Overheard on Public Transport

By Eman Zied, April 22, 2016

For the vast majority of Cairo’s 20 million inhabitants, the public transport system is the only way to get around the city. The Cairo Metro serves 4 million passengers a day, and buses and microbuses much more. In this series we explore the lived experience of public transport, moments of humanity in the midst of chaos.

Sheraton - Sadat

From: Sheraton main bus station
To: Talaat Harb

Transport Used: #137 Bus, Metro line 1

Time Taken: 90 minutes

Distance Travelled: ~ 20km

Cost: 4 LE (2 LE bus ticket, 2 LE for 2 metro tickets)

Going from Masaken Sheraton in Heliopolis to Talaat Harb is not usually an easy task. I don’t have a car, so public transport is often the only option for me when travelling long distances. I started my journey at the main bus station in Masaken Sheraton, near Sun City Mall. The bus I rode goes all the way to Tahrir but I decided against staying on the bus, since at rush hour it is often much easier to take the metro. At least, on the metro, you don’t have to deal with traffic!

I arrived at the bus station at around 3.45pm and ended up waiting about 10 minutes for the bus to fill up. This is odd, because in other countries, the buses care more about sticking to their schedules, rather than having a full bus. It seems like being on time is not as big of a priority for Cairo’s bus system, probably one of the reasons it is considered unreliable. You wait by the side of the road and hope a bus turns up.

We set off, picking up several other passengers along the way. Young men going to Heliopolis, older women stopping off at Ramses, everybody going about their business. I was getting off at Kobri El Qobba to ride the metro, the hot sunshine was making me sleepy, and the driver called out when we approached the station. This leg of the journey took about 45 minutes. It was 4.45pm. I was going to be late. Buses tend to move more slowly than cars and take the longest route possible, to ensure picking up the largest number of passengers. This bus went through the entirety of Heliopolis instead of taking the more convenient Salah Salem. This is good for sight-seeing, not so good for time-keeping.

Since I usually approach Kobri El Qobba from the other road, Gesr El Suez, rather from inside Heliopolis, I wasn’t sure which way to walk. A man approached me, asking if I needed help, I clearly looked lost and tired by this point. I told him that I wasn’t sure which way to walk. Luckily, he was going the same way so he pointed me in the right direction. We walked in silence for about 10 minutes, moving with the flow of people, with a small sense of camaraderie in the air.

The metro itself was fairly quiet, most people were travelling in the other direction, so I managed to find a seat pretty quickly in the women’s carriage. I closed my eyes for a moment, asking the woman next to me to tell me when we arrived at Sadat Station. True to her word, she did, tapping my arm when it was time to get off. Once off, I walked for 10 minutes and arrived at Talaat Harb. It was 5.30pm; I was late.

On my way home, I found the streets of downtown Cairo suspiciously empty of cars. I was truly exhausted by this point and considered taking an Uber home, but ultimately, decided against it. Walking quickly back to the station, I descended the stairs, walked through the oppressive tunnel and found the platform packed. They were testing the new metro trains.

One passed, then a second. On the other side I could see the platform filling and emptying, clearly they were testing them in one direction only. People were getting impatient, some going back up and leaving but the majority staying put. It was around 7.30 pm, after rush hour but still busy. It struck me as strange that the metro agency decided to test the new trains at a time where there were passengers, instead of in the middle of the night for example. Did they not realise that people wanted to actually ride the trains instead of watching closed off carriages whizz by? I was incredulous, and it was frustrating. I couldn’t get on the first two real trains that arrived from the ensuing crush of people, but I managed to get on the third.

It was packed to the brim. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with women, some of which had small children who were clearly unhappy with taking the metro, since they kept screaming. There was a group of teenage girls making a lot of noise, throwing each other around and taking selfies. A couple of them barrelled into me a few times, the rest sat on the floor or standing and holding onto the bar. I was exhausted at this point, so I decided to get off at Saray El Qobba and take an Uber.

The girls asked me to move closer to the door so they had more room, but I was already pressed against it. After a heated exchange involving me and another woman, where accusations of this being the first time we rode a metro being flung about, the other woman eventually got them to leave me alone. A complete stranger defended me, then walked down the station with me and told me where to cross. I was out, and on my way home.

Our lives meet at this point, in this moving carriage, a third space that’s neither an origin nor a destination, they meet and diverge. I will probably never see these people again but we shared something; every time you ride a bus, or a microbus, or the metro, it’s a shared experience. Seeing people and speaking with them, even if just for a moment, is a connection that cannot be made if we are all shut up in our cars. Yes, there are problems with using the transportation system, but that’s what they are, problems that need to be solved. The benefits, not worrying about traffic, not having to park your car, being healthier and more active, not having to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to own and operate a car, make a compelling case for using public transit. You never know, you might even make a new friend.