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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.