The traffic jam in the image to the left would be frustrating for most, causing those behind the wheel to be late for meetings, cancel appointments or miss the school bell. But what if the driver is a fire fighter or paramedic on the way to an emergency call? There is no doubting the fact that Cairo’s traffic problems are in drastic need of reform, however with political tensions on the incline, it must be queried whether the congestion issues faced by the city’s emergency services are a question of urban design or social instability.
Last week, journalist Steven Viney penned an article for the English edition of Almasry Alyoum suggesting that the instigating factors behind this growing problem are a medley of ‘decades of disrespect from the government and investors toward essential urban growth mechanisms’ and ‘Egyptian drivers being hesitant to move out of the way due to a widespread believe that emergency drivers abuse their sirens to navigate the city, with or without emergency’.
Over the last few days we have seen just how serious the results of poor urban planning in Cairo can be as a protest against a recent attack on a Christian church in Aswan province escalated into rioting, protesters clashing violently with security forces in the capital. At least twenty four people have lost their lives and more than two hundred people have suffered injuries sustained during the riots, arriving at Cairo's Coptic Hospital cradled by fellow protesters or family members and wrapped in makeshift bandages.
This scene of patients being delivered to the Accident and Emergency room by family or friends via private transport or literally carried down the streets is not uncommon, even without the complications of mass rioting. With 15 million of Egypt’s 83 million inhabitants residing in Cairo’s greater metropolitan area (GMA), population density has risen to 32,000 individuals per square kilometre in the city centre and 2,361 in the GMA [May 2011] and little has been done to alter the city’s road networks to compensate for this immense human density.
A steady incline in the capital’s population coupled with mounting political instability and a seeming lack of attention from the government towards an inadequate road system is making it increasingly difficult for emergency services to reach their required destination in time. “Many deaths occur because we are unable to reach emergency sites in time. Being obstructed has become a routine part of the job” explains Ali Abdallah, a fireman in the wealthy Maadi suburb of Cairo.
Paramedics are also under strain from narrow streets and congestion problems, as ‘Ahmed’ at Qasr al-Aini Hospital explained to Steven Viney last week: “Just yesterday [Sunday] we had an old man in critical condition [heart attack] pass away after being jammed for over an hour in traffic.” Cairo’s infinite system of streets was designed some five decades ago for an estimated population of 650,000 cars; the number of vehicles on the city’s roads has now risen to over 2.5 million and yet little is being done to alter this outdated road structure.
Hopeful architectural schemes are raised every so often which offer promise of a brighter future for Cairo’s road users (and emergency services) including the Ramses Square competition won in 2009 by The Egyptian Architectural Bureau and the French Architectural Bureau which presented an achievable solution to the square’s traffic congestion issues, Zaha Hadid Architects’ Cairo Expo City concept which includes ‘a central “river” and extending “tributaries” explored to define circulation and the nature of clustered buildings’ and Callison’s park-like masterplan for Sorouh City.
Whatever the solution, time is running out. For emergency services to be prevented from reaching those in need because of poor urban planning is simply unacceptable in the twenty-first century, and as the world’s population approaches an astonishing figure of 7 billion this month, it is time for Cairo to turn its attention to the modernisation of its urban development with an eco focus. But if Viney is right and the problems are deeply rooted in society’s attitude towards the emergency services, it may take more than a widening of roads to re-route the issue.