Mobility is a constant challenge for Cairo’s residents. With a metropolitan population of nearly 22 million and a vast urban area, many Cairenes must combine various forms of transportation—including the Metro, public buses, and semi-private microbuses—to navigate a complex transit system that disproportionately burdens people with lower incomes. Exacerbating all of this is the lack of democratic mechanisms for ordinary residents to press the government to improve services in this rapidly expanding megacity that is projected to top 40 million people by 2050. 

Mohamed knows the challenges of public transit all too well. For ten years, this 44-year-old ticketing agent traveled 22 kilometers five days a week for an hour and a half from his downtown home to the Cairo International Airport where he worked. “I used to take a bus and two trains to reach the airport,” he said, waiting for a bus at an unmarked station along his old commute route. Public buses do not have dedicated lanes, and when roads become bottlenecked their arrival is not guaranteed. “Sometimes the bus didn’t come for a half an hour, so to get to work on time I’d take a taxi to a nearby hotel and catch a shuttle bus from there to the airport, but then it was more expensive,” Mohamed added. On an average workday, he spent around EGP 15 of his EGP 1,000 monthly salary to get to and from work, or about 30 percent of his income.

Mohamed’s ordeals are commonplace in Cairo, where residents struggle to find affordable and reliable public transportation. “The metro doesn’t even cover ten percent of Cairo,” explained Ahmed Zaazaa, an urban designer, architect, and cofounder of the MADD Platform, an independent initiative that works on urban development issues. That makes the most important means of mass transportation the microbuses, which cover each and every meter of the city. “When they’ve stopped working because of a strike, for example, the city also stops working,” Zaazaa explained. 

The fourteen-passenger microbuses operate in a semiformal private sector, with the government regulating only the routes traveled. Passengers’ fares depend on the length of their journey, and their cost rose after the government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi enacted a fuel price hike in 2014. Unlike public buses, whose prices remained flat after the hike, microbus drivers passed off higher fuel costs onto passengers. Lower-middle income groups tend to take the microbuses, prizing their speed and reliability, while the very poor ride the slower public minibuses (between 2 and 2.50 EGP per trip) or full-size single-decker buses (1 to 2 per trip) operated by the Cairo Transport Authority (CTA). Ticket prices are even higher on newer bus lines and air-conditioned minibuses with Wi-Fi access, which middle-income earners prefer. In a kind of transport hierarchy, the lowest-cost bus travels along the city’s oldest routes. 

Because microbus drivers work on commission, they often drive at breakneck speeds and weave in and out of traffic in an effort to maximize passenger numbers—violating any number of traffic safety ordinances along the way. Accidents are common, and road safety has long been a pressing concern. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 12,000 Egyptians die each year due to road traffic accidents, making traffic-related deaths a leading cause of death. Even more sobering, at a May 5, 2015 conference organized by the Ministry of Transportation, the NADA Foundation for Safer Egyptian Roads reported that road accidents are the leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 19 and the second leading cause of death among children between 5 and 14 years old.

This transportation chaos is compounded because the public does not always know the microbus routes or stations. Drivers use hand signals to tell passengers their destinations at crowded, noisy pickup points; riders use similar gestures to let drivers know when they need to hop out. But in order to improve services, Zaazaa is working on a project to map microbus routes and stations. “We want to increase the capacities of the microbuses and understand their problems to eliminate bottlenecks at the stations,” he said.

The burden of mobility is greater still for women, who struggle not only to find affordable, reliable ways to move around, but safe ones too. According to a June 2014 study conducted by HarassMap, the first independent initiative to use crowdsourced data to map sexual harassment in Egypt, public transportation is the second most common place for sexual harassment. In answer to the harassment of women on public transit, since 1989 the government has reserved two marked cars on every metro train for women. However, during peak travel times this is hardly adequate, and many women end up riding in mixed cars. “When something happens in one of these cars, fellow passengers often tell the woman she should’ve been riding in the women’s car, because there’s this misperception,” explained Monica Ibrahim, communications manager at HarassMap.

For female passengers changing between the metro’s two main lines at Al-Shohadaa—the only transfer point in the city after Tahrir Square’s Sadat station closed in August 2013—the overcrowded conditions can be particularly dangerous. Back in October 2013, amid growing reports of sexual harassment, Egypt’s Interior Ministry dispatched female police officers around busy stations. “I often see the women police officers at Al-Shohadaa,” said Nermeen, a 28-year-old marketing consultant, from the packed women’s car she said she always rides during her rush hour commute. Despite more police presence, she says she still doesn’t quite feel at ease: “The microbus I take has become really expensive. And then I take a tuk-tuk to and from the metro, as I really don’t feel safe on the streets in my neighborhood because I’m Christian and almost all the women around are covered.”

First opened in 1987, the Cairo Metro is still one of only two subway systems in Africa, traversing 61 stations along three lines. At least 3.5 million people ride the metro each day, and annual ridership is steadily increasing, according to the metro’s statistics. The Cairo Metro has recently added stations to a new third line opened in February 2012, linking two of the city’s busiest squares near downtown with the upscale Heliopolis district, but it sees comparatively fewer passengers. Construction is underway for this line—which runs along shining new stations with digitized monitors—to eventually reach the airport. 

In the 1980s, the metro was envisioned to reduce the ever-growing traffic on Cairo’s streets amid rising birth rates and urban migration, and the government considers it a crowning achievement. But critics say it is both slow and expensive to expand. “The secondary transport system that is supposed to support the metro is organic and mostly informal and semi-formal private sector [services] like tuk-tuks and microbuses,” said Yahia Shawkat, a built environment researcher with the Right to Housing initiative.

Many agree that the real issue behind Cairo’s transit woes is the lack of a comprehensive public transport framework in which polices and investments are made. The most up-to-date comprehensive study on urban transport was done by the Cairo Regional Area Transportation Study (CREATS) in 2001-2004, but its recommendation to establish a transport authority to coordinate and oversee all transport needs for the region has not been implemented, explained Shawkat. Instead, transport solutions come piecemeal, and there are growing reports of poorly maintained public transport vehicles and frequent enough train accidents—numbering 100 train accidents in 2014. Metro drivers even recently went on strike over what they said were unsafe train and tunnel conditions, after an empty train on the new third line derailed and crashed into the wall, injuring the driver.

In Egypt, where the president appoints all 27 governors, residents have little democratic say in the affairs that govern their day-to-day lives. The central government determines and implements urban projects, leaving qualified urban planners, designers, and architects unable to make decisions independently with mayors or city councils. Rather than finding holistic solutions for the city’s myriad challenges—like transportation—the Sisi government, making matters worse, is instead pursuing mega-projects for satellite cities. The latest plan, unveiled at the March 2015 Egyptian Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, is for a $300 billion new capital city. “We need normal solutions for our problems, not these big projects,” said Zaazaa, whose MADD Platform works in Cairo’s informal settlements with residents on participatory urban designs. “This new capital will leave the problems of the old one, which is rapidly expanding in a very haphazard way, and where there’s no comprehensive strategy to cover the city’s needs with services like public transportation. People are struggling every day just to move from one point to another.” 

Angela Boskovitch is a Cairo-based writer, researcher, and cultural producer.