Cairo’s infrastructure had never been an obstacle in the way of the movement of goods and individuals in the past centuries. However, by the end of the 19th century, modernization projects brought about a substantial change to the city’s urban structure, giving birth to new neighborhoods and districts outside the walls of the old city, marking a new era of major transformations that lived in the city’s memory and defined its urban identity.
Particular mention may be made of Cairo’s Tram which has Attaba Square (formerly Green Attaba) as its starting point, making Cairo districts and venues closer than ever before. Over time, Cairo’s tram network formed the city’s structure and played a considerable role in shaping its appearance. Later, Cairo’s Transport Authority (CTA) was established to take the responsibility of managing public buses facilitating mobility of Cairo’s population through a state-owned bus fleet.
In the 1970s, with Egypt adopting the “Open Door” economic policy, Egyptian cities experienced rapid urban growth and the role of the CTA as a major actor in the mobility system deteriorated. In the mid-1970s, a law was passed allowing Microbuses to operate in Cairo across specific lines to address the public transport shortage particularly given the huge urban and administrative challenges posed by the uncontrolled urbanization during early 1970s which paved the way for introducing facilitations for the informal transport system.
According to official data, Cairo has more than 2.5 million private cars, accounting for over 50 percent of total private cars in Egypt. Cairo’s transport system comprises a number of modes including formal public transport means (the underground and public buses etc.), semi-formal transport means (microbuses and suburban buses), informal transport means (Auto rickshaws [Toktok]), and private cars. Formal means of transport account for about 30 percent of total rides in Cairo while private cars, semi-formal, and informal means) account for 70 percent of the rides, which is an extremely high proportion.
In the early 1980s, as traffic crises and congestion challenges exacerbated, specialized studies were conducted to investigate ways of improving mobility in Cairo, focusing on mass transit systems. Following these studies, the first line of the Cairo Metro was introduced. Given the continued growth and geographical expansion of Cairo, particularly with the urban sprawl toward the west, mobility and challenges of movement continued to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the city.
Cairo’s tram central station at Attaba Square, mid-1930s (©Lennert and Landrock)
This article highlights the concept of urban mobility focusing on Cairo, being one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world that is currently undergoing a major modernization process in tandem with the major urban development Egypt has been experiencing over the past years, as has been manifested in several projects, including the national Road Project and other mass transit development projects launched to respond to the challenges facing Egyptian cities – large ones in particular – which fall largely within the scope of suitability of infrastructure to supporting users’ needs while achieving sustainability given Egypt’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 and the need to match development projects with users’ categories and needs without neglecting environmental challenges, including primarily climate change, improving the vegetation cover to counter desertification, providing shade for the passersby, and reducing the urban heat island effect (i.e. the negative impact of lack of green spaces in urban areas). All of these considerations should be integrated into road projects and movement systems centered around achieving traffic fluidity and optimizing connectivity of the transport network. Achieving this requires a more holistic understanding of the concept of “mobility” as an integrated system that has different overlapping standards, requiring greater coordination between the competent authorities responsible for developing mobility infrastructure in Egypt, particularly the road and street network, to have these high-investment projects placed on the list of sustainable transformation projects in Egypt.
Generally, a road is defined as a path connecting two specific destinations (in regions, governorates, cities), whereas streets are public spaces within towns and cities. Looking at the UN classification, we find that streets are identified as being a system for intra-city connectivity while roads are identified as a system of inter-city connectivity. This explains the difference between roads and streets. So, roads have only a functional role, namely achieving connectivity between different urban areas at all levels. Streets, on the other hand, fulfil many functions. Not only do they connect between districts and neighborhoods but they also provide a public realm and common spaces organized to meet the needs of different users, supporting the movement of people, vehicles, and goods, let alone serving other commercial, cultural, social, and entertainment purposes.
