It is the beginning of a typically busy Cairo Monday morning. Ahmed, a young lawyer who has just joined a leading law firm based downtown, is for the first time getting off line 3 of the metro at the new Haroun station.
It has been only two days since the station opened and Ahmed is feeling grateful for the expansion.
“As a starting lawyer, I have to move around the city from one client to the other, from one police station to the other, and from one court to the other. The metro makes my life so much easier because it is prompt and fast,” Ahmed said.
“I just wish that it covered the entire city. Life would be so much easier, not just for work but for commuting in general,” he added.
On 16 June, the Cairo Metro Authority inaugurated the three new stops of the East Cairo segment of line 3 of the metro. Haroun, Alf Maskan and Nadi Al-Shams are in Heliopolis and neighbouring Ain Shams.
According to the statement made on the inauguration by Minister of Transport Kamel Al-Wazir, a fourth stop, Heliopolis, connecting Haroun with Alf Maskan and Nadi Al-Shams will be inaugurated in October.
“The fact that the Heliopolis station is one of the bigger underground metro stations in the Middle East means it requires complex work,” said engineer Aysar Ahmed Raafat, spokesman for the Greater Cairo Underground Metro Authority (GCUMA).
According to Raafat, the Heliopolis stop will be a connecting station, or maybe eventually one of several connecting stations, to the Airport Train that will be operating as an off-shoot service to line 3 of the metro. It might in the future allow for further connecting services or possible new lines.
“We are done with maybe 98 per cent of the construction work, and we are all set to install the escalators and elevators once all the levels of the station are completed,” Raafat explained.
Since the operation of the new segment of line 3 a little over two weeks ago, the metro passes through but does not stop at the Heliopolis station. Passengers cannot get off or on the metro there.
“It is only a matter of a few more months before we are able to open it to the public and to end the cumbersome road re-directions that we have had in this central part of Heliopolis to allow for the construction work,” Raafat said.
Then, by spring next year the cut-and-cover segment of the line that allows the metro to go from its underground path onto the surface and then up onto a bridge to reach its end destination at the Adli Mansour stop further in East Cairo on the way to the New Administrative Capital (NAC) will be completed.
The full operation of the remaining six stops of this part of line 3 should be possible late next year.
The other end of the line should go west from its current final stop at Ataba to KitKat in Giza, where it will fork into two sub-lines leading to Cairo University, already a stop on line 2, and Rod Al-Farag in West Cairo.
Construction work for this segment started over a year ago, and it should be three to five years before it is fully completed.
When fully constructed line 3 will connect to line 1 through to the Nasser stop on Galaa/Ramsis streets.
But, according to Raafat, prior to the completion of line 3, the GCUMA will start the early construction work on line 4 that should connect the 6 October zone to the Old Cairo zone in Fustat.
The idea of having a wide-reaching underground metro for Cairo was raised under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s.
But it was only in the 1970s when president Anwar Al-Sadat took over that he requested a French company to draw up a scheme for a Cairo/Giza underground system.
The company proposed a network of six lines that were supposed to be connected to and connecting the already operating tram and railway systems.
The actual construction started when former president Hosni Mubarak took over, and the first line of the metro was based on connecting the railway that connected Helwan to the outskirts of Maadi and Al-Marg to the outskirts of Heliopolis.
The first segment of now 35 stops connecting Helwan south of Cairo to Al-Marg in the east of Cairo was inaugurated by Mubarak in 1987. Of the 35 stops only five are underground.
Neither the now-operating or the under-construction lines of the metro were completed in one go. “It always came in segments.
According to Hassan Tawfik, under-secretary at the Ministry of Transport, the first two lines have for the past four years been subject to planned renovation and upgrading.
This has included replacing old carriages with new ones that are air-conditioned, as well as revamping the infrastructure and advancing the security and operation systems.
“This is an essential service that has been operating for over 30 years, and it is used by millions of people a year, making it require continuous upgrading and maintenance,” Tawfik said.
“We are committed to making the metro operate more promptly and safely in the interest of the millions of passengers who use it,” he added.
Ministry assessments suggest that around LE70 million are required to upgrade lines 1 and 2 of the metro. These two lines provide services for the majority of the three million plus passengers that use the metro daily.
