Making Cairo Move
Ask anyone and they will tell you, this is consistently one of Egypt’s worst attributes. It cripples the economy beyond comprehension where as much as $8 billion is lost in productivity, delays and excess fuel consumption, according to the World Bank. On days where the political scene is less dramatic than Ghada Abdelrazek, Cairo’s traffic congestion trumps most topics in frequency and effect on our collective emotional state. Egypt is the only country where the evolution of traffic has led to a honking language. Yes, a honking language, where you can use your swear word of choice depending on the honking pattern.
While every aspect of the problem has been discussed and exhausted between friends, we have come to realize that feasible and theoretical solutions should take center stage. But does Cairo’s traffic really have a solution? And can we do anything about it without waiting for the government?
Finding a Solution
The good news is yes, there is a solution. In fact there are many solutions, the difficulty lies in picking the right one. We will introduce a part of one solution in this blog. But before we do, we must quickly eliminate one very wide misconception.
This will come as a surprise to many, but widening roads has almost no effect on solving the congestion problem. While congestion will be decreased on the short run, traffic naturally prefers the path of least resistance, consequently, when analyzing the city’s overall network it is revealed that drivers have the tendency to pick detours through newly widened roads. Equilibrium gets maintained and streets feel just as congested once again. Below is a photo depicting the result of continuous unsuccessful widening.
Regardless of whether this concept makes sense to you or not, the general idea is, investments and improvements for cars will only attract more and more cars to the streets. Several people have simply explained it as follows, “Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to relieve obesity.” So here’s where we are; we need cars to get to work but, the more cars on the road the more furious it becomes to drive to work. So we widen roads and build highways but that encourages more cars on the road and we are left with a persistent problem, until we look at public transportation.
Well managed public transportation successfully lowers the number of cars on the road and with that, congestion is decreased especially when paired with other means such as congestion pricing. The picture below offers a powerful visual representation of the same number of people using different modes of transportation.
You can view this as a gif here.
The vast number of benefits from public transportation has convinced a tremendous amount of leaders in both developed and developing countries that even if the system is not profitable, it is still worth subsidizing. Several developing countries with similar infrastructure to Cairo have already begun revitalizing their transportation with signature projects like Columbia’s BRT system.
How to implement the solution
If changing the world doesn’t happen in one day, neither will solving Cairo’s traffic problem. Working on some of Canada’s most complex construction projects has confirmed the difficulty in making Cairo move, but not the impossibility of it. Over time, I began discovering small steps that could be taken in Cairo to make those changes today. Implementing solutions to Cairo’s traffic through public transportation allows for two main options:
#1: The introduction of a new system and deciding what type of system it will be (i.e. a new subway line, a Nile ferry or a bus system) which is followed by creating the system itself.
#2: Increasing the ridership of an existing system. This would entail making this transport option more appealing either through cost, comfort or time saved. This is the option I have been advocating.
The proposal I submitted to Cairo from Below’s Our Urban Futures Ideas Competition discussed the “Living Bus Stop”, which is a sustainable design of a canopy comprised of four trunks of a Bougainvillea tree (جهنمية) with its branches rising and meeting to create shelter above riders. A seated and shaded canopy would make waiting for a bus more convenient and increase the current low ridership of buses.
Many factors combined, create a perfect public transportation system. Solving all at once may not be feasible at a given point in time, so one must strive to solve what they can with what they have. The proposal I have submitted is simple but effective. It sets the groundwork for a better transportation network that can be used by both the private and public bus systems.
A detailed proposal on the project was submitted and fortunately very well received by the judges. I was later contacted by some of the judges that wished to implement the system on The American University in Cairo (AUC’)s current bus system in a controlled environment before launching city-wide. Since then, we have discussed several aspects during Skype video conferences to implement the Living Bus Stop on AUC’s bus system. Meetings with Marc Rauch (Sustainibility Coordinator), Ashraf Salloum (University Architect) and Sherif Maged (Director of Transportation) are getting us closer to implementing the system. With 60 bus stop locations along 16 different routes in Cairo, AUC creates a perfect initial step for this sustainable future. Once this step is launched, phase two would begin.
Phase two of the project will entail installing a solar panel on each canopy to keep stations lit throughout the night for both convenience and safety. This initiative would extend the usage time of each canopy and make the battle against congestion continuous throughout the day and night.
I hope to see those colorful tree canopies around the city, at every intersection, on main bus routes to increase ridership from the levels they are at today. At the very least, they would paint the city streets with more beautiful colors and clean the polluted air we breathe every day.
The beauty of the Living Bus Stop is that even if it doesn’t increase ridership substantially, the project is simple, cheap and leads to more trees being planted around Cairo. The closer Cairo gets to a transit friendly city, the closer we will be to minimizing congestion. I will try to keep progress updates shared frequently as this project progresses so I could hear what you think! Do you think bus shelters would have an effect on increasing today’s numbers of bus riders? Would you be more likely to take a bus if the wait was more convenient? If you think you can help out with this initiative in any way, and have more ideas to share, please contact me and let’s get this city moving! e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hossam Targam left Egypt in 2006 to complete his Civil Engineering degree at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Over the last few years he has worked for consulting and contracting companies on several transportation construction projects around Ontario. He is currently a Project Coordinator with EllisDon Corporation working on the $1.4B vivaNext Project, which is part of the master plan, to transform the York Region’s transportation network.
If you would like to share your vision for Cairo, please write to us at CairoFromBelow@gmail.com so that we can feature your idea on the CfB site.