So why is Egypt building a new capital city right next to Cairo?

A model of the proposed city (we're assuming the web address won't loom quite so large on the finished article). Image: Getty.

According to the highly reliable source that is Wikipedia, Egypt has had 29 capital cities over the past 5,000 years. The incumbent, Cairo, has been in place since 950 AD, so, in the scheme of things, it was due a change-up. 

Perhaps that's why, last week at an economic development conference, the Egyptian government announced it was planning a giant new building project to the east of Cairo. The new city, which could eventually cover 700 km sq, doesn't currently have a name, and is being referred to simply as "The Capital" (we're really hoping this is a Hunger Games reference).

If all goes to plan, the city will serve as the new administrative and financial capital of Egypt. Amazingly, the ministry claims that development could be finished within five to seven years, and construction on the road that will link the two cities has already begun. 

You could be forgiven for being a little confused as to why a country would shift its capital of over a thousand years 50km to the east, seemingly for the hell of it. Here are a few reasons the project looks so appealing to the Egyptian government . 

Cairo is full

The population of Cairo's larger metropolitan area is nearing 20m, and, as a result, it's one of the most congested cities on earth: the World Bank estimated in 2010 that traffic costs amount to about 4 per cent of Egypt's entire GDP

In this sense, the new development could be seen as an extension of the old city, to cut down on overpopulation and congestion. The housing ministry claims the capital could house up to 7m people; the initial plans include 1.1m residences, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 663 hospitals. That said, "New Cairo", a relatively new development to the east, was built for millions of residents, but is still only home to a few hundred thousand.

Still, Cairo's population is expected to double over the next 40 years, so a new satellite city does make some kind of sense. But why move the country's capital too? 

The president wants to make a statement

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in June 2014, and subsequently told the Egyptian people to prepare for the "hard work phase" in their country's recent history, to help the country's economy recover from the effects of the 2011 revolution. That revolution played out in old Cairo, and centred on Tahrir square, the site of many of Cairo's current administrative buildings. 

Mubarak, Egyptian president between 1981 and 2011, actually tried to build a new capital too during his own tenure, but that project failed. If Sisi can succeed, and physically move the government away from the ghosts of the revolution to boot, it'll show he can overcome Egypt's previous setbacks and political tensions and move the country – and, hopefully, its economy – forward. 

Image: Getty.

The Egyptian governemnt may not have to pay for it

The government has hired a Dubai-based real estate investment fund, headed by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar, the man behind the Burj Khalifa, to raise funds for the project and build it. By the end of last week's conference, around $12bn had been pledged by Gulf-based investors, which is over a quarter of the total (that's if the project stays within budget, of course).

The Egyptian people must be hoping for big foreign investment, too: Sisi has already cut food and energy subsidies and raised fuel prices to help the country's ailing economy, which has led some to criticise the announcement of a grand new city project while Egypt's poorest go hungry. 

The Suez canal is getting wider

Another important factor is the city's location: it will lie between Cairo and the Suez Canal, with its profitable trade routes. Under a new expansion project, the Egyptian government is expanding the canal, to allow boats to sail in both directions at once (it goes both directions at the moment, but along most of its length its only wide enough to go one way at once), potentially doubling the trade revenue generated. 

Here's the planned location, a short hop from both New Cairo and El Shorouk city (the two blobs just to the north of the new capital). 

This will bring the city much closer to the canal,  using up what is at present just a stretch of desert: 

It's been done before

...though not particularly successfully. Malaysia moved parts of its central governemnt from Kuala Lumpur to the newly built Putrahaya in 1999, while in 2005 the Burmese government shifted from Yangon to the brand new city of Naypyidaw (though that city is reportedly still half empty). Egypt, meanwhile, has built over 20 "new towns" over the past half century, most of which are still very sparsely populated. Looks like President Sisi has a real job on his hands. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.