Officials, including former ministers, have openly spoken about the inevitable increase in the prices of the tickets to cover the expenses of the system.
When the first segment of line 1 was opened, the price of a ticket was 25 piastres for eight stops. New stops were inaugurated, and the price of the ticket went up to 50 piastres at a time when the exchange rate for the dollar was around LE2 and the price of a bus ticket ranged from five to 10 piastres depending on the service.
In the early 1990s with the introduction of the early stages of Egypt’s economic reform programme the prices were increased to 75 piastres and then LE1.
In 2017, with the authorities opting for a fast-forward approach on what they said were “overdue and imperative reforms” the price was doubled. A few months down the road, the GCUMA introduced a zones-pricing system that allowed for a gradual increase of the prices of the tickets from LE3 to LE7.
Under the new system, all discounted tickets were eliminated except for the physically challenged. And on the recent opening of the new segment of line 3, prices went up to LE5, followed by LE7 and LE9.
Sources at the ministry say that the same range will be eventually applied on the first and second lines, “in a matter of a few months maybe”.
According to the same sources, nobody in the ministry has the full outline for the price increase of the tickets, which is decided at higher levels.
Zeinab, a civil servant in her 50s, was looking forward to the operation of the new segment of line 3 that she was planning to ride from her house to her work.
But she said she was dismayed by the increase in prices and that she was concerned that another increase would come “if not this year then next”.
“Our budget is very tight already. Putting up with this increase, not to mention possible future increases, is not at all easy, especially as when the prices of the metro tickets go up the drivers of microbuses also immediately increase their fares,” Zeinab said.
Anwar, a microbus driver who spoke on the day following the inauguration of the new segment of line 3, said that he had not yet increased his prices.
However, “the increase will have to come sooner rather than later. It is not my decision, as the prices of petrol will go up again this summer,” he added.
“We need the metro, but we also need other modes of transportation to move around the city. The budget for the transportation of our family is becoming a burden,” Zeinab said.
Zeinab is married to another civil servant, and she has two children who attend university. She said she reads official statements about the inevitability of ending subsidies on gas and petrol and the statements officials make about the need to increase the prices of the metro.
But she does not know how her family is supposed to put up with this along with the other increases in the prices of commodities, she added.
A paper issued last year by the Initiative for Personal Rights (IPR), an NGO, argued that the debate defending the increases in the price of tickets for the metro to cover for the officially pronounced losses of the service was “founded on the wrong basis”.
The official calculations, the IPR paper said, assumed that the prices of the tickets should cover for the expenses of the construction and operation of the metro. This, the paper added, was against every citizen’s right to safe mobility, which was the responsibility of the state.
Karim Ibrahim, an engineer who is a member of Takween, an NGO that works on construction and mobility policies, agreed that providing adequate, affordable, safe and environmentally friendly transport was the state’s responsibility “that citizens should not be charged for”.
“Public services, including public transport, are not in general designed to be profit-making. Citizens are entitled to these services,” Ibrahim said. He added that by providing safe and affordable mobility that was environmentally friendly the state was advancing everyone’s interests.
Congested traffic and high levels of pollution were not conducive to productivity, Ibrahim said. Nor, he added, was the excessive use of private cars at the expense of public transport.
According to Ibrahim, this was why public transport, whether provided by the state or by private bodies under the supervision and control of the state, should take precedence in state policies over the facilitation of the use of private cars.
“We see new cities and residential zones that are being built with very little if any consideration for public transport. We see whole new generations of the upper middle classes that are completely alien to the concept of public transport,” Ibrahim noted.
“I think it makes more sense to end the subsidies on petrol that are used for private cars but not to end those for public transport, especially those for the metro that meets all the requirements for a safe and environment friendly system of public transport.”
The state, Ibrahim argued, should increase its investment in public transport, including the completion of the metro. The resources for this investment, he added, should come from the state’s coffers and from income collected from renting advertisement and shopping spaces in and around the stations.
Ibrahim argued that the unmistakable interest that many in the upper middle classes have shown in the newly introduced services of taxis and buses provided through smart phone applications shows that there is room for the expansion of public transport across many segments of society.
An affordable, dependable and integrated network of public transport, Ibrahim argued, should be a priority for state planning.
