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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Grassroots enterprise maps Cairo’s transport system to help commuters navigate chaos

A team of eight young Egyptians, with backgrounds in software development, city planning, architecture, and economics, are working to produce a complete transport guide for the capital that includes the city's informal microbus routes alongside official government transit.
Egyptians hang out of a microbus in front of the ancient gates of the historical Fatimid Cairo. Amr Nabil/AP Photo
Egyptians hang out of a microbus in front of the ancient gates of the historical Fatimid Cairo. Amr Nabil/AP Photo

CAIRO // If any type of transport gets a bad rap in Cairo, its microbuses. They’re decried as loud and dirty, and blamed for adding to the city’s traffic woes.

Yet the white vehicles – better known as minibuses in other parts of the world – account for over half the transit needs of Cairo’s 18 million people, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government agency.

A team of eight young Egyptians, with backgrounds in software development, city planning, architecture, and economics, have been mapping Cairo’s informal microbus routes alongside official government transit in a bid to create a complete transport guide that will save commuters – and the state – time and money.

The Transport for Cairo team hopes to eventually build a mobile app that uses live traffic data to help Egyptians navigate their way through the capital with more ease.

“People need to move, and they’ll move in whichever manner that is most efficient and available and affordable,” says Houssam Elokda, an urban researcher and planner and one of the founders of Transport for Cairo. “That’s why you can find a person in a suit riding a microbus.”

From lower income workers to middle class professionals, whether young or old, nearly everyone in Cairo in Egypt takes microbuses. Only the wealthiest Egyptians don’t.

Transport for Cairo co-founder Mohamed Hegazy, a 23-year-old economist, approached Mr Elokda with the idea after he was inspired by a similar project in Kenya.

Using smartphones, the team has already gathered data for the metro, 10 bus lines, and four microbus routes in greater Cairo.

The group then feeds this data into the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) – an application for sharing public transportation information that was first developed in the United States by Google.

“This standard is made for the West, it’s made for Vancouver [in Canada],” says Mr Hegazy.

In other words, the GTFS is only designed to share information on formal transport and so the Transport for Cairo team has had to get creative to make its guide relevant for the Egyptian capital.

Of at least 325 official transit authorities using the GTFS, only five cities in the developing world have transit data that has been gathered, or is being gathered, through grassroots efforts.

Most of the data currently available on transport systems worldwide is compiled by international finance institutions, who tend to focus on formal transport.

As a result, data currently available on Cairo’s transport system does not take into account the fact that the city’s microbuses – and sometimes even its public buses – do not have clearly defined timetables, stops, or even routes. And unlike public buses and the metro, microbuses depart only when the vehicle fills up.

In addition, these variables can change without notice according to traffic patterns, road closures, or visiting officials.

For instance, during the visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to Egypt last month, most of central Cairo ground to a standstill as Egyptian traffic police shut off routes. Even something as simple as a puddle in Cairo can back up traffic for many kilometres.

In order to provide information on Cairo’s informal modes of transport and the unpredictable nature of the city’s transport system, the Transport for Cairo relies on other data applications in addition to GTFS for its guide.

The team uses Google Maps, for example, to work out travel time.

“We consider [using other data applications] our secret sauce,” says Mr Hegazy.

However, the group still faces an uphill task. Researchers and officials are not even sure how many microbuses there are in Cairo. The last time the government issued licenses for microbuses, in 1999, there were 20,000 on the road. Researchers say there could be as many as 80,000 now.

By comparison, there are around 6,500 public buses, 600 of which were recently donated by the UAE government.

This information gap and lack of infrastructure translates into stark inefficiencies – travel times can sometimes take three times as long.

A World Bank study in May 2014 said that traffic costs Egypt around US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) a year, the same amount as the new Suez Canal expansion. That cost factors in environmental damage from pollution, time spent in traffic, and the health costs from automobile crashes.

One of Transport for Cairo’s medium term goals is to make a trip routing app, which will help mitigate those costs. They have released an open data set on Cairo’s metro system, which they claim is the first in the city. This open data set can be downloaded by anyone.

“You give people that already use public transportation the ability to find a route that’s quicker or even cheaper,” said Mr Hegazy, who hopes the app can be made accessible to the illiterate and technologically-challenged for maximum impact. “And part of that is price. This could turn into a sizeable amount saved every day. It’s downright a developmental target.”

The team estimates that with funding they could develop the routing app for all of Cairo in two months.

Despite being the workhorse of transport in Cairo – and a solution to many of the city’s traffic problems by allowing several strangers to travel in one vehicle at once – the microbus system in Egypt’s capital suffers from a lack of infrastructure, clear information, and sparse attention from regulatory authorities and transport operators.

In the 2014 World Bank report on Cairo traffic, only two paragraphs in the 80-page document was devoted to informal microbuses even though they account for about half of all trips in Cairo. There are also legal grey areas when it comes to the way microbuses operate in practice. They include haphazard stops as well as driver and vehicle licensing issues that make them impossible to confront.

Enforcement would negatively impact Egyptians’ lives, however, resulting in job losses and a lack of viable transportation alternatives.

“The government doesn’t want to touch them, because without an efficient alternative, they are the ones providing the needed services,” said Amr Ramadan, a researcher at the UITP Centre Transport for Excellence, a not-for-profit organisation based in Belgium.

“And, they (microbus drivers) are entrepreneurs – they are creating their own jobs.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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