Adjusting commuting habits
Passant Rabie - 14/10/2014
KarTag, a mobile phone application designed to help people organize carpools through their networks of Facebook friends, was launched in May 2013, but initially did not receive much success. A little over a year later, the government announced the lifting of fuel subsidies, causing an increase in the fares of private transportation, such as microbuses and taxis.
This is when KarTag witnessed a sudden 20 percent increase in downloads. Ahmed Saad, co-founder of KarTag, had been trying to convince people of the idea of carpooling for months due to its benefits on the environment and traffic congestion, but at the end of the day, “money is what hurts,” he says jokingly.
For years, Egyptians have been enjoying the perks of subsidized fuel prices, which have determined their long-standing commuting habits. According to a study by Bloomberg earlier this year, Egypt ranked 58 out of 61 countries in terms of lowest global gas prices.
Today, fuel price increases have affected everyone, not only the 14 percent of households who own cars. The majority, who rely on private transportation, such as microbuses or taxis, have also been impacted by tariff increases and the rising costs of everyday commodities. As a result, some are looking for alternative, cost-saving means of transportation, while others are finding fewer alternatives.
Najlaa Abdel Bary, who lives in Maadi and has to drive every weekday to Mohandiseen for her job as a documentation officer, says that since gas prices went up, she has been parking her Skoda closer to alternative means of transportation. After leaving her car, she often takes the metro and then a taxi to get to the office, as there are no metro stations nearby, although she says that she also has to be careful when taking the metro to avoid overcrowding.
“The car was more comfortable, of course,” she says. “The metro seems like a viable option … but it requires a dress code for me … and taxi fares are getting insanely high, sometimes double what it used to cost, since people stopped going by the meter.”
For Abdel Bary, it’s not only the cost of fuel that has gone up, but also the cost of parking, as well as medicine and food products, which all require her to ration her spending. However, due to the inconvenience of public transport and the probability of sexual harassment, Abdel Bary is considering selling her Skoda and buying a more fuel-efficient car instead.
Mohamed Mostafa, who lives in the crowded neighborhood of Nasr City, also refuses to give up his car as the main means of transport. “I use my car to go on long trips and I hate public transportation in Egypt so the new gas prices have definitely affected my lifestyle a bit,” he says. However, Mostafa adds, “The car will always be better than public transportation even if the prices have gone up, but maybe I won’t hang around aimlessly by car as much as I used to.”
Environmental Consultant and Co-Founder of Green Arm non-governmental organization Ahmed Dorghamy explains that with the new gas prices, people are going through what he refers to as “trip chaining” — whereby you start reducing the number of trips based on time or money constraints.
He adds, “More planning is good because it reduces energy consumption, and also good socially because you do more things with more people but you lose flexibility.”
On the Carpooling Egypt Facebook page, people ask, “Maadi to Heliopolis? In 20 minutes,” or “I need to move from Manial to Al-Shams Club at 11 am, anyone going?” Either their posts go unanswered or they find someone who also happens to be going from Sixth of October to Midan Lebanon at 8.30 am, for example.
The page is a closed group of around 500 people, founded by Ahmed Korayem after the gas prices went up, as he saw it as an opportune moment to get people to buy into the concept of carpooling. Korayem says that he has been carpooling for a long time, accompanying friends and strangers alike on trips from Heliopolis to Smart Village or Zamalek.
“It’s a small community but it’s definitely catching on. The fuel price hikes might be a motive,” he says.
Korayem created the Facebook group one night and woke up the next morning to find over 300 people had joined, which is when he decided to keep it closed in order to maintain a small network. He says that he has received requests from people to join the group, but first scans their Facebook profiles to make sure they don’t pose a threat to other group members.
One of the reasons why people shy away from carpooling in Egypt is due to suspicions around riding in a car with a stranger, which flagrants social norms. On the other hand, Dorghamy explains, car owners in Egypt are not likely to switch to public transportation and abandon their cars, particularly women out of fear of being subjected to sexual harassment. Driving a car is associated with a certain social class and there is a stigma attached to taking public transportation, he adds.
This is where initiatives such as Bus Pooling have come into play, offering people the convenience of not having to drive their own cars, while still charging a high monthly fee of LE800 to maintain a certain social standard.
Bus Pooling was founded in May 2013 as a way to gather people heading to a common destination into a rented bus. The company re-launched after the fuel price hikes and saw requests double in under three weeks, compared to a full year of operation previously.
“People want to be at ease and comfortable,” says Mohamed Ehab, co-founder of Bus Pooling. “We’re targeting a different group with a high quality service.” However, he notes, “Changing people’s habits is the main problem. It’s not something we’re raised with and people are apprehensive of riding with someone they don’t know.”
Dorghamy suggests there needs to be a study to better understand what each segment of the market needs in order to encourage people to change their commuting habits.
Others have discovered public transportation to be more efficient than their prior means of transportation. At the recently opened metro station on Koleyet Banat in the Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, Mostafa Mahmoud and Ahmed Mohamed are making their way to catch the next train home.
The two used to rely on private transportation, such as taxis or microbuses, but both have seen a significant increase in fares over the last period. “Of course we had to change our habits,” says Mohamed. “The ticket to ride the metro is only LE1, compared to more than double what we would have had to pay for a microbus, and it’s one line that takes me straight home rather than having to take several buses.”
Aside from the cost, Mahmoud also adds that the metro is overall more convenient. “You usually have to wait an hour or an hour and a half for private transportation, and then go through additional hours of traffic, but the metro is efficient, you get to work on time,” says Mahmoud.
But for those outside Cairo, the efficiency and convenience of the new metro lines is not an option.
Ahmed Aly from Alexandria says he has been forced to stick to using private transportation, such as microbuses and taxis, even though the fares have increased by at least 40 percent for him.
“I haven’t changed my habits, I still use private transport because I’m forced to stick to it,” he says.
Dorghamy attests to the affordability of public transportation in Egypt, but says it should have been invested in more alongside rising fuel prices. He says that to accompany fuel hikes in Cuba they built factories to manufacture buses and flooded the network with new vehicles in a short period of time. They also split schools to cut travel distances.
According to a study conducted by Dorghamy’s organization, 200 new cars are hitting the roads each year. The government is making room for more vehicles, as it expands roads and builds new bridges, resulting in a loss of the equivalent of four football fields of public space every week.
But unfortunately, Egyptians are not commonly exploring alternate options for transportation, such as walking or cycling.
Mohamed al-Masry, a member of the group “Be Cyclist,” which teaches people how to ride bicycles, says that even though there has been a slight increase in people interested to learn, they admit to it as a sport or for leisure purposes.
According to Masry, the percentage of people learning how to cycle with them increased after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s initiative to encourage people to ride bicycles, particularly among older people.
After the price hikes, Be Cyclist released a new promotional poster that read, “Did I not tell you to ride bicycles?” referring to Sisi’s recent bike marathon. However, he explains that people have not yet started to depend on bicycles as modes of transportation or as a replacement for cars.
Be Cyclist is working towards encouraging people to use bicycles instead of cars, advising them that an hour and a half of traffic can be cycled in less than half an hour.
Now, with the increases in gas prices, people are more responsive. “You can make the best out of it, and end up having less air pollution,” says Dorghamy.
The environmentalist says that there is currently a worldwide shift from using private vehicles to using public transportation or other alternatives, particularly in Europe where people have begun abandoning their cars.
For this to happen in Egypt, Dorghamy believes people need to let go of the social stigma related to transportation. He adds, perhaps the increase in gas prices is the push people need to overcome this.