During the past four years, Mohamed Hegazi, a transport and mobility expert, has been working on mapping the details of the current network of public transport in Greater Cairo. His study is coming to a close and should be published next year.
A key finding is that there is a clear need to work on three parallel tracks to resolve the deficiencies of the public-transport network.
The first is to realise that no matter how efficient and dependable the metro is, it cannot be perceived as the one and only answer to all the demands of passengers around the city because it does not cover the whole city and because its construction is very expensive.
Consequently, Hegazi argues, there is a need to invest more in upgrading and expanding bus services in Greater Cairo.
He acknowledges the clear decline in the quality of the services provided by the Public Transport Authority (PTA) during the past few decades. However, he attributes this to the limited resources available to upgrading and expanding the services.
According to Hegazi’s research assessment in 2015, 91 per cent of the investment budget for public transport has been channelled towards the completion of the metro while the bus services, which effectively carry the majority of passengers, has not received more than nine per cent.
Hegazi is not arguing the case against the metro. He is rather arguing for a more complementary investment approach. “A bus network would be faster and less expensive to operate, and it would provide public transport for a larger number of people around the city,” he argued.
To make bus services more efficient in terms of the most overlooked requirement of stops and schedules, Hegazi suggested that the time had come for Greater Cairo to opt for new “rights of way” for buses.
“Providing segregated lanes for buses would be very helpful to the operation of the bus network,” he said.
Hegazi lamented the inefficient operation of this concept in Nasr City’s Mustafa Al-Nahhas Street, where the rails of the Heliopolis-Nasr City tram were removed after the service had fallen into serious decline to allow for buses to take the space.
But this only lasted for a little over a year before this system was also eliminated to allow for a couple of lanes to be added to each side of the street.
“There were technical shortcomings in the application of the concept. This does not discredit a concept that is implemented in many cities worldwide,” Hegazi argued.
Establishing the right of way for buses, Hegazi said, was essential to move towards the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) approach that has helped many cities, including some in the Third World, to overcome public-transport shortcomings.
UN Habitat programme officer Salma Mossalam said that BRT was an efficient idea for large cities. A pioneer BRT project could be initiated in around three years to connect 6 October city with Giza Square, she said.
“Electric buses could be used for the BRT,” Mossalam said. “They are obviously much more environmentally friendly than regular buses, but they are also more expensive, so the project would start with the regular buses and then we will see what would follow,” she added.
Meanwhile, in recent statements Al-Wazir said that he was planning to build a zone for BRT on the ring road that goes around Greater Cairo.
Hegazi also argued for the need to “work on making the best out of the current bus services. We have to work with everything that we have and work towards improving what we have,” he argued.
This, he explained, should include the network of buses of the PTA, the network of microbuses that are run by individuals, and the new buses that are run by Mwasalat Misr, a private operation working under the supervision of the ministry.
Moreover, Hegazi is arguing for the need for an integrated mobility approach. A good example, he explained, would be the Adli Mansour stop at the East Cairo end of line 3 of the metro.
The plan is that this stop would see the end of the metro and the beginning of the electric train system. It would also have a space for buses bringing passengers from all over Greater Cairo to take the train.
According to Ibrahim, an integrated concept of this sort should have been applied at least at all the end-line stops of the metro system.
Back To Trams
It should have also been applied, argued architect Ahmed Mansour of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation, to the Heliopolis tramway that has been largely eliminated “on the assumption that it was going out of fashion”.
Built in the early 20th century along with the construction of Heliopolis, the tram has over the decades developed into three main lines that cover most of Heliopolis with subsidiary lines to the adjacent Nasr City.
Due to a lack of resources, only parts connected the Cairo suburb to downtown, though there were plans to complement it with a monorail, an elevated tramway, to connect all of Heliopolis, Nasr City and their expansions further east to the metro.
This project was supposed to start in 2011 but was delayed because of political changes. According to Mansour, the idea of reviving parts of at least one of the lines is not off the table of the Greater Cairo transport planners.
In addition to providing independent services, buses, trams and other surface transport, it is necessary to go the extra mile with the help of the metro system, Hegazi said.
“It is not like everyone lives near or in a walking distance from a metro stop. People sometimes need to take the transport system to this stop,” he explained.
