Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
'Transport for Cairo' is on a mission to change the way commuters navigate the city's formal and informal public transportation networks.
Come rush hour, the streets of Cairo, Egypt, descend into mayhem. Cars sit in gridlock traffic, horns blaring all around. Some commuters wait at bus stops, unsure when the next one will come. Others escape into Cairo’s subway stations, only to find themselves lost in a sea of people. Then there are the informal microbuses, packed past capacity with passengers—and with more hanging dangerously from the sides.
“To put it very simply, commuting in Cairo is miserable and stressful,” says Houssam Elokda, an urban activist from Cairo who is currently based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “You're talking about hours of traffic. It’s very unpredictable, and when you are trying to be productive, that's often impossible.”
Elokda is trying to change that, along with six other young Egyptians with backgrounds in economics, civil engineering, urban planning, and architecture. Together, they founded the group Transport for Cairo (TfC) with the goal of being the first to map the city’s complex public transit systems—both formal and informal.
The greater Cairo region boasts a population of 20 million, two-thirds of which depend on public transit, according to Yahia Shawkat, an Egyptian activist and urban researcher who briefly advised the group. Where the subway and formal buses don’t reach, the city’s informal network of an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 privately run microbuses fill the gap, shuttling people to and from “desert cities” on the outskirts.
“The [microbuses] have really grown out of need, and this is all related to planning in greater Cairo,” Shawkat says. “The region has mostly grown without formal planning, so you have informal areas … of people building over agricultural land without it being subdivided by the government.”
Planning a day’s journey through Cairo isn’t like planning one in London or New York City, where maps and real-time transit updates guide commuters. Cairo’s transit agency provides a map of Cairo’s three metro lines (one of which is not fully built), but not much else. The government-operated buses technically run on schedules, but rarely stick to them.
“If you're in a pretty densely populated informal area, you probably take a tuk-tuk, or an auto rickshaw, to the nearest main hub, where you can take a microbus ... to the nearest big station, where you either take the metro or a big bus, or arrive at your destination,” says Adham Kalila, co-founder of TfC. “You have to know everything by default, or you have to stand on the corner of a street and [ask] people.”
The group’s ultimate goal isn’t just to draw a paper map of the system, but to eventually build mobile transit apps. All the data they’re collecting feed into the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the standard format pioneered by Google to openly share public transit information among transit agencies and application developers. GTFS currently works for networks that run on fixed schedules, but TfC hopes to adapt the standard so that it works with Cairo’s informal transit system, as well.
The team started with Cairo’s metro, creating and publishing the data needed for developers to create a trip-planning app and other tools. To collect data on the government-run buses, which run along an estimated 500 routes, the group turned to data previously created by the World Bank.
They asked the general public and university students to help verify the data—some of which may be outdated—by sending geotagged photos of buses taken near their homes and offices. “We ended up with 750 pictures, and out of this we verified 20 bus lines that we were confident [covered] most of Cairo’s major areas,” says Mohamed Hegazy, the director and economist of the group.
That data was shared in a series of community workshops the group held to bring together professionals and student designers. “We don't really have maps provided by authorities; it's not a common thing,” says Kalila. “So to get the designers to sit down and conceptualize Cairo in a way they usually don't was an initial challenge.”
Over a three-day workshop, the team helped coached the participants on the key features of an ideal map: Should it be geographically accurate or schematic? How could users locate both themselves and their destinations? So far, the community has come up with a few different versions.
The microbuses are trickier. Microbuses have set destinations, but where they stop to load and offload depends on demand. Hegazy says the group took inspiration from researchers at MIT and Columbia University, who mapped the matatus of Nairobi, Kenya, by riding along every one of the city’s 130 informal bus routes. In Cairo, TfC has started riding the microbuses and tracking their individual journeys with the GPS feature on their mobile phones. But before they fully attempt to map the microbuses’ routes, they say, they need to understand their significance to the average commuter.
Cairo’s public transit system works, but Hegazy doesn’t think it’s sustainable in the long term. So their project also aims to give authorities the information they need to improve it—to make it more efficient and accessible for low-income riders in informal areas, and more aligned with the UN’s sustainability goals.
The government hasn’t been particularly proactive about its public transit system, says Shawkat, letting the private sector fill in the gaps. Instead of supporting the individual microbus drivers through subsidies, he explains, the government taxes them by layering on licensing and parking fees.
But urban grassroots groups like TfC are starting to apply pressure for change. The strategy is “to do your own research and data gathering, and corner the government [by] saying, ‘Well, we've been able to map out what's been happening’—and do it in a public way so it's not behind closed doors,” he says. “I think what's good with Transport for Cairo is they’re putting this out in the public realm for residents of Cairo to use as their ignition to demand better transportation.”