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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.