This last-mile issue, Mossalam said, was the focus of a UN Habitat project for downtown Cairo. “We’re working with the Egyptian government to start a bicycle-sharing scheme for downtown to help people reach bus stops or underground stops,” she said.
Hegazi added that there were several bodies trying to enhance the right of mobility in Greater Cairo. What was lacking, he suggested, was a collaborative approach.
“This is why I think that what we really need is a metropolitan authority that would be in charge of planning, regulating and operating transport systems in Greater Cairo,” Hegazi said.
He added that he had been working on a study of the possible nature and mandate of this authority and that he would be sharing the outcome of his research later this summer in Cairo.
“I think we already have the assets and the plans to develop further assets, but what we need is an integrated vision towards the optimum use of everything that there already is from the microbuses to the metro,” Hegazi said.
Helping people to convert from private to public transport should be a priority for Greater Cairo’s planning for the next decade. “I think it already is for the concerned authorities,” he added.
Doaa, an employee in a PR company, is aware of the new metro expansion in her neighbourhood in Heliopolis. She is contemplating “trying it and maybe occasionally using it”.
But, Doaa said, it was too early for her to think of changing from private to public transport. “I would love to, not just because of the increase in the price of petrol, but also because of the congested traffic and parking difficulties,” she said.
However, she added that for this to happen “I need to have reliable public transport that will be convenient for different groups of people.”
This means metro carriages that are not too busy “even if some carriages are a bit more expensive” and buses that have fixed schedules and cover the city from the eastern end of New Cairo to the western and southern ends of 6 October and Maadi, she said.
A Vendor’s Day On The Metro
It is a relatively slow late afternoon in early summer on line 2 of the Cairo metro.
Rahma, a 28-year-old street vendor, has already done three rounds of the metro line that goes for 20 stops from Al-Monib south of Giza to Shubra Al-Kheima at the north end of Cairo.
Over 10 hours, Rahma, who provides for her nine-year-old son on her own after having been abandoned by her husband who “simply disappeared”, has had decent sales.
With a carry-on sized light blue bag full of inexpensive cotton outfits for women, Rahma spends her days avoiding the transport police and trying to sell her commodities to passengers in the two women’s carriages on each train.
They may not have the means or the time to opt for other shopping opportunities.
“Most of the passengers [in the women’s carriages] of this line in the mornings and late afternoon are students and civil servants. For them, an LE30 T-shirt or an LE15 undershirt, all in cotton and large sizes, are exactly what they are looking for,” Rahma said.
Having been in this mobile business for close to five years since the day she realised that her husband was not coming back and that she, with very little education and no resources or family support, would have to provide for herself and her son, Rahma is grateful for the women’s carriage of the metro that allows her to earn a living.
It would not have been possible for her to do so any other way, given that she does not have the means to start a store and that most of her clients depend on the time they pass on the metro to do their shopping.
“I sell T-shirts. Others sell cosmetics or kitchenware or telephone accessories. There is a whole mobile market here,” she said.
Rahma operates on line 2 and sometimes line 1 of the metro that takes passengers from the western end of Giza to the northern end of Cairo.
These, she said, are the lines that carry the clients she looks for. Line3 is “not yet” a destination for Rahma or other vendors.
“Maybe when they finish the work and it reaches the neighbourhoods where my clients are living or working,” Rahma said, before getting off at Ataba, the connecting station of lines that so far cover 14 stations from Ataba in downtown to Alf Maskan in East Cairo.
By the recently inaugurated metro stop of Nadi Al-Shams on line 3 of the Cairo metro, Hassan has parked his black-and-white Peugeot 504. He is waiting for a passenger to get off at the new station and take his taxi for the remainder of the way towards his destination.
It has been about two weeks since this stop was introduced into operation as a new segment of line 3 that brings commuters from downtown Cairo to parts of Heliopolis.
In his late 60s, Hassan is perhaps one of the few drivers who still have an old black-and-white taxi operating without a meter.
Most Cairo taxis, essentially cars manufactured in the 1960s to 1980s, were replaced between 2008 and 2010 with newer white taxis in a government scheme that helped drivers replace cars produced over 20 years ago with newer ones through an exchange-and-instalment programme.
Hassan was hoping he would benefit from this programme, but he was working on regulating his financial obligations to be able to honour the monthly instalments of the new white cabs at the time.
