Even though Manhattan and Cairo do not seem like model cities because they are densely populated, noisy, and polluted with many cars and buses, they in fact, have all the factors that would make them the most eco-friendly cities in the world.
When it takes you an hour to get from place to place with a car not because of the distance but because of the traffic congestion, when you must perfect your maneuvering skills to get around herds of pedestrians and side-by-side high apartment buildings, when you see minimal amounts of greenery yet you know you’re in a beautiful city – that’s when you might think of Manhattan, while I would think of Cairo, the largest capital city in the Middle East. Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is among the densest cities in the world and is currently at the peak of compact urban living. It is probable that the majority of Americans think of New York City as David Owen describes it in his essay Green Manhattan “an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams,” but surprisingly he continues to say, “it [New York City] is actually a model of environmental responsibility.” Considering that compactness is the secret to New York City’s environmental benignity, then why isn’t Cairo, a city just as compact located half way across the world, close to being as environmentally friendly?
To my surprise, a utopian green environment isn’t necessarily one that is full of trees, open space, and nature but more importantly one that is full of high side-by-side apartment buildings, more compact, and bustling with people. According to Owen, apartment buildings are the most energy-efficient residential structures in the world because they have much less exposed exterior surface per square foot of interior space than smaller buildings do. “This means that their small roofs absorb less heat from the sun during cooling season and radiate less heat from inside during heating season. Unlike in apartment buildings where the heat released from one apartment benefits the apartment above it, in houses, the heat has no where to go but the open air which in turn adds pollution to the environment.” Even though some people think that a growing population density like Cairo’s 31,727/km2 and Manhattan’s 26,939/km2, can be a burden to the environment, it is in fact an advantage because it leaves little room to be wasteful with space, and forces most people to live in apartment buildings.
Driving people to live in apartment buildings isn’t the only benefit of compact cities. According to Jane Jacobs, a brilliant urban thinker, “the resulting crush of architecture is humanizing because it brings the city’s commercial and cultural offerings closer together, thereby increasing their accessibility.” When a city can depend less on cars because of its compactness and instead more on walking, biking, and public transportation, it will realize major pollution decrease because of a cut on the amounts of gasoline used. Compact cities will allow people to use the least energy-intensive patterns of activity, which would in turn lead to an overall healthier and more vibrant environment.
In David Owen’s essay titled Green Manhattan, he successfully proves Manhattan to be, by the most significant measures, the greenest community in the United States and one of the greenest cities in the world. Why then isn’t Cairo anywhere near the top of that list?
Even though Manhattan and Cairo do not seem like model cities because they are densely populated, noisy, and polluted with many cars and buses, they in fact, have all the factors that would make them the most eco-friendly cities in the world. In David Owen’s essay titled Green Manhattan, he successfully proves Manhattan to be, by the most significant measures, the greenest community in the United States and one of the greenest cities in the world. Why then isn’t Cairo anywhere near the top of that list?
The bustling city of Manhattan with a population of about 1,601,948 is classified as an “environmental utopia.” Manhattan is living proof that “any place that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an environmental disaster – except that it isn’t,” stated by John Haltzlaw, a transportation consultant. The fundamental secret to Manhattan’s greenness, or amount of positive impact on the environment, is its extensive use of public transportation and more specifically its incredible subway system. The shifting of people out of cars and more into public transit is an apparent way to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, in turn reducing the overall pollution of the city. According to Michael Carrigy, “New York City’s subway is the largest subway system in the world by track mileage and it also has the greatest number of stations reaching now up to 147 stations. Seventy two percent of New Yorkers use public transport while only 18% end up driving to work.”
Subways are definitely more energy-efficient than cars especially when they have to stop often due to traffic and end up simply wasting gas. In assessing if subways are eco-friendly, Elizabeth Seward reports that “the energy expenditure for the NYC subway is 3492 British Thermal Units (BTU) per passenger mile meanwhile it is around 3702 BTU per passenger mile for automobile travel so no matter how much energy is utilized by the construction and repairing of the subway, driving a car still and always will be a greater burden on the environment.” Furthermore, the subway caters to millions of people each day, while cars only cater to a few.
According to Jeffrey Zupan, an economist with the Regional Planning Association, “in all cities, once you get above a certain density two things happen: first, you get less travel by mechanical means, meaning more people walk or bike, and second you get a decrease in the trips by auto and increase in the trips by transit.” Zupan’s argument should follow for all compact cities; while it works very well for Manhattan, how about Cairo? Is it the exception?
