Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fixing Traffic in Cairo

The Egyptian government has finally decided to fix downtown Cairo traffic.

I have plenty of personal experience in the unique joy of sitting in unrelenting Egyptian gridlock as the hours (no exaggeration) tick slowly away. Everything is a battle. One lane against another. One honk against ten others. The pedestrian against the car. The bus against anything that's foolish enough to get in the way. The cigarette smoke against the car exhaust. The stereo blaring the Qur'an against the other car blasting pop music against the twenty other radios in earshot. Negotiating the taxi fare. Then negotiating it again. And once more.

I once was stuck next to an ambulance, siren screaming. We moved ten meters in as many minutes. Though knowing how bad Egyptians hospitals can be, that delay just might have saved that person's life. Okay, probably not.

So, it's about time the government did something. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has called for a comprehensive plan to redevelop downtown into large pedestrian squares, complete with open-air restaurants and cafes. Traffic will be banned or channeled into massive, underground parking garages.

I'm immediately skeptical. Remember Boston's Big Dig? Well try it in a poor underdeveloped country, where corruption, nepotism, and incompetence permeate every level of government. For nearly a decade, the Egyptian government has been promising the completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum, a highly ambitious project that will attract nearly 5 million visitors per year. Well, not only has the government failed to deliver the museum on time, but even the official website, as of today, is not up and running.

Putting the government aside, I'm not sure that building a few garages will substantively change the level of traffic. Admittedly, many streets are lined on either side by a row (sometimes two rows) of parked cars. These lanes could be used for moving traffic if the cars were parked in a garage. But I don't understand why such garages need to be underground and centered only in downtown.

If the government were really serious about traffic, it would:

1. Raise gas prices. The government currently subsidizes gasoline below market prices, largely to garner public favor. Quite simply, if people cannot afford to drive, there'll be less cars in the street. Notably, Cairo's ~100,000 taxi drivers would be disproportionately hurt by such a hike in prices. They could either receive a rebate, or as many cabs have already done, use natural gas instead.

2. Increase public transportation. Buses are inconsistent, overcrowded and often not even buses at all, but glorified Astro vans called microbuses. The money saved on decreasing the gasoline subsidy could be used to fund more public transportation options.

3. Establish the rule of law. Besides a seat belt law that is rarely enforced, Cairo's streets are a completely lawless, Hobbesian nightmare. But with order, comes efficiency. With efficiency, traffic flows. So install traffic lights, establish lanes of traffic, introduce speed limits, create pedestrian crosswalks and, no kidding, prohibit donkey carts on large streets.

Below, I've included my friend's picture of Cairo's streets (one of the less crowded areas) that depicts a car accident and the resulting melee between drivers. Just one chaotic intersection among countless thousands in the Egyptian capital.

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