Fail/unFail living in a Megacity: Cairo as a patchwork of individual solutions

Since September a growing team of committed individuals started a very ambitious project called Transport for Cairo (TfC) in Africa’s second largest city. Like other megacities, Cairo is an engine of art, business, science and progress; yet suffers from noise, traffic and smog. Transportation planning and policy making has failed.

TfC seeks to map all formal and informal transportation in Cairo digitally, and release all data openly. What might seem obvious and expected of any European city does not exist in Cairo: A clear and comprehensive answer to the question of How do I get there!

Main Bus Arteries in Cairo

"Cairo is a patchwork of individual solutions"

The Bus network in Cairo evolved progressively over time. Each new bus route created was meant to solve an individual transportation problem. Transportation planning based on expected future needs did not take place. In the 1970’s, the government started to license individual bus drivers to operate some routes it could not handle on its own. Over time, some drivers started operating routes that were not licensed by the government to fulfil actual demand by commuters. This is a highly informal way of finding individual solutions to the failure of the wider transportation system.

Little to no information on routes, stops, service frequency or schedules of public buses exist, neither in analogue nor in digital form. Furthermore, 40% of Cairo’s transportation is covered by informally organised mini-buses where no information exists at all. Commuters have to rely on unreliable word-of-mouth for trip planning, missing the opportunity to choose the fastest, cheapest or most convenient routes. This is a social issue that affects every Egyptian commuter.

Furthermore, professional planners and researchers lack a comprehensive map of the cities’ transportation system. Currently, we do not understand how the city functions. Therefore, any social and sustainable development of Cairo’s transportation system is difficult. Inequities in access to health, education and culture foster due to the systems largely informal nature, yet are not quantifiable at present. Targeted action is not possible.

Transport for Cairo is essentially a map of these individual solutions as well. This mapping exercise gives us considerable expertise to share. For LOTE5, we are planning to hold a session to share our experience, discuss the ongoing challenges and debate the vices and virtues of informality. Informal organisation solved the failures of government, yet created challenges of their own. Can informality be leveraged to fix societal problems in a sustainable way?

For now, we will be looking to refine the contents of the session, and the questions we wish to find an answer to. What are your thoughts?

Date: 2016-02-26 23:00:00 - 2016-02-26 23:00:00, Europe/Brussels Time.


Similar situation to the one in Addis and Johannesburg?

I went back to Addis after several years away and the situation is similar. Minibusses that leave from different parts of the city. On arrival the ticket vendor (riding in the buss next to the driver) gets off, calls out their destination and “collects passengers”. Once the minibuss is full they leave, collect money in cash (very cheap + no tickets issued) and then it makes stops along what I believe is a set route. You don’t really need to know when they arrive because they are really frequent, but finding means of transport to where you want to go is really tricky, also because there isn’t a standardised system of addresses especially if you are out in the informal settlements. I have no idea how the mapping of the city works or how urban planners do the planning, but I met a professor (I think this is tied to his field of specialisation) at Addis Ababa University. If you want I could reach out to him?

Then there is Joburg. I was there to visit @IrmaWilson a while back and gave up on using any other means of transport than the Gautrain (to and from airport) and taxis. The minibusses operate on a set of handsignals as far as I can tell but I don’t speak any of the languages so I couldn’t really figure it out.  Maybe Irma has more information about this, and how the urban planning works?

The main difference I noticed is that in Johannesburg it seemed to be mainly the poor who take the system of minibusses whereas in Addis it’s more diverse. In both cases if there was a map/timetable of the city I didn’t know about it, and more importantly, residents in the city didn’t seem to use it.

Additional useful contacts: I think Geci Karuri-Sebina who works with city administrations will know. Possibly also Rasigan Maharjh will know more about this. Possibly also Marc Lepage at the UNDP based in addis (@marclepage on twitter).

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Possibly look at refugee camps and other temporary cities?

