I’ve read my first serious book about the city, David Sim’s Understanding Cairo, the logic of a city out of control. I suspect it’s about as good as it gets as a first introduction. It describes the development of the city since the 1950s, which by necessity focuses on the huge growth of the unplanned “informal” neighborhoods, housing the majority of Cairo’s population. It includes very interesting chapters on the city’s economy and transport system and is updated with a February 2012 post-revolution chapter. It dispels with many myths about the city and its problems and I was flabbergasted by the extent to which I had already absorbed most of these myths. Just by being here and by having general assumptions about third world cities.
As mega cities go, the book describes Cairo as a qualified success story . It grew from four to seventeen million inhabitants in less than 50 years …on its own, so to speak, counter to government intentions and plans…This ‘auto-development’ has generated efficient neighborhoods where two-thirds of all Cairenes live and almost half of them work, where housing is minimally acceptable, and quite affordable, and where ‘basic services’, which only government can provide, are surprisingly not bad. Moreover, transport in the metropolis works…small enterprises flourish, and a majority of inhabitants can live moderately respectable lives. (p.267)
The postscript sees most of this continuing, sort of, which just one exception: traffic is described as having reached a crisis point.
I can relate to that, walking a lot on Cairo streets. The city is choking. Don’t know if it is that much worse than in other choking cities, but the end is nigh. I must admit that a traffic jam – as long as I’m not in it, having to be someplace, but not getting any closer – is preferable to free flow. Both for me as a pedestrian, crossing major streets is easy weaving one’s way through a gridlock, and as a taxi passenger. Although I consider myself reasonably hardened by many rides with crazy drivers on crazy roads, your average Cairo cabbie manages to rattle me. My most recent ride on a Friday morning – best time of the week of you wanna get someplace fast – our driver was on the phone from start to end, all of the ride’s 30 minutes. Driving up to 60k an hour, weaving around slower vehicles, left and right, hitting the breaks ferociously to avoid bumping into a speed breakers, erratically stopping minibuses, or other vehicles cutting into our “lane” from the side, changing gears with his left hand (phone in the right….), hitting the gas while leaving the steering wheel to god.
This traffic issue makes me think of a related problem that bothered urban planners of large cities in the late 19th century. It’s described in the introduction to Super Freakonomics. The bit below alone should make you want to read the book. But just to make sure I also share a Ted talk by one of the authors, Steven Levitt, about the freakonomics of McDonalds vs. drugs (Based on research that was part of the super freakonomics predecessor volume):
Anyway, here we go, back on topic: When the world was lurching into the modern era, it grew magnificently more populous, and in a hurry. Most of this expansion took place in urban centres…In the United States alone, cities grew by 30 million residents during the nineteenth century, with half of that gain in just the final twenty years.. But as this swarm of humanity moved itself, and its goods, from place to place, a problem emerged. The main mode of transportation produced a slew of the by-products that economists call negative externalities, including gridlock, high insurance costs, and far too many traffic fatalities. Crops that would have landed on a family’s dinner table were sometimes converted into fuel, driving up food prices and causing shortages. Then there were the air pollutants and toxic emissions, endangering the environment as well as individual health…We are talking about horses here….Worst of all was the dung. The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses, that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure…It lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summer time, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse manure flooded the crosswalks and seeped into people’s basements. Today, when you admire old New York brownstones and their elegant stoops, rising from the street level to the second story parlor, keep in mind that this was a design necessity, allowing a homeowner to rise above the sea of horse manure….(p.9-10)
The problem was solved by a technological invention,,, the electric street car and the automobile…The automobile…was proclaimed “an environmental savior”. (p.10)
The authors recognize that the solution that saved the twentieth century seem to have imperiled the twenty-first, because the automobile and electric streetcar carried their own negative externalities. But they are techno-optimists and assume that humankind has a great capacity for finding technological solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and this will likely be the case for global warming. (p.11)
I’m born without such optimism. And even if I’m wrong, it won’t help Cairo much right now. Not to end on a pessimistic note, I’ll include this great song by Nina Simone. It’s one of those weird connections established by the algorithm used by youtube to decide which “related” video’s to show – in this case related to the above video about Cairo’s traffic. Just in case you wondered how I come across this stuff.