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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mass Transit - Where it Really Works

Only 14 percent of Cairo households own a car.  That means a lot of transportation takes place the old-fashioned way: on-foot, on donkey or on mass transit.  Mass transit here is not the same as the U.S. where massive operating subsidies pull a small percentage of people onto expensive (but usually very empty) rail cars that clog existing auto routes.  (Perhaps you detect a certain bias here on my part.)

Mass transit has to actually work here so it consists of several very efficient layers.  Yes there is an actual subway system that operates two lines very efficiently near downtown.  Fares are about fifteen cents and at rush hour the cars are packed Manhattan-style.  (Map here.  A YouTube video here.)  This promotes a lot of unwanted touching which is dealt with by providing a separate women's car at the front of the train.  Don't get on it with your wife by mistake, guys, there will be lots of yelling!

Your trip from downtown will end at a station where you will meet the microbus.
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This is where the mass transit system becomes both interesting and efficient.  Every station will have a multitude of these small microbuses ready to take you on the next leg of your trip.  They are rugged and small enough to get into any neighborhood.  I haven't actually ridden in one since you need to be able to both shout out your destination and be able to deal with the response in Arabic.
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You will find them in clusters at stations or just moving up and down every decent sized street.
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But the real marvel of the mass transit system is the solution to the "last mile" problem.  The three-wheeled Tuk-Tuk, imported from India and "manned" by a 14 year-old driver will take you from the bus stop to your front door.  These vehicles congregate at large intersection which serve as interchanges with the microbuses.
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They aren't all driven by 14 year-olds.  Many drivers are older.  Quite a few make me wonder how closely that 14 year-old minimum is watched.  They aren't supposed to go "out of the neighborhood," but like all laws here, that doesn't seem to be enforced.  They have some of the best sound systems installed anywhere on earth. Boom-thumpa-thumpa.

Here are views from the passenger seat and of a tooth-gritting passenger as we zip home from the local supermarket with driver, Ali.
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Now this is mass transit that I could get behind.  I picture myself back in Bloomington, leaving the mall on a microbus.  I would be met at the entrance to our neighborhood by a teenager with his Tuk-Tuk and driven the last  half mile to our house.  Later I might phone the driver to take me up to Lunds to pick out some fresh vegetables.  All that prevents this efficiency back home is a little regulation, bureaucracy and taxi-driver union opposition.

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