There have been many migrations in history that resulted in new cities springing up. There are three categories I can think of top of mind:

  1. Temporary structures end up being permanent: Zaatari and Kibera, Possibly refugee camp at Gare Du Nord in Brussels and the camps in Germany.
  2. Structures designed for permanence end up being short-lived: Brazilia and other failures
  3. Emergent/Pop up cities: Megalopoli a well as more ephemeral, pop up settlements such as Burning Man or Maya Nagaru

We could explore two different angles: one a little bit heavier (responses to crisis) and second lighter one (driven by festivity/celebration). For the second I think maybe @Jean_Russell will have some experience to share? Also there are people like Namita Dharia, PhD candidate, who study Kumbh Mela festival in which Maya Nagaru is built: “As a student of architecture and anthropology, I realise that the ability of a city to literally rise from the dust is an administrative and architectural feat.”

For the first more thoughts as follows:

We could depart from a possibility that refugee camps are the cities of tomorrow: and These are sights of a lot of hacks and novel approaches towards meeting infrastructural and other needs. You’ll find a number of case studies in this report:

  • people currently stuck in the asylum process in Belgium
  • protagonists of promising initiatives like refugees welcome and  Philippe Narval who ran a project bringing together Mayors in Austria to find a common strategy to respond to the sudden increase in arrivals of asylum seeker to their respective towns.
  • people currently tasked with finding novel solutiosn. They can be decision makers within public administrations, program managers at funding bodies or project coordinators within private sector organisations such as banks.

Who to reach out to?

As you speak the German and have some ties to the country I would suggest maybe reaching out to actors in Germany @Caroline_Paulick-Thiel will have some suggestions here e.g. at the Foreign Ministry. Maybe @Matthias has some ideas as well. @Hazem is also quite knowledgeable about urban planning and interested in Tactical urbanism where you may find relevant actors and case studies to learn from. @Susa may be interested in researching this as well in the context of OpenCare Labs, the course we will be running together at UDK (university of arts in Berlin) next year.

@ElienShr is well connected to the grassroots scene both in Belgium and in France and perhaps could help? @Anton_Sabbe is working with a relevant initiative in Belgium which we discussed during a recent Apero at the Edgeryders space in Brussels - I think maybe he has some input regarding how this is read from the perspective of institutions and more traditional actors. Also, there is a camp at Gare Du Nord which is quite a mess, We could invite Elissard who has volunteered there to describe the situation (she’s not on platform but I could reach out and invite her). Maybe Anton knows who is managing it on the institutional side?

@ton has been doing some opendata work in Malaysia, maybe he has some input? also I bet Giulio Quaggiotto will have some stories from Indonesia and beyond (ping him on Twitter).

Ok that’s it for now :slight_smile:


the institutional side: CGRS and Fedasil

The Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons or CGRS offers protection to foreigners who fear persecution, conflict or violence if they return to their country of origin. The CGRS examines each application for asylum individually and independently. It issues certificates and documents of civil status to recognised refugees and stateless persons.  CGRS is an independent federal administration and the central asylum authority in Belgium.

Fedasil is responsible for the reception of asylum seekers and other target groups and guarantees high-quality reception and conformity within the various reception structures. Fedasil coordinates the various voluntary return programmes.

Asylum seekers are housed in reception locations, generally collective centres managed by Fedasil or the Red Cross.  After a period of four months, asylum seekers are able to request a transfer to individual housing.

When an asylum procedure has come to a definitive end, the refugee has to leave the reception location where he or she has been staying. Once an asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee or has been granted subsidiary protection status, the local authority where the refugee resides provides him or her with a residence permit.  From that day onwards, the refugee may choose where he or she wants to live in Belgium.

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How does this service look to its users?

