.  To allow traffic to flow more easily, the government is attempting relocation of street vendors to side streets or enclosed marketplaces, but this may not prove successful.  Vendors will inevitably gravitate back toward the busiest and most profitable thoroughfares, where some would be willing to pay a fee for the right to do business.

Given the limited street space, the solution will involve more efficient use of it.  Commerce is a legitimate and vital use of the street, as is transport.  Vendors should be permitted to sell in well-trafficked areas that are visible and convenient to customers, as is being done in some areas.  Buses should be given priority, perhaps by designating exclusive bus lanes, although they will depend on traffic enforcement unless there is a physical barrier.  Limiting parking to designated areas is also important to maintain free-flowing conditions (again, enforcement is key).

The underground rail system should be expanded, given its already high ridership and Cairo’s density.  Trams are perfect for Cairo’s narrow streets; a full light-rail system would complement the metro and attract long-term commercial investment from businesses that value mobility.  As the transit system becomes built out, tolling and congestion charging may become viable.  The World Bank recommends a Metropolitan Cairo Transportation Authority be formed to coordinate and oversee all aspects of transport.  Having all functions under one roof would improve coordination and facilitate development of a comprehensive transport plan.

With the right strategy, transport and commerce can co-exist in the streets of Cairo.  Both are essential to a thriving economy and a vigorous urban environment, which will benefit all Cairenes.  Care must be taken not to undermine one success in the pursuit of another.

Matthias Hess is a Customer Service Specialist at New York City Transit where he focuses on online service communication.  He is interested in all aspects of urban design, particularly transportation and architecture, and expects to pursue a degree in urban planning.  Matthias studied Business Administration at Houghton College, focusing on international issues.

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