Traffic congestion is a common excuse used by many to explain poor performance or tardiness. Egyptian society is known for its inefficiency, and it seldom occurs to many of us to set out for our destinations earlier.
Yet, the country has spent some LE517 billion on fuel subsidies over the last five years, and in addition to reducing these we need to substantially reduce our fuel consumption. More efficient commuting would help all of us to reduce our fuel consumption and advance productivity.
Fuelling up their vehicles and hitting the streets is a common practice among Egyptian young people since it is still an affordable way to have fun. Expanding the city’s public transportation system extensively is not feasible because it would require a very large budget — the Cairo Metro alone has incurred cumulative losses of LE618 million.
The commuting dilemma in Egypt is also complicated by the fact that the workforce is often not held accountable for its time and does not mind hanging about in crowded streets using relatively inexpensive public transport.
However, the government should work on creating a policy that transfers responsibility to the workforce and affiliated costs to employers.
This should include the 30 million or so state and private-sector employees and the country’s 25 million students. Various methods could be used to improve their mobility, including car-pooling, working from home, the relocation of employees, online services and others.
The government should also encourage state and private-sector enterprises to allow their employees to work from home one day a week.
For the vast majority of enterprises, many tasks can easily be completed at home. It is simply a matter of efficiency and prioritisation.
This would reduce commuting expenses by roughly 20 per cent, and it should be possible to rearrange university schedules to a maximum of four days of classes a week per student, reducing the number of commutes students have to make.
State and private-sector enterprises that have several branches should also relocate their employees closer to their premises. They should oblige their employees to either team up in car-pools of four riders or use company mini-buses to pick them up from specified collection points.
Employers should bear the cost and the responsibility of organising these methods. Enterprises located in the same district, such as in the Smart City or the Fifth Settlement, should work on teaming up to provide commuting services for their employees.
Companies or public-sector institutions wishing to give their senior executives the privilege of commuting in private vehicles should pay for fuel at market prices, inclusive of a levy to cover their share of pollution.
School students should be encouraged to use school buses, and state university students and the unemployed who cannot afford the market price of public transport (set to increase gradually) should receive subsidised transport vouchers valid for their study days or for a limited number of job searches.
Egyptians tend to spend much of their time dealing with complicated government bureaucracy. This should be addressed by providing more online and, when necessary, document delivery services.
The fees charged for these services would be less than the cost of applying for them in person. We could also easily increase online shopping by incentivising retailers with small tax deductions and customers with longer product-return periods.
This system could be monitored through identification cards indicating place of residence and working address. To finetune any unforeseen difficulties, a pilot project with the participation of a few enterprises could kick off the initiative.
Its full application would eventually prompt many others either to recruit employees residing close to their premises or to found branches in areas where most of their potential employees reside.
All citizens have a constitutional right to freedom of movement. However, this right does not entail using fuel subsidies and polluting the environment. Paying fairly for both should allow anyone to use his or her private vehicle.
And the application of the scheme outlined above should substantially reduce the government’s total transport and fuel bill, inclusive of subsidies. The amount saved could be reallocated to public transport, which might even be taken over by the private sector.
* The writer is an Egyptian liberal politician
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The commuting route to productivity