Is Egypt’s car-centric development damaging the economy?

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In recent years, Egypt has been embarking on an ambitious nationwide development project focusing on improving the country’s road networks for motorized traffic and private vehicle users.

From inner city streets to regional highways, the National Roads Project (NRP) has been swiftly widening and repaving existing roads, as well as building new networks to improve motorized traffic between cities and regions.

One major example of a highway that received a major upgrade was the Cairo-Suez Road. The Regional Ring Road and Middle Ring Road are examples of new highways that have been built to improve road connectivity in the Greater Cairo metropolitan area.

More distinctly, it has also entailed an overhaul of the urban fabric in Cairo’s eastern districts, namely Heliopolis and Nasr City. Where before there were streets that went in both directions and were lined with trees and greenery, there are now one-way roads as wide as eight lanes with several flyovers.

While these road projects have alleviated traffic congestion for now and may be an indicator of improved road infrastructure, it remains to be seen whether they will have a positive impact on the economy.

Alternative Policy Solutions (APS), a public policy research project at the American University in Cairo, has recently published a policy paper entitled “Reimagining Our Streets” where it argues that the recent car-centric developments in Heliopolis and Nasr City were perhaps not the best option for their residents and businesses.

The paper also looks at how even before the NRP, Egypt has pursued car-centric development for decades by focusing on road infrastructure and building new car-centric cities such as New Cairo and 6th October City.

Private car ownership and usage has been rising rapidly for decades and is continuing to rise. According to the Center for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), there were 6.6 million licensed vehicles in 2012, rising to 9.9 million in 2017. Motorization rates have been four times the rate of population growth.

Private cars also make up 45.5 percent of all private means of transport. As a result, Cairo is the 36th most congested city in the world, and it carries a heavy financial cost.

Currently, Cairo’s congestion alone costs the national economy 4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), amounting to EGP 47 million annually. The World Bank expects this to rise to EGP 105 million by 2030.

The costs are even bigger with how much traffic congestion delays commuters and wastes their time trying to get to and from work (estimated at more than 2 billion hours), amounting to more than EGP 14 billion annually.

The health and environmental costs are estimated to be even higher. Fossil-fuel burning vehicles are a major contributor to carbon emissions and air pollution. In 2011, 12 percent of all deaths in Egypt were as a result of health issues induced by particulate matter emitted by vehicles, costing EGP 14.7 billion.

In 2020, it was estimated that the cost of environmental degradation within Greater Cairo was almost EGP 20 billion.

Since investments and development efforts have been much more prioritized for roads and private vehicle usage, little priority has been given to public transport where the demand for such services far outstrips the supply.

This has had indirect negative effects for both employers and job seekers. Egypt’s new satellite cities are home to 1.33 million residents, yet they can only access 65,000 jobs within one hour using public transport. This is because the design of these new cities entails wide and long roads and assumes residents own cars. Public transport connections are minimal and there is poor pedestrian infrastructure. Basic services such as shops and schools are mostly not within walking distance.

Widening streets and building bridges and flyovers (such as in Heliopolis and Nasr City) also reallocates streets away from pedestrians and the local area, which includes shops. This potentially reduces foot traffic and by extension, shoppers and revenues for these shops. These road networks do not bring more people to the areas that flank them. They begin and end outside them.

The paper argues that car-centric streets and infrastructure development are in direct conflict with sustainable development policy goals and climate policy, as they encourage private car ownership and use. They are also in direct conflict with Egypt’s international agreements on sustainable development and climate action.

Due to the high cost of purchasing cars and owning them (fuel costs, maintenance, licensing fees), car-centric development favours high-income individuals who own cars or use ride-hailing services such as Uber and Careem. This comes at the expense of low and middle-income individuals who use public transport and walk on the streets.

The focus on reducing traffic congestion and increasing the speed with which cars can travel through cities has also meant the streets have become less friendly and more dangerous for pedestrians. According to the paper, an average of 78 percent of Egypt’s streets lack pedestrian infrastructure such as pavements and pedestrian crossings, while 97 percent do not have traffic lights, according to the World Bank.

When walking the streets is difficult, inconvenient and dangerous, it also disincentivizes using public transport which requires walking or cycling to reach hub stations and stops.

Widened inner city streets that prioritize motorized traffic are also more dangerous to cross for pedestrians and is especially dangerous for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people with disabilities and children.

The APS paper cites a comparable example that Egypt could follow. In 2007, the Indian city of Pune began a long-term process of achieving sustainable mobility through reducing the number of privately-owned vehicles, improving walkability and public transport. At the time, it shared similar characteristics in street conditions to Egypt.

The plan started with redesigning many of the city’s streets to be more favorable to pedestrians, which then progressed to making the city more bike-friendly with cycle lanes. 50 percent of the municipal transport budget was allocated to this.

In 2018, a government ministry conducted an “Ease of Living Index” in 111 Indian cities to assess their quality of life. Pune ranked first, indicating that an urban planning policy which prioritizes pedestrians and public transport over car-centric design leads to an improvement in living standards.

In recent years, the Egyptian government has made some efforts to improve public transport in the Greater Cairo area by building new lines on the currently existing metro system. Public-private partnerships have also been adding new bus lines connecting many of Cairo’s districts and satellite cities.

There have also been tentative plans for a monorail project to connect the capital’s satellite cities with the historic parts of Cairo. It was recently announced that an electric high-speed train is to be built connecting the Red Sea coast with the Nile Valley and the North Coast. Detailed plans of these projects have yet to be released to the public.

To achieve the same for Egypt’s towns and cities, the paper recommends several alternative policy interventions to make streets safer, healthier and sustainable. Their proposals would also aim to make streets more vibrant and pleasant public spaces.

Some of the policies include improving and widening footpaths, creating dedicated bike and bus lanes and giving the latter priority at traffic intersections. A most significant policy is prioritizing public transport and making stops and stations more accessible by foot to encourage walking.

Along with making the streets more walkable, they should also be more inclusive of street vendors. By improving foot access to shops, in addition to allowing controlled numbers of street vendors, this would have a doubly effect of having a positive impact on street commerce and local businesses, as well as making the streets aesthetically pleasing.

In order to achieve this, the paper maintains that a planned strategy would need to be put in place and there would need to be constant dialogue and consultation with all the stakeholders involved. Additionally, plans would need to have full transparency in order to engage the public and win support.

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