(I) Top right: Photo of expansion of the First Ring Road around Cairo, an example of regional roads in Egypt. Source: nilefm.com (ii) Top left: Photo of the International Coastal Road, an example of national roads in Egypt. Source: arabcont.com (III) Bottom right: Photo of Tahrir Street in Dokki, an example of major arterial streets in Cairo. Source: egyptianstreets.com (IV) Middle: Photo of Gomhoriya Street in downtown Cairo, an example of major one-way streets in Cairo. Source: Taken by the author, fall 2020. (V) Bottom left: Photo of a traditional mixed-use street. Source: Taken by the author, fall 2020.
Mobility and Transportation
Mobility and transportation are two distinct concepts. Transportation only includes motorized means (cars, buses, trams, passenger buses, goods carrier vehicles, etc.) whereas mobility comprises both motorized and non-motorized means (walking, cycling, etc.), otherwise known as active mobility. For more than 20 years, capital cities worldwide promoted the concept of active mobility as one of the most sustainable and efficient mobility alternatives while introducing major improvements in public facilities, towards providing a safe environment for walking and cycling. In contemporary models of movement and mobility established through successful global experiences, priority is respectively given to pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, and finally private cars. This is achieved through balanced planning and design that ensures fairness and effectiveness.
Successful city concept coming true by allowing space for multiple modes of mobility in streets and the public realm. Source: Sim, D. (2019). Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life, Island Press.
An Integrated Perspective on Sustainable Mobility
Traditional approaches of transport development never introduced the concept of mobility as an integrated system. Rather, they focused on “transportation” concept centered around increasing the traffic capacity with money and cost being the two determining factors of its effectiveness. So, generally, the effectiveness of a transport system is measured by speed and affordability of the cost of rides. This classical system is predominantly characterized by offering divided ineffective solutions due to the isolated action by different agencies and institutions undertaking the responsibility of planning, managing, and running means of transport.
New models, however, seek to avoid this by focusing on mobility rather than transportation, building on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 11 which stipulates that mobility is not an end in itself and that the ultimate goal should be providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all. This would promote accessibility to services, goods, and facilities. According to this perspective, sustainable mobility can be achieved through population’s access to their destinations without discrimination or inequality based on physical fitness or cost. This would promote spatial justice, help achieve sustainability, and enhance the quality of life. So, a sustainable mobility model gives priority to road and street users rather than focusing on efficiency of the quantitative flow of vehicles and users.
Contemporary notions of transition to sustainable mobility by planning and designing streets to support multiple modes of mobility. Source: The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), USA.
Cairo through the Lens of Sustainable Mobility
“A city is nothing more than a set of functions”: This is how the Egyptian geographer Gamal Hemdan defined a city and his definition does indeed conclude it all. The mechanisms and controls needed to be in place for a city to fulfil its functions are determined by functions of the city and the role it plays in the urban system, among other considerations, including primarily the ability of cities to respond to future climate and environment challenges to provide and establish future-ready smart environment concepts.
Looking at the infrastructure modernization projects in Cairo directed at developing the transportation system, whether related to roads, public transportation, or the traffic system, we find that these projects have achieved direct positive results, including large increases in road length, which contributed to reducing traffic jams by offering alternative paths. This resulted in Egypt taking leading positions in the global road quality index, providing infrastructure that serves as a catalyst for investment.
However, like any project, these projects may face challenges that could be addressed by promoting coordination between ministries and relevant authorities, increasing community involvement, and conducting environmental impact assessment studies as well as studies pertaining to transport intensity and uses, with the need to set standards for protecting pedestrians on road axes. Overall, focusing solely on facilitating the movement of vehicles undermines opportunities for other means of mobility (automatic and active), and reduces the size of green spaces essential for achieving ecological balance in cities.
The desire and political determination to develop transport networks and facilitate mobility across Greater Cairo offers a great opportunity for competent authorities to unify efforts and visions toward making the transition to sustainable mobility. This necessitates adopting an integrated approach that is based on a comprehensive framework for the governance, financing, and managing of Cairo’s integrated mobility system, prioritizing public transportation. In this respect, we can only quote Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota, who said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”.