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Thursday, 02 April 2020

To cycle or not to cycle?

A group of young urban planners wants to make more room for cyclists on the streets of Egypt

Mai Samih , Sunday 9 Feb 2020
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Tabdeel awareness workshops in Alexandria and Port Said
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With the constant congestion on the streets of Cairo, there have been few serious attempts to overcome the problem by raising awareness of the benefits of using bicycles. This would be an environmentally friendly solution that could solve some of the problems in Cairo’s streets when buses and motorcycles compete with a huge number of cars.

The result has been an almost daily scene of chaos, noise, and pollution. The few cyclists trying to squeeze their way between the cars may not know if they will ever make it home.

On a small scale, some streets in Cairo have been refurbished by the government with bike parking spaces and lanes like in the Downtown area of Al-Alfi Square and the district of Heliopolis.

Activists are also exerting efforts to gain more room for bike lanes in Egyptian streets, among them one initiative called Tabdeel (Peddling). This is an online and offline platform set up by a group of young urban planners who wanted to make Egyptian streets a more bicycle friendly environment by conducting surveys, organising seminars and exhibitions, and publishing articles to encourage people to use their bicycles more frequently and raise their awareness about this healthy alternative.

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According to a study by Tabdeel entitled “What can Alexandria learn from Rio?” Rio de Janeiro, a coastal city in Brazil, can be compared to Alexandria as a summer destination for many, except that Rio was one of the top 20 cycling cities in the world in 2013 and has bike lanes on each side of many of its roads. Alexandria, on the other hand, is highly motorised and has no bike lanes.

Tabdeel wants to see cyclists have more bike lanes, since these help to ensure their safety on the streets. “Tabdeel started with four people who had all studied urban planning, and we had all worked in planning for bike lanes,” said Heba Attiya, a young engineer and co-founder of the initiative.

“I used to work at the ‘Dutch Cycling Embassy’, a pressure group in Holland, and Ahmed Tarek, also a member of the team, worked with ‘Copenhagenize’ in Copenhagen in Denmark. The third member is Omar Abu Taleb who also works in the media and started a project to raise people’s awareness about bikes. Hisham Gamal, our fourth partner, is the coordinator of Sekketak Khadra (Your Road is Green), an initiative that has built bike parking spaces in Cairo,” she said.

Most of the group has obtained at least a Masters degree for their research in urban cycling, which is what made them organise a team. “We wanted to blend the cycling culture with the Egyptian culture and see how we could make the Egyptian streets appropriate for cycling,” she added.

Attiya said that their aims include making the Egyptian streets better ready to receive cyclists in a safer manner and supporting different types of movements, like cycling, in the streets apart from cars. The latter cause pollution and threaten cyclists’ safety.

“We carry out our aims in places we think are suitable for them, like the Alexandria Corniche, for example,” Attiya said. She added that the group had drawn up plans to add bike lanes to the Corniche, and these had gone on display for inhabitants of the city to see firsthand while taking feedback from them.

“We organised an exhibition at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, and we also surveyed the opinions of Alexandrians to see if they wanted bike lanes in Alexandria or not and whether it was a practical idea. We want to raise awareness that a bike is not just for entertainment or sport, but could also be an environmentally friendly means of transportation that could also be a source of exercise and a good alternative to taking microbuses or cars,” she said.  

According to Attiya, the initiative’s events are mostly open to the public and include activities like lectures and exhibitions. Sometimes, the group organises workshops that target sectors of society like architects, urban planners, or designers with the aim of re-planning different urban areas and exchanging expertise.

The group is eager to discuss the social dimensions of cycling with the public and to refute backward ideas. “The workshops we organise about bike riding are open to everyone since we discuss social issues related to bikes, like women cycling and how far society accepts this and sees bikes as a legitimate means of transportation,” Attiya said.

The group had found that some see cycling as a form of “transport for the poor”, while others see it just as a leisure activity.  



CYCLING PROBLEMS: Main barriers the initiative faces include marketing, red tape, and a lack of information about the issue at hand.

