Cairo’s traffic problems are costing Egypt around 4 per cent of its GDP

Traffic returns to Cairo’s Tahrir square following demonstrations in 2012. Image: Getty.

Last year, a documentary about Cairo won the prize for best Arab documentary at the Abu Dhabi film festival. It covers the period from 2009 to 2012, a time in which the Arab spring sprung, a revolution overturned Egypt's government, and the country’s first democratic elections took place.

 

But Cairo Drive isn’t a film about politics. It’s a film about traffic.

Traffic can seem to define Cairoites’ lives, not least because so much of them play out in cars, sitting stationary in traffic. The city is home to 20m people, 2m cars and 23,6000 miles of road. Long waits and terrible traffic jams mean many socialise through open windows, trading insults, cigarettes and small talk. One of the film's stars points out that for young men, who tend to live with their parents until marriage, their cars are the only space they have to themselves: "It's the place where you kick it with your friends."

Traffic laws are largely ignored, and drivers take their cues to stop and go through a language of honking (most honks, it turns out, translate as insults about other drivers' mothers). As another of the film’s subjects puts it: "It's like that Frank Sinatra song, 'Do it My Way'. We all just do it our way".

The endless honking and chatting seems quite fun, but there’s another side to the traffic. It blocks ambulances, kills pedestrians and causes horrible pileups, especially on the city's ring-road. Originally built to ease congestion, this road is now used just as recklessly as the city's other routes, and at higher speeds. One mother featured in the film is so worried about the ring road that she sits in the car with her son on his journeys to and from school, pointing out speeders or swervers to her driver from the edge of her seat.

The World Bank carried out a study on Cairo’s traffic problems in 2010. It found that the annual cost of congestion in the greater metropolitan area amounted to around 50 billion Egyptian dollars a year: 4 per cent of Egypt’s entire GDP. Even Jakarta, also densely populated, famous for its traffic and rapidly expanding, only loses 0.6 per cent of Indonesia’s GDP to traffic costs.

The study recommended cutting back the fuel subsidies, which make up a fifth of the Egypt’s government budget; it also wanted improvements to public transport and pedestrian routes, and a significant investment in traffic lights. Earlier this year, Hartwig Schafe, the World Bank’s director for Egypt, suggested similar solutions in a post for Ahram Online.

Fuel subsidies across Egypt were cut this year, increasing the price of gasoline by over 70 per cent and sparking protests. But some of the government’s other attempts to tackle the problem don’t quite match the World Bank’s proposals. One recent road education campaign in schools involved students sitting at a red light in a toy car, explaining that they won't rush, even though they're late. They sing a traffic lights song, with lyrics that run:

"Yellow, yellow, yellow means wait, wait, wait...even if you're late, late late."

For Sherief Elkhatsha, the film’s creator and director, traffic was a focus in itself, but also acted as a route into other issues. His subjects were often suspicious of filming, and, as he told an audience at a screening of the film at the Barbican last week, many cautiously said they “didn’t want to talk about politics”. “Of course,” he continued, “we’d by start talking about traffic and then, ten minutes later, they’d be onto politics.”

His hunch was that traffic plays a central role in politics and city life: each major event since 2009 has brought with it a change in the city’s traffic patterns. During the revolution, when police were absent from the city’s roads, citizens took to directing traffic themselves, and for a short period, drivers appeared to be following road laws. Yet, as Elkatsha noted at the screening, the situation soon regressed: “People took democracy to mean their freedom alone. It ends at the tip of someone else’s nose, so they could drive however they wanted.”

 How has the political situation in Cairo changed in the past couple of years, Elkhatsha was asked. “All I can say is that traffic is slightly worse,” he replied.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.