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Transporting Egypt to the future
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 06 - 2018

Cairo, the third-fastest growing city in Africa, has suffered from traffic congestion and a lack of adequate and planned transport networks for years now, putting pressure on and posing a risk to its economic development.
According to the World Bank, congestion in the Greater Cairo Metropolitan Area costs Egypt 3.6 per cent of its annual GDP, and it is therefore clear that Egypt's economic development is closely related to Cairo's expansion and transport systems.
The growing demand for transportation is due to the development of cities such as Cairo, where adequate public transport must be made available. This increase in demand burdens policy-makers with ever-growing challenges translated into transportation problems including congestion, delays and traffic-related accidents. Such problems have tangible negative environmental, economic and social impacts. As the population of Cairo and other cities continues to grow, such problems will increase.
Egypt's current development efforts are grounded in the country's Vision 2030 strategy, which in turn is rooted in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that acknowledge the right to adequate public transportation and urban mobility. According to SDG 11, Article 2, “by 2030, countries and cities should aim to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.”
In order to achieve this, governments and policy-makers around the world are pursuing strategies to increase public-transit networks, improve the management of urban mobility, and enhance public engagement and accessibility. By including these principles on the government agenda and with the emergence of the political will to tackle such challenges, now is the time to address concerns of urban mobility in Egypt.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has recently issued directives to continue efforts aimed at upgrading transportation systems in Egypt and enhancing their capabilities. The president's remarks came during meetings with the government after he had been re-elected for a second term in office, and he underscored the importance of the transport sector and noted that it directly affects people's everyday lives.
In order to realise this ambitious goal of providing everyone with access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport in Egypt, we need to look at cities with successful and established public-transport services in an attempt to replicate their experiences. The developed world offers a variety of tools to deal with the transportation and mobility challenges of cities, and these can help improve conditions on the ground and create more balanced and more effective transport systems.
The good news is that the authorities in the region are improving risk assessments, investigating urban upgrading, and investing in mapping urban mobility systems to capitalise on the power of data to tackle transportation and mobility challenges. In the Gulf, Dubai has recently hosted the MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition organised by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), a worldwide network bringing together public-transport stakeholders and sustainable transport modes to highlight how citizen-led initiatives can make a difference when it comes to the way cities deal with transportation challenges, for example.
The event included 86 international and regional speakers from 21 countries and shed light on how the transport industry can go forward in the region. One of the high-profile speakers at the event was Egypt's transport minister, Hisham Arafat, who mentioned during his speech that Egypt had made unprecedented efforts to achieve economic and social recovery after a period of instability and that it was aiming to encourage more investments in an encouraging climate.
He added that what had been accomplished in Egypt among infrastructure projects, mainly in the transport field, was a strong indicator for available opportunities in Egypt for more investment.
TRANSPORT CHALLENGES: During the final session of the Congress, experts stated that public-transport mobility and management were still facing challenges in cities and areas not privileged with extensive development opportunities.
Such cities were lacking in the technologies required for compiling and using data and digital information, they noted. This session was chaired by Richard Probst, representative of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German NGO, in Egypt, who highlighted the significant role of data in improving public transport in association with experts from Belgium, South Africa, Egypt and Jordan.
Mohamed Hegazi, director of Transport for Cairo in Egypt, delivered a speech at the Congress that reviewed the public-transport networks in Cairo, highlighting the links between improving these networks and their role in reducing environmental pollution. He started by introducing Transport for Cairo, which works on mapping informal public transport in Cairo using a model inspired by the Nairobi-based Digital Matatus Project, which has mapped out routes and stops used by privately-owned minibuses called matatas used by over 70 per cent of the inhabitants of the Kenyan capital.
Hegazi went on to explain that according to the World Bank congestion in Cairo alone costs $8 billion annually and that reforms to the current infrastructure cannot be made without first understanding the transport system in detail. “Informal modes of transport are invisible. We try to make them more visible,” he said, adding that the current lack of data made it hard for users to know how to navigate such systems and created limitations for planners when developing models.
He also highlighted the significance of making informal transit routes available as open data for non-commercial use via apps developed by independent companies as well as by established ones like Google Maps. These apps can map the variability of traffic over the course of the day and store it in General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data format, a common format used for public-transportation schedules. Transport for Cairo aims to address the knowledge gap that is halting planned development at present, he said, and make public transport more accessible for both users and planners.
Other key points stressed during the Congress included the involvement of experts in addressing the challenges of the future and the role of civil society as a platform for networking between stakeholders to raise awareness and promote the necessary paradigm shift needed in addressing sustainable mobility.
Such attempts to address the transport challenges of the region were not one of a kind either, as in Cairo last November another major regional conference was held by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Access to Knowledge for Development Centre at the American University in Cairo. This focused on citizen-led initiatives tackling urban transport issues, specifically in Amman, Beirut, and Cairo, and highlighted how initiatives like Maan Nasel in Amman, the Beirut Bus Map Project, and Transport for Cairo can make real differences in the ways our cities deal with transportation challenges.
It is becoming more and more clear that exchanging approaches, experiences, and best practices on issues and strategies concerning urban development between public institutions, civil society, the private sector, development organisations, researchers and above all policy-makers has a significant role to play in finding innovative technology and data solutions that can help our transportation systems leapfrog into a better position and put our nation on the right track to sustainable mobility and development.
Hala Al-Said, Egypt's minister of planning, has declared that the achievement of Egypt's Vision 2030 strategy will require extensive and broadly based social participation in order to harmonise the goals of government with the outlooks of the private sector, civil society, national and international organisations, experts and academics. Indeed, this participatory approach is one of the main foundations on which the strategy rests, she has said.
I urge all the players to join hands to improve Egypt's public-transport infrastructure by offering innovative solutions to help the government adopt open-data policies and engage the technology community in developing smart solutions that can put our country securely on the road to development and among the developed nations.
The writer is media and communication consultant.


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