After the 25 January Revolution, the programme was suspended, and Hassan is still counting on his black-and-white Peugeot to earn an income.
Hassan lives in Al-Zaitoun near Heliopolis, and he finds it difficult to venture on long drives with an old and heavily used car that could get stuck at any point, especially in the summer heat.
For the past three years, he has been mainly driving passengers from and to the metro stops of line 1 that takes commuters from Helwan at the southern end of the capital to Al-Marg in the east. Recently, he decided to add two of the three new stops that were recently inaugurated, Haroun and Nadi Al-Shams.
“I am still trying, but I think I will be getting more clients from line 3 than from line1,” he said.
Hassan’s assumption is that the economic resources of the passengers of line 1 will likely make them depend more on microbuses, while those of line 3 will opt for taxis.
Hassan “would have loved to be working by the Al-Ahram station,” the previous final stop at the end of line 3 but he could not do so. Unlike the neighbourhood of the Haroun and Nadi Al-Shams stops, Al-Ahram is too central for his old Peugeot.
The Microbus Print
“It is impossible to think of an image of Cairo’s streets without the powerful presence of microbuses,” said Omar Mubarak, a graphic designer.
Throughout his years as a university student who had to move around the city, Mubarak often used the buses. “Wherever there was no metro, it was the microbus,” he said.
Moving between line 1 of the metro that connects south with east Cairo and line 2 that connects west Giza with north Cairo, Mubarak would exit at stops closest to microbus hubs.
A few years down the road, he started a business making casual, ready-to-wear clothing for young men and women. One of his best-selling T-shirts has a print of a microbus on it.
“I was driving my car on the Maadi Corniche in one of my rare excursions to Maadi without using the metro, and I saw a microbus that had a sticker reading Berahitaha [let it be] on it,” Mubarak said.
Mubarak realised that this was the driver’s humour, and he was signalling that he would drive on his own route and choose his own stops.
He chose to make a T-shirt with this exact imprint and was confident that it would be well received “simply because it would be hard to think of a young Cairo commuter who has not been at least once on a microbus.”
Mapping The Future of Transport
Minimising the need for individual motorised travel through adequate land use and transport planning and management and increasing the share of more socially and environmentally sustainable modes of commuting are two of the top objectives that Transport for Cairo (TFC) is working on.
A limited company established in 2016, TFC has been working on creating fully detailed and updated maps of all forms of public transport in Cairo, both public and private, since then.
“Up until today there is no map that would tell anyone, whether a passenger or an urban planner, about the modes of transportation around Greater Cairo. This is partially due to the fact that today a good part of the public transport is within the private sector, like the microbuses that keep going in and out of service,” said Abdel-Rahman Hegazi, a founding member of TFC.
During the past three years, TFC has managed to complete a full map of the public transport that connects the city with the expanding new residential settlements around it.
“It was important that we finish this part first because the Ministry of Transport (MoT) is working on starting a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) network around the ring-road to make it possible for those who do not have access to private cars or those who wish to use public transport to have access to a safe, reliable and wide-ranging network of buses,” Hegazi said.
Currently, TFC is working on finalising a map of the network of public buses and private microbuses that could connect to this BRT network. Already, Hegazi said, the MoT was considering connecting the BRT to the final stops of the metro on the outskirts of Greater Cairo, at least in the first phase.
Until the BRT finds its way into the heart of the city, an ambitious plan that is under consideration, TFC is working on finalising another map of all the microbuses and buses that connect metro stops, at least the central ones, to the possible central stops of the BRT.
This is a following step to what TFC has already done in providing a map that connects the metro stops to the newly introduced air-conditioned buses of Massalat Misr. This map, Hegazi said, had already been put on Google maps.
“Maximising the use of the metro and its ongoing expansions requires an approach towards integrated commuting and IT user-friendly applications that can help commuters find and preferably also choose their path and mode of transportation,” Hegazi said.
Creating an application that can inform a passenger at any point in the city about his choices of moving to another point with clear specifications about expenses and estimated times is the ultimate objective that TFC is working towards.
“Once we have the full maps available, developers will be able to create the necessary application,” Hegazi said. This, he added, was the ambitious aim he was working towards for the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The new Cairo passenger trail