“The barriers we face include issues concerning volunteers in terms of the time and efforts made,” Attiya said. Only volunteers have been involved in most of the work until now, and to compensate for this the initiative has met with governorate representatives concerned with transport, UN Human Settlements Programme (UNHABITAT) representatives, NGO representatives working in the field of road safety, and experts in the fields of transport, the environment, or health.

“A second barrier is that we are not always able to meet officials and convey the problems people face on the streets, like, for instance, a person having an accident while using his bike. We are not always able to ask officials to provide a safe zone for cyclists,” she said. However, there have been efforts to try to overcome this problem. “We organise an open exhibition about the issue, and people who work in government departments who see our work convey the message to the concerned officials,” she added.  

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“A third problem is that there are no official statistics about accidents concerning cyclists since they are not counted. We never know how the accidents happen or the reasons behind an accident,” Attiya said. “No information is out there, so one of our aims is to show the public how accidents occur, as this raises the awareness of motorists and cyclists and is in itself a call for safer roads for bikes.”

Attiya said there were no official statistics about cyclists in Egypt since “Egypt like some other countries in the world considers cycling to be a recreational activity and bicycles not to be part of traffic, with the result that it has missed out when surveys are conducted. All we know is that the number of cyclists in Egypt has been increasing since 2006 after the appearance of cycling groups that organise events every Friday in different places, especially in Cairo and Alexandria,” she commented. These groups encourage people to try out cycling and feel how safe it can be to use a bike in the streets.

For such reasons, Tabdeel decided to study the movements of bike users in Egypt, with a view to understanding how cities and infrastructure can become more “bikable”. In April 2018, the group conducted a study counting the number of bike-users in the Dokki Square intersection in Cairo from 9 to 9.30am, a peak period for people heading to work. They found that 35 cyclists used the square every half hour and one in three of them passed through Dokki Square from Bohous to Galaa. One in three cyclists also had to jump over a ground area in the middle of the road since there were no special lanes for bikes.

In 2018, the Cairo governorate and UNHABITAT teamed up to save people having to walk to and from their nearest metro stations by providing them with free cycle racks to park their cycles. It was also planned to build bicycle-sharing stations, allowing people to rent bicycles to go to destinations and then leave them at another station.

Bicycle lanes, part of a programme called Sekketak Khadra, an Egyptian proverb wishing people a path free of trouble, are also in the works. Sekketak Khadra aims to promote cycling more generally in Egypt, to introduce bicycles into daily lives, and to encourage healthier and more environmentally-aware lifestyles. The idea of bicycle-sharing has proved to be successful in many cities around the world, including in Europe and South America, such as the bicycle-sharing system in Mexico City.

In a first phase, some 100 bicycle racks accommodating up to 200 bikes are being installed in Heliopolis and Downtown Cairo to promote cycling. The launch event took place in May 2018 in Heliopolis, where the first bicycle rack was showcased followed by a cycling tour. The second phase that starts this year will include a 15km bike lane in Downtown Cairo that will cover the whole Downtown area. Then Cairo governor Atef Abdel-Hamid had earlier signed a memorandum of understanding in July 2017 to build cycle lanes in Cairo as part of a larger project to develop transportation in the capital.

Both members of the older generation who are nostalgic for past roads with hardly any cars, pollution, or noise and members of the younger generation who are into sports are excited with the transformation of Egypt’s streets from being heavily motorised to a more bike-friendly and environmentally friendly model.  

“I think Tabdeel is interesting because it promotes more rights for cyclists. However, I believe it would also be nice if there was more interactivity with people on the streets,” commented Mariam Belal, a student in Giza who has been using her bike to go to university.

Mona Abdel-Aziz, a housewife from Giza, was sceptical that motorists would ever respect cyclists on the streets in Egypt. “I think it will be a big challenge to have Egyptian drivers abide by the traffic rules and leave bike lanes empty when they can use them as a shortcut. But if they can do so, it would mean safer roads for cyclists,” she commented.

“I participated in the workshop organised by Tabdeel to design cycle lanes on the Corniche in Alexandria, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said one Tabdeel participant.

“It’s forward thinking about urban mobility in Egypt,” another participant concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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