More suburban transport would put crowded Cairo on right tracks

In May 1905, Egypt’s sovereign, the Khedive Abbas Hilmi, signed a concession to sell 25 square kilometres of desert to the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company, which hoped to turn it into a high-end residential suburb.

The vast parcel of land was roughly equivalent in size to the whole of Cairo. Abbas was happy with the deal but people at his court were a bit surprised that anyone would pay money to acquire empty, waterless land in the middle of the desert.

One of the first things Heliopolis did once it began operations in January 1906 was to extend a tramway to central Cairo, 15km to the south-west. The tram line was running by the end of 1908, and within a year the company had built yet another tramway to the Cairo district of Abbasiya.

New residents flocked to the fashionable new Heliopolis, with its neo-Islamic architecture, and it became one of Cairo’s most enduringly successful suburbs in its modern history.

As Egyptian planners prepare to build an entirely new capital in the desert to the east of Heliopolis, there are few signs they have learnt the lesson from history: mass transit to and from the traditional city centre is necessary for a new development to succeed.

The creation of Maadi, Cairo’s other success story, was slightly different, but adhered to the rule. In 1888 Khedive Tawfik awarded a group of businessmen a concession to build a railway to the town of Helwan, 25km south of Cairo, which they finished within 18 months.

Soon some of the company’s owners and their relatives began quietly buying up tracts of land on either side of the track near the village of Maadi. In 1904 they formed a company that began developing the area. The leafy new suburb soon flourished, connected as it was by train to central Cairo.

Fast forward about 80 years and we come to Sixth of October, a satellite city of Cairo begun in the late 1970s and designed to siphon people out of the centre of what has now become one of the world’s largest and most crowded cities. It never worked as well as planned. The government sold tracts of land for development, but did not make provision for transport to the capital, and the number of people who want to move there has been a fraction of what it should have been.

This planning disaster was repeated at a whole slew of other Cairo satellite cities such as New Cairo, Sheikh Zayed, Tenth of Ramadan, Obour and Shurouk.

As a result, people still prefer to live in Cairo near families, friends, jobs and culture, and not hours away down hopelessly clogged motorways.

The result is that Cairo is becoming increasingly crowded. Historic villas and small buildings are being torn down to make way for horrendously tall and dangerous apartment blocs squashed along narrow streets. Fertile agricultural land on the edges of the city are been consumed to create housing. Traffic has become unending gridlock.

Egyptian wags have nicknamed the upmarket development at New Cairo, Al Tagammu3 Al Khamis (the fifth settlement), Al tagammud Al khamis (the fifth gridlock).

The World Bank, in a note released last year, estimated that congestion in the greater Cairo area alone shaved about 3.6 percentage points off Egypt’s GDP. (

The government has been working to extend metro lines to Cairo’s outskirts, but not anywhere near quickly enough. The third metro line is due to reach the airport in three years, and a contract was recently awarded to extend it towards Tenth of Ramadan City 50km from central Cairo.

Egyptian ministers plan a fourth line that would reach Al Rimaya square near the pyramids, which would put it within about 10km from Sheikh Zayed and about 20km from Sixth of October, but bidding for the contract has been delayed until later this year.

The government should, as an urgent national priority, begin extending more metro lines as well as light rail out to Sixth of October to the west of Cairo and New Cairo to the east. The commute should only take a few minutes to make life in the new cities attractive. A project of this sort should be every bit as important as the current mega-project, the widening of the Suez Canal, and would promise similar and rapid gains to the national economy.

Before it sells any more land for new developments, the government should likewise arrange for light rail or roads, or preferably both, to be extended to the area beforehand, instead of giving vague promises to do so some time in the future. Only then should it sell the adjacent land to developers and home builders, after the land’s value has vastly increased. Then it could plough the far greater revenue earned into more new projects to extend infrastructure further out into areas scheduled for development. The formula should be repeated in Egypt’s other main population centres.

Unfortunately, the main focus seems to be on intercity transport, such as a prestige high-speed train link from Alexandria to Aswan, another from Luxor to Hurgada on the Red Sea and a third connecting areas within and around the new capital, but not extending to anywhere near central Cairo. These are all very well, but the overwhelming need right now is to get people in and out of city centres.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years

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