The Crazy Transportation of Cairo

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Discover Discomfort - Crazy Transport of Cairo - Metro

Transport in Cairo is crazy. We realised this the moment we got into the cab to our first home. It flew like a bat out of hell, weaving around cars and motorcycles at 100km/h for no reason.

There are too many cars in Cairo. They’re double parked in most of the city (here’s our neighbourhood guide if you’re looking for somewhere quieter). Everywhere but downtown, there are very few traffic signals. No crosswalks. And nobody wears helmets.

Despite these ridiculous obstacles, people regularly traverse the city every day without driving, cross 10-lane highways on foot and survive most of the time.

Yes, you can get a cab, or an Uber (or Careem) incredibly easily. You can ride across town for $5 with the apps or with your negotiating skills. But then you don’t get to see how ordinary people travel.

Transport is just one of those things we had to figure out in Cairo, not before. That’s why we made this guide. See also our Things nobody told us about living in Cairo.

Here’s a beginner’s guide to alternative transport in Cairo.

The Metro

Discover Discomfort - Crazy Transport of Cairo - Metro
What the Metro looks like on a Friday morning when everyone else is being pious. Or sleeping in.

The metro is our favourite transport. Yes, there’s nothing “crazy” about the metro. Except in Cairo. Where it’s crazy crowded full of men, crazy hot (especially in summer) and crazy cheap.

The metro carries you across the vast majority of Cairo, leaving you at most a 10 minute cab ride from your final destination. And it costs a paltry 2-5 LE for a ride — less than a quarter dollar at most.

It’s fast, clean as metros go (are metros anywhere ever clean? No I’m not talking to you, Europe) and reliable.

If you’re travelling solo as a woman and are concerned about inappropriate contact in crowds (or even looks when it’s not crowded), every metro has two ladies-only cars. If you’re alone in the mixed cars you should stand guard. But we’ve been pleased to see men always giving up seats so women can sit, or if all the men have is a wall to lean against, even granting them that. By “always” I mean we have seen this in every single ride we’ve taken.

The hardest thing about the Metro is you do have to do your own trip planning. Google Maps hasn’t figured it out yet. And for some reason, Egypt hasn’t figured out automatic ticketing (I mean, roughly a quarter of the time the turnstile ticket readers are broken and someone is manually waving people through anyway) so you have to know how to order your tickets.

It’s easy to use, though. Go to the booth, attempt to pronounce the name of the destination, understand the number they say and hand them the money (or just give a fiver). Try not to be annoyed by people not waiting in line and pushing ahead. You’re probably holding everyone up anyway!

The Microbus

Discover Discomfort - Crazy Transport of Cairo - Microbus
A microbus, with someone getting on.

The Microbus is crazy. It’s the product of ingenuity, an infinitely variable supply-demand economy with no rules, inefficient bus systems, and entrepreneurial van owners. Together, the van owners have created their own minibus system which is totally unregulated but which has been informally allowed to become a critical part of Cairo’s infrastructure on which people depend for daily transportation. They’re cheap (1-2 LE) and they get you to your destination faster than almost anything else.

If you see minibuses and minivans darting in and out of gaps like motorcycles, blaring their horns in a non-stop assault on everything on the road in a frenzied rush to get somewhere first, then you’ve seen a microbus.

If you see people climbing on or off small buses while they’re still moving, or a guy hanging out the side of a van yelling things (destinations), with maybe music blaring and way too many people inside, then you’ve seen a microbus.

Riding a microbus takes practise. It’s hard to get the right one, as you have to master certain hand signals and codes to be able to discern which to get (e.g. a fist takes us to our neighbourhood, Dokki). It’s hard to sit in the right place, judging where isn’t too close to the front (so you’re in everyone’s way) and where isn’t too deep (so everyone is in yours). And it’s hard to get off: knowing what to yell and when, and diving off in the ten seconds you have to make it happen.

The lucky thing is that people on microbuses are nice. They help you. They’ll stop the bus for you. If you’re a woman, they’ll try to make space for you so you aren’t being touched and feel safe. In many cases, experienced foreigners prefer microbuses to taxis because they’re always in a small crowd. Not one-to-one like a taxi, and not lost among a mass of people like in the metro.

It can take a few goes to figure out the microbus and you might get hilariously lost so don’t do this for fun. Just know they exist!

Tuk Tuks

Discover Discomfort - Crazy Transport of Cairo - Tuk Tuk
Hooning around in a three wheeler.

You don’t see these in every part of the city. Where you do, they’re just like they are in most parts of the world: unregulated, unregistered vehicles that aren’t safe for public roads, but which will take you places (or even on whole tours) for prices determined through bartering.

Because they’re another critical part of the transport system, there have been various moves to legalise it since 2016. It’s coming closer, but hasn’t happened yet.

Uber Motorcycle

Discover Discomfort - Motorcycle Uber - No Helmets

Finally, a way to ride as a passenger on an underpowered death trap guaranteed to save you a few minutes!

Even just an hour before watching this, Jo and I watched a car hit a motorcycle with two people on it, side swiping them and crushing their legs. A man and a woman. No helmets. They didn’t hit their heads (lucky), but his leg was in bad shape.

There’s an acronym nerdy motorcyclists like me use: ATGATT. All The Gear, All The Time. Well, most of the time. But the helmet? Indispensable. It’s so easy to hit your head and die. Nobody here seems to care.

So if you’re thinking of your last vacation to Thailand and wondering if the rider will have a little bucket helmet for you like they did there, stop wondering. He doesn’t have one for himself.

We like to take risks, but everyone has their own threshold. I want to live another day to ride my own, much faster motorcycles, on roads that are way more beautiful than a busy street in Cairo.

Still, if you must (or if you have your own helmet), this is a cheap and fast way to get around at 10-20 LE or $0.50-1.00 per ride. And it’s pretty cool that Uber adapted to the local market.

The Crazy Transportation of Cairo

But remember, around 0.5-1% of the population dies every year in traffic accidents. Is your number up?

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