With bikes a viable alternative to public transportation, can Egypt’s streets nurture a cycling culture?
CAIRO - Fatima Maher’s commute to the educational centre where she works as an art teacher costs her $0.55 a day on a microbus – the fare hiked up from $0.38 following an increase in fuel prices in Egypt. So Maher decided to invest in a bicycle to get around the jump in prices.
Although Maher paid a hefty $142 for her bicycle, she says it was money well spent.
"I enjoy cycling,” Maher says, “and thanks to my bicycle I managed to save a lot of money I would’ve spent on transportation.”
Fatima Maher, a teacher, says she enjoys cycling to work (MEE/Geziry)
Although Maher complains that she faces a lot of harassment, she is still adamant about using her bicycle.
'Thanks to my bicycle I managed to save a lot of money I would’ve spent on transportation'
- Fatima Maher, teacher
“But then again, I face harassment on whichever means of transportation I use or when I walk down the street,” she says.
“I believe women should do what they are passionate about and not pay attention to others' opinions,” she adds.
Young men take a short break after cycling in Cairo (MEE/Geziry)
An increase in fuel prices and a subsequent hike in public transportation fares has driven commuters in Egypt to explore alternatives that would otherwise save money.
'Riding my bike every morning makes me very happy'
- Minas Younan, interior designer
In June, fuel prices in Egypt rose by up to 50 percent to help meet the terms of a $12bn IMF loan deal. With the Egyptian pound falling sharply to the dollar after Egypt decided to float its currency in November, Egyptians found themselves struggling with soaring living expenses.
Minas Younan cycles 35 kilometres to work everyday (MEE/Geziry)
Minas Younan works as an interior designer in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City, a long commute from his home in the northern Shoubra district.
A microbus ride costs him $0.60 on a daily basis. In an effort to slash his expenses, Younan also switched to cycling.
Youth getting ready to take part in a cycling marathon in Cairo (MEE/Geziry)
With cycling around 35 kilometres every day, Younan says this investment was not only beneficial to his wallet, but to his physical and mental health as well. Switching to biking has also given them the chance to enjoy fresh air on a daily basis.
“Riding my bike every morning makes me very happy, and I am going to buy my son a bicycle as well to share this experience,” Younan says.
A bread delivery man (MEE/Geziry)
This means of transportation was commonly used by delivery men and bakers who are often seen balancing large trays of bread on their heads as they meander through traffic.
'I believe women should do what they are passionate about and not pay attention to others' opinions'
- Fatima Maher, teacher
But Ibrahim al-Iraqi, who owns Al-Agalaty bicycle shop in downtown Cairo, says that after the increase in fuel prices, bicycle sales went up by around 40 percent. He now sells about seven bicycles a week.
The open road
Others took up cycling as a hobby earlier on, embarking on long trips, sometimes exceeding hundreds of kilometres.
Ahmed al-Domyati prepares to cycle to Suez, around 112 km from Cairo (MEE/Geziry)
Ahmed al-Domyati, a 24-year-old who lives in Cairo, has been taking his bicycle on journeys in and outside of Cairo for two years.
Domyati cycles to the Red Sea town of Ain Sokhna as well as Upper Egypt. Now, he says he saves over $50 on his trips otherwise spent on transportation and hotels.
While a trip from Cairo to Ain Sokhna would take three hours by bus, Domyati covers that distance in only five hours on his bicycle.
A cycle repair shop (MEE/Geziry)
On the highway, speeding vehicles are Domyati’s biggest challenge.
“I cycle next to large trucks and it is difficult for their drivers to see me, and this of course puts me at risk,” he says.
On overnight trips, Domyati also finds it difficult to locate a spot to camp without fending off security officers who suggest he spend the night in a hotel instead.
In order to encourage other people to take on cycling, Domyati has been documenting his travels and giving tips in videos on YouTube.
Paving the way
While cycling came to be a viable option for many, cyclists find that congested cities such as Cairo and Giza have a long way to go to embrace a cycling culture.
Over the past few years, there have been numerous efforts in Egypt to encourage cycling. Marathons are usually organised during public holidays, giving cyclists the opportunity to make their way through the otherwise jammed streets of Egypt.
Gamal Mohamed distributes rental bikes in preparation for the cycling marathon in Cairo (MEE/Geziry)
Gamal Mohamed, co-founder of the ZBikers Facebook group, says he coordinates with one of the shops to rent bicycles to marathon participants for affordable prices.
In 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took a bicycle, along with hundreds of cyclists including public figures, on a rally through Cairo. In a bid to “build Egypt” and save the country money, Sisi wanted to lead by example and cycle through the streets of Cairo himself.
Ibrahim al-Iraqi, who owns Al-Agalaty bicycle shop in downtown Cairo, says that after the increase in fuel prices, bicycle sales went up by 40 percent (MEE/Geziry)
In July 2017, Egypt signed a protocol with the UN Human Settlement Programme to introduce a bicycle sharing system all over Cairo over the next three years.
For the first time in Cairo, a total of 300 bikes are set to be provided across the capital, whose locations will be determined to allow easy access to the metro and bus stations.
However, with many economic challenges facing the Egyptian government, fostering a cycling culture does not seem to be at the top of its agenda. The jammed streets of Egypt’s cities leave little room for bicycle lanes, in addition to the lax road safety regulations that should protect cyclists. Although some lanes have sprouted in different cities across the country, such as the northern government of Menufiya, Sheikh Zayed and Cairo’s Maadi neighbourhood.
Bicycles tied to a street pole due to lack of garages or parking spots designated for bicycles in Egypt (MEE/Geziry)
However, these lanes are usually taken over by vehicles or even used as parking spots. Cyclists also complain that there are no designated spots to chain their bikes.
A resident of the Sheikh Zayed suburb of Giza, Maher says that most of the streets in her area are equipped with bicycle lanes, but she laments that drivers do not respect these territories.
“I know that travelling by bike is hard and needs great effort,” Domyati says, “but it's fun and it's still worth it.”