The Sustainable Development Dilemma: Balancing the Short-Term and Long-Term Needs of a 21-Million Citizen Megacity

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By Mohamed Momtaz Hegazy

“Egypt is building a 45 billion USD New Administrative Capital (NAC) to house 6 million citizens to the east of Cairo!” “16 billion USD shall be invested in Transport projects in FY21-22, half of which in public transport, mostly in Cairo!” The pace of change in the 21 million citizen metropolis I call home is breath-taking. But how do these investments fare from a sustainability point-of-view?

The consultancy I work with works in data-poor environments all over Africa and specializes in collecting and analyzing data to assist policymakers take optimal decisions that are sound from a sustainability perspective. The leadership challenge of sustainable development presents an interesting dilemma to us.

As professionals, we partake in multiple public transport projects to push forward much needed investment while making sure that they pursue social and environmental objectives and maintain the financial viability required for their implementation. As scientists, we push for an equitable, zero-carbon development path. Every dollar spent today matters, and needs to be allocated to those ends.

The dilemma is of balancing short and long-term societal pressures, and doing so in a way in which both society and its stakeholders can thrive while pursuing the scientific imperative of decarbonisation. This is a challenge that is well-known to all city leaders.

The NAC, which first appeared in 2015 capturing international headlines, is now slowly materializing to Cairo’s East. During the month of Ramadan, Egyptian TV zoomed in on the new mega-mosque constructed in the heart of the city. Government entities will officially move to the new capital in June 2021, culminating a 40 year policy of suburbanization of desert land adjacent to the city of Cairo in the biggest satellite city of them all.

Al Fatah Al Aleem Mosque at New Administrative Capital, Cairo, Egypt
by The Arab Contractors/www.arabcont.com

Transportation in Cairo is undergoing equally massive changes and recovering from a decade long dearth in investments. Between 2000 and 2020, the city’s bus network barely expanded, while the metro network expanded by 13 km.

Between 2020 and 2025 the metro network will expand by 52 km, two new monorails with a combined length of 98km will enter into a service as well as a new Light Rail Transit system (90km’s) that will connect Cairo with its western suburbs. New mobility operators providing ride-hailing services are increasingly offering point-to-point app-based minibus services, providing a smart alternative to the ubiquitous informal transit network.

Traffic congestion decreased sharply over the past 2 years: On the one hand the COVID-19 pandemic reduced travel demand. On the other, the state invested in massive expansions of the road network: Cairo’s eastern suburbs are now serviced by an 18-lane highway. Residential neighborhoods saw the construction of dozens of flyovers and expansion of main urban arteries to be 10-lane streets.

The question is: How does this bode towards long-term Sustainability? The two major strategies for the decarbonization of transport are reducing travel demand – measured in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) – and moving to zero emission vehicles.

Current developments seem to be pursuing short-term goals of alleviating debilitating congestion, reducing acute air pollution and employing masses of workers in a New Deal like setting at the expense of the long-term social, environmental and economic sustainability imperative: Highways and street widening negate the existence of residential buildings within arm’s reach, transportation is the fastest growing polluter at an increasing rate and Egypt is building the most homes per capita worldwide despite already high vacancy rates.

Traffic Policeman helping a family cross a newly widened urban street within the residential
Heliopolis district. Picture by Mohamed HEGAZY

Travel demand is rising exponentially and will only continue doing so. That empty mosque in the NAC has a seven-story parking garage for 3000 cars and is too remote even from adjacent developments within the NAC to be accessed by foot. Trips to work, education, leisure but also activities that are thus becoming increasingly motorized and taking place over longer distances.

Electrification of transport is lagging in favor of a shift towards Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). This abundant fossil fuel is much cleaner than Egypt’s massively polluting Diesel fuel and then gasoline, saving 90% of harmful toxins such NOx but only 11% of GHG emissions. Half of the Cairo’s formal bus network will be converted to the new fuel, while microbus driver-owners and private cars are incentivized to do the switch.

Is the Egyptian society underestimating the long-term consequences of the current rapid pace of development and is falsely blinded by the fixing of acute pains, such as traffic congestion and the need for mass employment? I believe the best way out of this dilemma is a more informed understanding of the mechanisms we implement: New Cities? Wider Roads? New Public Transport routes? Technology and data help us model these mechanisms and build an overview of the required shift and the multitude of ways of getting there. Aligning the short-term with the long-term, the local with the global and optimizing our use of limited resources is the key to rise to the leadership challenge of sustainable development.

About the Author: Mohamed Momtaz Hegazy is the Founder and Director of Transport for Cairo (TfC), a data-science consultancy working on urban mobility issues in Africa. Avid cyclist, rower and reader.