Since the Egyptian government cut fuel subsidies earlier this year, the cost of fuel has hit working Egyptians where it hurts. Carpooling and even bus-pooling are gaining steam.
CAIRO — KarTag, a mobile phone application designed to help people organize carpools through their networks of Facebook friends, was launched in May 2013, but initially found little success. A little over a year later, the government announced it would lift fuel subsidies, causing an increase in private transportation fares on microbuses and taxis.
Suddenly, KarTag witnessed a 20% increase in downloads. Ahmed Saad, co-founder of the company, had been trying to convince people to carpool for months, but at the end of the day, "money is what hurts," he says.
For years, Egyptians have been enjoying the perks of subsidized fuel prices, which have determined their long-standing commuting habits. According to a Bloomberg study earlier this year, Egypt ranked 58th of 61 countries in terms of lowest global gas prices.
Today, fuel price hikes have affected everyone, not just the 14% of households that 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 during the week 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. But 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."
Public transport less of an option for women
For Abdel Bary, ithe cost of fuel is not all that has gone up. Also costlier now are parking, medicine and food, which requires her to ration her spending. But because public transport is inconvenient and sexual harassment pervasive, 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.
Ahmed Dorghamy, an environmental consultant and co-founder of the Green Arm non-governmental organization, 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.
"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," he adds.
The Carpooling Egypt Facebook page is a closed group of around 500 people, founded by Ahmed Korayem after the gas prices went up. He saw it as an opportunity 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 that more than 300 people had joined, which is when he decided to keep it closed to maintain a small network. He says that he has received requests from people to join the group, but he 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 because of fear of riding with strangers, which violates 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, who fear sexual harassment. Driving a car is associated with a certain social class, and there is a stigma attached to using 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 while still charging a high monthly fee of 800 Egyptian pounds 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.
"People want to be at ease and comfortable," says co-founder Mohamed Ehab. "We're targeting a different group with a high-quality service." But, he notes, changing people's habits is difficult. "It's not something we're raised with, and people are apprehensive of riding with someone they don't know."
Dorghamy suggests further study to better understand what each segment of the market needs 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 Koleyet Banat Metro station 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 one Egyptian pound, 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 says 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 must keep using private transportation, such as microbuses and taxis, even though the fares have increased by at least 40%.
"I haven’t changed my habits," he says. "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. He says that fuel hikes in Cuba prompted the opening of new factories to manufacture buses. 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 the equivalent loss 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.
Cycling gets a slow embrace
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 tend to do it for recreation.
The percentage of people learning how to cycle with the group increased after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's initiative to encourage people to ride bicycles. 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.
With gas costs higher, people are more responsive. "You can make the best out of it, and end up having less air pollution," Dorghamy says.
Environmentalists say there is a global shift from private vehicles to 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. Perhaps the increase in gas prices is the push people need.