Welcome, @Anton_Sabbe, great to see you here! smiley

But if you talk to refugees, they will give you a very different picture. Many people are stuck in a bureaucratic limbo for months. They have little or no assistance. They are not allowed to work to pay for their keep. Nobody seems to be able to tell them what’s next, and how long it will take to get there. I would be tempted to dedicate the service design session at LOTE5 to redesigning community-driven services for refugees…


@Nadia It is true, a lot of Microbuses in Cairo operate using Handsignals. We are hoping to include those in our data collection, as they will be of research value for Social Scientists, and to capture them somehow for easing navigating the informal system. The How is a still an open research question!

The UNDP in Africa is in the know of digital matts (Our inspiration) and contemplating further action. Perhaps we can invite a representative to LOTE 5 to push from our way?

Most of the informal areas of Cairo, which constitute a majority of the cities’ residents were created in the 1970’s due to rural-urban migration witnessed by Egypt. As migrants could not afford/find living space in the city they built informal quarters on the city edges on hitherto agricultural lands. Unlike African and Indian shantytowns however, most informal neighbourhoods in Cairo consist of stone houses with multiple floors; the newer ones often exceed 10 stories! Thus, they are permanent settlements in a sense.

I agree with inviting: “decision makers within public administrations, program managers at funding bodies or project coordinators within private sector organisations such as banks,” particularly public banks. Who knows whom in Brussels?

I see the parallel with contemporary Refugee migrants, and how temporary camps could turn into permanent facts. It is when flexible structures that sprang out of immediate needs and according to immediate constraints turn permanent that obvious defaults and problems due to a lack of long-term thinking & planning come into view. Think of access to transportation, and how this affects long-term viability off holding a steady a job. I am not sure , however, wether this is a potential problem in Europe?

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some people are now studying “the relevance of the marshrutkas (mini-busses) mobility phenomenon for the post-Soviet production of urban spaces and the emergence of new spatially relevant orders in the fields of economy, morale, urban development and migration.”


Distribution plan

@Hegazy FYI: in Belgium a plan entered into force to distribute the migrants fairly among Belgium’s 589 municipalities. Thus it’s not the intention to house refugees for a long time in common accommodations.

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thinking out loud

as for mapping public transit in cairo.

I believe that the data would be very beneficial for the traffic and city planners as I claim that no one has a real view of Cairo as a whole. This could lead to better development of the public transit system as a whole.

Even if the locals didn’t use it much. It could encourage more people to use the public transit.

making a map is relatively easy, but getting the real live data from microbuses is tricky, not technically - check the conversation on Untransit where @Matthias suggested some low cost GPS hardware ( Public buses could work if you can reach an agreement with the company) But it requires negotiating with the microbus drivers to agree on this, also agreeing on data would be used, as microbuses mostly are privately owned and of course tuk-tuks is harder as it could be used for private uses afterwards.

for this to happen, then the drivers should be involved and some benefits should be gained by the them. One could be to be more recolonized as a formal way of transport but  a lot of microbuses are already legalized in Cairo.

may be one way to go, that I wanted to try but didn’t , is to involve some drivers from a neighborhood with some personal connections and then use this case to negotiate with others.

How far is the TFC in the mapping process? and does the above challenges make sense ? what are the other challenges ?

as for the informality as a way to solve governmental failures. It is already happening as this how Cairo functions, and as explained above by @hegazy it is a special  kind of informality, but we need also to be aware of the the informality failures and to to romanticize the informality as a general case.


@Hazem nice to finally see your input.

I agree fully that we should not romanticise informality, a very danger. However, I believe we should quantify the effects of informality to be able to have a balanced conversation around them, and reach, as a society, the optimum way to leverage its existence for development at present. That is a core tenet of TfC.

I disagree that making a map is relatively easy, however. It is not difficult per se, but the sheer scale of the mapping required is huge, and unknown. Getting real live data is not part of the scope of TfC’s work, contrary to what a lot of people would love to see. First, the scale of such an undertaking is a mega-project of sorts, and second, under current Egyptian legislation, illegal.

