transport woes

Solutions from Citizens

A major regional conference in Cairo highlighted how citizen-led initiatives can make a real difference when it comes to the way our cities deal with transportation challenges.

In October, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the American University in Cairo hosted a regional meet-up in the Egyptian capital on public transport.

Unlike other conferences on this topic, however, this one did not include a line-up of speakers from government agencies boasting about their grand transportation infrastructure schemes, such as metro and BRT systems. Rather, the conference focused on citizen-led initiatives tackling urban transport issues, specifically in Amman, Beirut, and Cairo.

I, along with others from Amman, had the pleasure of participating on behalf of Ma’an Nasel, the citizen-led advocacy group co-founded by the Taqaddam Platform and Tahawul in 2014. Ma’an Nasel is the initiative behind Khutoutna, the first bus map and trip-planning app for Amman.

Other participating initiatives include the Beirut Bus Map Project and Transport for Cairo (TfC), citizen-led groups that have sprung up in both cities to map the formal and informal public transport networks.

Each of the three groups has its own approach and has taken on a different trajectory. Ma’an Nasel has already released its map and mobile app and even held a hackathon to take the app to the next level. The Beirut team is at an earlier stage and is working towards building a community that can gradually create the map. The approach of the Cairo group, on the other hand, is more technology and data driven—something which is perhaps necessary in the scale within which the group is operating. In fact, the TfC team has been working closely with the MIT-supported Digital Matatus project, a collaborative mapping effort in Nairobi, Kenya. Representatives from the Kenya project also participated in the conference in Cairo.

Despite their unique stories, there are common lessons to be learned from initiatives like Ma’an Nasel, the Beirut Bus Map Project, and Transport for Cairo, as well as Digital Matatus.

Today’s world offers a variety of new tools in dealing with our cities’ transportation and mobility challenges. In order to improve conditions on the ground and create more balanced systems and more effective public transport, we need not necessarily look at cities with established public transport services and attempt to replicate their experiences. Technology and data have proven effective in improving the user experience and bringing out some sort of order in the apparent chaos. They, along with a variety of innovative solutions, can help our transportation systems leapfrog into a better position, rather than follow what cities in the so-called “developed world” had done decades ago.

As I mentioned in an earlier column on big data, governments must embrace this shift by adopting an open data policy and engaging the tech community and citizen-led groups in developing smart solutions.

This is not to say, of course, that governments no longer have a role to play. Our cities are still in dire need of improved public transport infrastructure and sustainable subsidies, and governments are the only players that can effectively provide (or at least facilitate the provision of) these elements. By following a more collaborative approach, though, work from the ground up can take place in parallel. Perhaps the Beirut group put it best when describing the underlying philosophy behind their work: “Change can’t wait for perfect solutions.”

* Hazem Zureiqat is a transport consultant at Engicon, a multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm based in Amman, and a founding member of Ma’an Nasel, a citizen-led public transport advocacy group. He can be reached at hazem@hazem.com or on Twitter at @hazem.