Cairo has a rapidly growing population that has currently reached 9,120,350. As the population continuously expands, the amount of automobile ownership has been increasing as well reaching an estimate of 114 cars per 1,000 people. According to a UN report, “Cairo has one of the lowest provisions of road space per capita and dramatic growth in the number of private vehicles.” Having too many cars causes not only unbearable traffic, but even worse, excessive air pollution, which is a major environmental concern in Cairo. According to the Report, “Cairo's volatile aromatic hydrocarbon levels are higher than many other similar cities. Air quality measurements in Cairo have also been recording dangerous levels of lead, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and suspended particulate matter concentrations due to decades of unregulated vehicle emissions, urban industrial operations, and chaff and trash burning.” The problem here is not only because of the large number of cars, but more specifically because many of the cars are over ten years old and therefore lack modern emission cutting features like catalytic converters. The traffic in Cairo is quite horrendous and it has become a serious challenge for a traveler to get from one point to another. Not only is time wasted due to traffic, but also fuel burns faster when the car is immobile, therefore also increasing the air pollution. Describing “Compact Living in a Developing City: Cairo, Egypt”, Doug Booth reports that despite this outburst in automobile traffic, the average Egyptian cannot afford a private car, and that is where taxis, minibuses, and overcrowded municipal buses come into play supplying at least 50% of inner city transportation.”
Despite the many similarities between the traffic in Cairo and Manhattan, the New York subway system, unlike Cairo’s metro system, has been able to greatly cut down on the city’s pollution. What makes New York’s subway system so much more effective than its counterpart in Cairo? Cairo’s metro system is a recent addition to transportation as it was only completed in 1987, while New York’s subway system has been operating since 1904. As New Yorkers grow up, they are accustomed to take the subway from place to place, as it has become part of their culture. In Cairo, there are many people, including myself, who have never ridden the subway and only very recently discovered its existence.
The metro system would be an ideal way to escape Cairo’s traffic - avoid wasting so much time, save money, and more importantly cut down on the city’s pollution. Why then is it not a primary source of transportation? Cairo has only 57 subway stations compared to New York’s 468 stations that are distributed all over the city. Cairo’s metro system consists of only three lines, the fourth in progress, in comparison to New York’s metro system that consists of 24 different lines. “Because of this Cairo’s metro provides access to less than a third of the city and accounts for only a bit more than a sixth of all trips within the city,” says Booth. Moreover, the few, existing subway stations in Cairo are mainly located in the poorer areas of the city therefore only targeting the lower income segment of the population.
“In all cities, once you get above a certain density two things happen: first, you get less travel by mechanical means, meaning more people walk or bike, and second you get a decrease in the trips by auto and increase in the trips by transit.” This argument should follow for all compact cities; while it works very well for Manhattan, how about Cairo? Is it the exception?
One can compare Manhattan and Cairo on a closer note by analyzing different statistics concerning the cost of living in Cairo versus that of New York City. A one-way local transport subway ticket in Cairo costs 0.25$ while in New York it costs 2.25$. The price of a taxi start is 0.42$ in Cairo versus 2.50$ in New York City. One liter of gas costs 0.30$ in Cairo while the same liter costs 1.05$ in New York City.4 If one evaluates these costs, he/she can assume that because subways are very cheap in Cairo they are used only by the lower classes, simultaneously because the price of gas and taxi fares are less expensive in Cairo than New York City, more people can afford to travel by car rather than by subway. This can be a false assumption because we must take into consideration the median monthly salary of an Egyptian compared to that of a New Yorker, the former making only about 250$ per month, while the latter makes about 3000$ per month.4 With this in mind, we realize that the percentage of monthly income that an Egyptian would spend on public transportation would be higher than that of a New Yorker.
If price isn’t the main factor restraining the travelers in Cairo from using the subway, then other factors must come into play. Cairo’s metro system must not only become more accessible, but also more socially encouraging. I, personally, have never ridden the metro in Cairo yet I always ride the one in New York. Riding the subway in New York is part of the culture, yet in Cairo my friends and family never mention using the metro. This is partly due to the fact that all of us use cars regularly now, some of us even have drivers, and that the social classes in Egypt are very obvious and divided. In addition, it is a common issue in Egypt for less-conservative women to get verbally harassed, so my parents would not allow me to travel by subway to help avoid unnecessary remarks. To reduce the probability of harassment, the Egyptian government has separate train cars reserved only for women.