Shame, really, since as you say no one has a view of the city as a whole.

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I agree making such a map would require a lot of work, not that easy, it is “relatively” easier than getting the real live data :D. hopefully if it is possible to use the" crowd" to map it would be a bit easier.

and as for my assumption that " no one has a view of the city" this includes all informal transit options ( “illegal” microbuses, tuk-tuks, suzukis, and other carriages ) but the data for the formal part should be with the " ministry of transportation" , would need processing of course to create the map. But  getting this data wouldn’t be easy, with the current authorities, I guess.

and can you tell me more about the illegality of collecting real live data transit data ?

but anyway the project seems promising, I am following to see how I can help

FIY Urban planning of Cairo trending on Failed Architecture

@Hegazy wondering whether you’ve seen this Capital Cairo: A Regime of Graphics - Failed Architecture and what your thoughts are…


scraping bey2ollak data

just in case you didn’t see, could be helpful.

Someone already experimented with scrapping by2ollak data, since they didn’t provide any API. ( link )

Also while looking for the above link I found another scrapping for by2ollak on Github . apparently done by the developer of rawa7

Follow-up: What do we need

First, I wanted to share the Presentation we gave at LOTE 5.

A patchwork of individual solutions (LOTE 5, 27 feb 2016) from Mohamed Hegazy

Now, I have been asked to relay what we need to move our project further.

Two things will make mapping transit systems in the global south possible: Funding, and Technology.


We are currently working towards getting appropriate funding for TfC applying for international grants. Any grant would cover a prelimary wide-scale data collection and processing effort, as well as associated research. Any leads for call for proposals and funding oppurtinties are helpful, as are instiutions and universities looking to partner and interested in the various research opportunities opened by this data.

To make mapping paratransit sustianable innovative business models are required. Ideating such models and learning from expriences of others is thus very helpful.


Mapping is a very technology intensive process. It involves a lot of open source software, some of which is missing some obvious features. Contributing to, supporting and networking with existing developer communities around further enhancing these software tools is thus a necessity as well. A lot of transit planning tools are badly suited for informal systems such as ours, and more geared towards operators rathern than observers such as us. Localising such tools for usage in local context is a challenge to tackle.

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Two things

@Hegazy, well done. I would just like to point you at 2 possible opportunities:

  1. Funding

After LOTE5 a few of us are setting up a Culture Team actively inventoring funding opportunities for cultural projects (understood broadly): urban int’l residencies, community services for migrants, building new technologies to bring cultural transformations etc. @Natalia_Skoczylas has begun to list a number of sources and could take you guys into account for future applications.

  1. Tech

Some resources from past discussions on ER e.g transit simulators examples.

@Hegazy, I found something you might want to read;)

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Illegal taxi’s hacking public transport in Dushanbe

Although far modest in scale, the similar trend can be observed in Dushanbe, where illegal taxi’s have duplicated public transport routes (e.g. bus route No 8) and now you can find taxi’s with the assigned route number (No 8) which serves several people (3-4) going the same direction, by providing faster service than buses and several times cheaper service that ordinary taxes. This system has been successfully filling the gap of public transport services for the past 7 years, despite frequent crackdown by police on illegal taxi drivers.


But are taxis really competing with buses? Or is it the case that the bus service is perceived as insufficient? What is the damage for buses of the taxis operating? It’s a real question, not a rhetorical one, @Khatuna !

Where I am going with this: illegality can result from incorrect framing. Something can be both forbidden and beneficial, maybe because things have changed since the time when the regulation was made. In some cases it can be possible to correct for this, legalizing what people want to do and does no harm to anyone.

Good question, Alberto!

I don’t think taxis are competing with busses, but rather filling the gap - it is faster and cheaper compared to regular taxes. And yes, this is the case when they do not have ‘registration’, but beneficial both to driver and people they serve. From where I stand it seems legalizing would be the way to go for this