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Egypt's tuk-tuk drivers wary of plans for green streets

A three-wheeled tuk-tuk drives through the streets of eastern Cairo

A three-wheeled tuk-tuk drives through the streets of eastern Cairo on January 4, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna Farouk

What’s the context?

As Egypt launches an ambitious greening of its transport ahead of COP27, Cairo’s tuk-tuk drivers fear they’ll lose out

By Menna A. Farouk

CAIRO - Ahmed Samir zips expertly through the Cairo traffic in his tuk-tuk, making a meagre living by ferrying Egyptians around the chaotic mega-city in his three-wheeled people carrier.

But Samir's daily routine of beeping, swerving and cursing Cairo's congestion could all come to a crashing halt under an ambitious government plan to turn Cairo's streets more green.

Ahead of hosting a COP27 climate conference this year, the government has announced its intention to begin eliminating all fuel-powered tuk-tuks in the years ahead and make other forms of public transport more environmentally-friendly.

Drivers fear that saving the planet will come at their cost.

"I do not have any other job and tuk-tuks here are the only commute for many people," said 21-year-old Samir, who earns 150 Egyptian pounds ($10) a day after eight years as a tuk-tuk taxi.

In November, Egypt's finance ministry said it would ban imports of spare tuk-tuk parts - a first step to push millions of drivers to use minivans that instead run on natural gas.

But tuk-tuk taxis worry they might fail the tests needed to drive such licensed vans or fail to raise the funds to meet the upfront van cost - despite the soft government loans on offer.

Nor is the old, labyrinthine city designed for modern vans.

"This means loss of jobs for many of us and no alternative commute for people here. How can a minivan get into these narrow alleys?" said Samir.

Another driver, 54-year-old Hisham Ali, feared he would lose all his livelihood if the plan goes ahead.

"How would someone like me afford buying a minivan that would cost no less than 100,00 Egyptian pounds? That does not make any sense," Ali said.

Hisham Ali, 54, drives his tuk-tuk in an eastern Cairo neighbourhood

Hisham Ali, 54, drives his tuk-tuk in an eastern Cairo neighbourhood on January 4, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna Farouk

Hisham Ali, 54, drives his tuk-tuk in an eastern Cairo neighbourhood on January 4, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna Farouk

Overhaul

Tuk-tuks first hit the streets of Egypt about 16 years ago, totalling some 6 million by 2015, according to the latest figures from consulting company N Gage Consulting.

No laws restrict their operations and most go unregistered.

In 2017, there were just 125,275 licensed tuk-tuks across Egypt, of which only four were in Cairo, according to the country's official statistics agency.

The open-framed cars are an efficient, cheap way to navigate Cairo's maze of streets and bypass its notorious traffic, but frequent accidents have also provoked calls for a ban.

Replacing them is just one part of a wider programme to update Egypt's transport system, jettisoning its slew of private cars and gas-guzzling buses for new, greener options.

Given the scale and ambition of such a makeover, the government does not expect the tuk-tuks to go until 2027. 

The entire transport overhaul is due to last until 2030. 

The government wants to encourage a trade-in of up to 250,000 vehicles older than 20 years for new, natural gas-powered cars to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. 

Authorities plan to target microbuses, taxis, and even private cars with subsidies of up to 1.2 billion pounds.

This transformation is due to run until 2030. 

To afford the new cars, Egyptians will be offered loans with interest rates of 3%, paid down over a period up to a decade.

The second subsidised phase includes converting gas-powered cars to natural gas or dual-fuel vehicles.

As for tuk-tuks, authorities would collect the rickshaws, appraise them, and provide new minivans to licensed drivers at subsidised prices and cheap loans, said Ahmed Abdel Razek, a spokesperson for the government initiative.

"Wide facilitations would be provided to tuk-tuk drivers given their economic status," he added.

Inclusive processes

Yomna El Hamaki, a professor of economics at Ain Shams University, said more research was needed to make the plan work.

"Before taking the decision, relevant parties like the drivers themselves and all those working in the industry should be included," she said.

A three-wheeled tuk-tuk drives through the streets of eastern Cairo

A three-wheeled tuk-tuk drives through the streets of eastern Cairo on January 4, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna Farouk

A three-wheeled tuk-tuk drives through the streets of eastern Cairo on January 4, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Menna Farouk

"The government should also take into account that tuk-tuks provide a means of transport for residents of informal settlements. And finally it should conduct a study of the decision's impact on workers and business owners involved in importing, assembling, manufacturing and maintenance operations," Hamaki added.

Mohamed Ibrahim could not agree more strongly.

No tuk-tuks means no tuk-tuk repairs – which would seriously affect business at his mechanics shop.

"The government should have studied who is losing from this decision and compensate for them," he said.

Commuters, too, are worried by the plan's fallout.

Civil servant Nagwa Sayed takes a tuk-tuk every day and could not afford upgrading to a 20-pound taxi ride.

"I only pay 5 Egyptian pounds. If it weren't for the tuk-tuk, I would have paid a lot of money monthly that I cannot afford or resort to walking all this distance."

Just transitions

The dilemma shows the struggles governments face as they green their economies - and try not to leave people behind.

Hassan Aboelnga, a researcher in climate change and sustainable development at the Technical University of Cologne, said tuk-tuks spew out black carbon as well as carbon dioxide.

A ban "is a sound decision when it comes to Egypt's plan to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions, but it will have a negative social impact on all those involved," he said.

Aboelnga instead suggested the government keep the existing tuk-tuks and subsidise new ones that are powered by natural gas or renewable energy, mirroring the swap India made in 1998.

"The decision to replace tuk-tuks has to come with a policy and incentives," Aboelnga said.

($1 = 15.6600 Egyptian pounds)


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