By understanding what makes New York’s subway system so successful, one can propose possible changes to Cairo’s metro system that will enhance its services and encourage more people to use it regularly. The metro system in Cairo must expand by adding more lines and more stations so it can be more accessible thereby reducing traffic congestion. Subway stations must be added in more middle and upper class neighborhoods to attract the various social groups. If the subway fare was to be raised then the government could afford maintaining a cleaner and safer atmosphere throughout the subway stations. In turn, more women and people of higher classes would shift from commuting by minibus, taxi, and private cars to riding the metro and therefore significantly decrease air pollution and carbon emissions.
The Egyptian government might not currently have enough funding to enhance its subway system despite the foreign funds it receives from the European Union and the French Development Agency. However, investing in the subway system will encourage economic prosperity for the country, as it will provide a large number of construction and commercial job opportunities. Construction wouldn’t just be limited to the underground railing but would expand to construction of the actual subway station and surrounding area. Commercially, subway stations will become ideal locations for many food vendors and small boutiques as they are guaranteed a large number of consumers. And as Booth says, enlarging and enhancing Cairo’s metro system is definitely a huge but worthwhile investment because in the long-term it will “improve Cairo’s environment, expand employment, and support a compact form of urban life.”
Once Cairo improves its subway system, it must still find ways to encourage travelers to get into the habit of using the subway and decrease the journeys made by cars. The Egyptian government, like most governments, tends to respond to traffic congestion by building new roads and highways, but that simply exacerbates the problem. By adding highways, travelers will find it easier to spread farther away from the urban center. Cairo has already opened up many housing complexes and commercial developments farther out into the desert attracting a significant portion of the Egyptian population. As people and businesses start finding it easy to move out of the city, Cairo will lose its compactness, which is they key factor to having a successful subway system. Also David Owen makes a clever point that, “unclogging roads and increasing highways will make driving seem more attractive and encourage more people to drive,” which is the exact opposite of what we want.
Despite the many similarities between the traffic in Cairo and Manhattan, the New York subway system, unlike Cairo’s metro system, has been able to greatly cut down on the city’s pollution.
The United Nations report indicates that the Egyptian government is using the wrong approach in solving its traffic-related pollution issue. “Government actions have only exacerbated this situation by spending on bridges and flyovers, and heavily subsidizing fuel, all of which promote the use of private automobiles.” This way we are moving backwards rather than forward because promoting the use of cars will result in heavier traffic and greater air pollution. A better strategy to reduce the number of automobiles and sustain the city’s compactness would be to eliminate existing traffic lanes and parking spaces gradually, thereby forcing drivers to use less environmentally damaging alternatives like the subway, walking, and biking. According to a Reuters report, since 2008 Egypt will no longer renew licenses of taxis older than 20 years, which may be the majority on the clogged, polluted streets of Cairo. This can definitely be a good start because older model taxis are blamed for Cairo's crash-inducing summer smog and traffic congestion because they break down so often. The government must also stop subsidizing gas and instead use this money towards enhancing the city’s metro stations.
The Egyptian population does not seem to be as concerned about “greenerizing” their environment as much as the American population. The Egyptian curriculum in public schools does not emphasize the importance of living in an eco-friendly environment or what it even means to be eco-friendly. As the president of the National Honor Society in a private American school in Egypt, I initiated a Go-Green campaign to inform the students about the importance of something as simple as segregating trash and reasons why we should start doing it. The project was not very successful because the students were never really exposed to this way of life, so it was hard for them to adapt and start implementing it. This is similar to how the Egyptian environmental culture as a whole compares to that of the United States.
Also looking at it from a financial perspective, the Egyptian government does not spend enough on improving its environmental aspects because according to Egypt’s former Minister of Finance, Youssef Boutros Ghali, “we have more pressing problems.” Samir Mowafi, general manager of Egypt's Regional Center for Environment Protection, is trying to persuade his fellow citizens that they must start believing in the importance of improving the environment even if the long-term benefits are intangible.
Many changes are taking place now in post-revolution Egypt and hopefully a major one will be the mindset of the citizens on preserving the environment. Growing up in Cairo, I have always been exposed to excessive amounts of air pollution that I figured our environment was a hopeless case. After reading Owen’s essay on Green Manhattan, in which he defines Manhattan as a “green utopia”, I realized that Cairo has parallel characteristics that can make it an eco-friendly city just like Manhattan. With a new perspective, I now believe that Cairo can definitely become an environmentally prosperous city in the near future.