Walking Like An Egyptian in Cairo

Cars and freeways are cutting through Cairo. Photo by seyerce from Flickr.

In Cairo, my spouse and I lived for a month in a high-rise in a central-city neighborhood called Garden City. Cairo, a city inhabited by about 18 million people, is notorious for its poor air quality. eyes-on-street-for-web.jpgThis report tells us that, “According to the World Health Organization, the average resident of Cairo ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day.” (See here, too.) Many mornings, I’d look out of our tenth-story window and see little except the heavy brown miasma of pollution that had settled over the city. Those days, too, my throat and eyes would sting the moment I opened the window or walked outside.

By no means does all of Cairo’s air pollution come from cars. But certainly the cars sitting for hours in the city’s traffic jams belching out their exhaust fumes contribute to the problem. Sometimes the traffic does get to move, but with some hazard. In this 2006 account of Cairo’s traffic problem Reem Leila wrote that some 7,000 Cairenes were estimated to be killed in traffic accidents each year, and a further 35,000 injured. Although the number is staggering, it still is believable. If the traffic on the big, 4- or 6-lane streets that surround Garden City was by chance moving, it did so in a crazed, desperate way. (I never saw a single speed limit sign posted anywhere in the city.) Crossing such a street meant playing a heart-stopping game of Extreme Human Frogger.

The streets were equally hostile to pedestrians within Garden City, too. The neighborhood had been developed by the British in the 1920s as a leafy area with streets that wound engagingly between two- and three-story family homes, each surrounded by its own walled garden. One could imagine families from the nearby British High Commission going out in those days for pleasant walks through Garden City with their nursemaids, and little boys with hoops.

But today? No! Most of the area’s original Art Deco “villas” are now long gone, replaced by high-rises, housing banks, embassies, or apartments, with almost no provision for off-street parking. At some point, someone in Cairo’s infamous City Hall, the Mugamma, must have had the idea that, to prevent motorists parking on the city’s sidewalks, the sidewalks should all be raised to a height of 12-18 inches. In Garden City, the combination of sidewalk-raising with ill-kempt, sidewalk-planted trees pushing out thorny, low-hanging branches and the frequent cross-streets and driveways, has been to make the sidewalks unusable by any pedestrians, let alone by anyone with strollers, wheelchairs, or impaired mobility. So the neighborhood’s pedestrians are forced to compete for space in narrow roadways almost completely clogged in daytime with cars that are either double-parked or simply blocked and immobile in traffic.

To give the Egyptian planners their due, they have struggled for decades now with Cairo’s traffic problem. The city has overlapping bus, trolley, tramway, and subway networks; numerous vehicular overpasses; pedestrian overpasses; etc. But these fixes have all been quite unequal to the dual challenge of dealing with (a) Cairo’s rapid and near-constant growth, and (b) the free-market emphasis of the national government and the political elite, which has been wedded to an inordinate affection for the private automobile.

The result is that traveling around any part of Cairo is a stressful, health-threatening experience, for pedestrians and even for those in cars.

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