| I don't drive in Egypt. I don't own a car, nor do I have any intention of getting one. I take the Metro where I can, taxis where I must, but mostly I prefer to walk. I am a pedestrian... and I am just as much a menace to road safety as speeding microbuses and plodding donkeycarts.Egypt Today is in the second month of our “Save A Life” campaign, with the next installment of Contributing Editor Farida Helmy's series on road safety in Egypt hitting newsstands now. She's been talking to the experts and activists on the myriad problems facing the nation in a quest to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.From my view of the road, pedestrians like me are a large part of the problem.
I jaywalk across multiple lanes of traffic, holding up my hand in a “wait” gesture as if it were a magic wand that will protect me from getting hit. And like my friends, neighbors and strangers, I walk in the street like I own the pavement. I am one small part of the moving obstacle course that kills and injures thousands of people in Egypt every year.
I did not come here with the intention of being a traffic hazard. I was raised to cross streets at corners, preferably at crosswalks. I was taught to look both ways before crossing and respect the cars' right of way. And the idea of not using a sidewalk never occurred to me; that's what they're there for, right?
Not in Cairo. We often joke that the sidewalk, when it does exist, is where you park cars and plant trees. I once told a visitor as we were walking in the street that sidewalks exist for the same reason as lane markings: to employ people who build sidewalks and paint lines on the street. Horrified at the thought, she jumped up on the sidewalk and bumped into a car parked there. True story.
But I tried to be a good pedestrian. When I first arrived in Cairo — after a heart-stopping ride from the airport that showed me how people drive in this city — you couldn't get me off the sidewalk. I skirted around trees and cars, and hiked across uneven pavements that would cripple a mountain goat.
It certainly crippled me. After twisting my ankles and falling several times, I gave up and started walking in the street. Sure, I have to navigate through double-parked cars, but at least the road is more or less even and unobstructed.
My walks home from work take me past posh villas and densely populated middle-class apartment blocks, and it seems that regardless of the economic status of the neighborhood, the height, quality and even existence of a sidewalk depends entirely on the whim of the building owner.
Some buildings have turned their sidewalk space into enclosed gardens. Others spruce up the entrance with half-wall planters that entirely block the sidewalk. I see sidewalks that are literally one square tile wide — about 40 centimeters. My favorite is the split-level sidewalk: Some of the little shops near my building have sunken entrances, with tiled steps to accommodate a 35-centimeter change in altitude on either side of the doorway.
If there are building codes mandating public walking space, no one is paying attention — not the enforcers and certainly not the builders. It's more than enough to drive the able-bodied into the street. Imagine trying to maneuver sidewalks with a baby stroller, a wheelchair or a pair of crutches.
But you can't completely blame the builders. Give pedestrians a clear, level sidewalk wide enough to hold an Humvee, and many of us still choose to walk on the street. I see it — and do it — every day.
Maybe part of it is the adrenalin rush that comes with flirting with 1,000 kilograms of motorized metal, but practically speaking, I seek the path that lets me make forward progress without breaking my stride or my ankle. More often than not, that's the street. But when the street is so clogged with cars, mopeds, bicycles and other pedestrians, I move over and go 'offroading' on the sidewalk.
People also stay out of traffic in those rare instances when a city manages to put a properly designed sidewalk next to a properly paved road with a constant flow of traffic. The corniches in Cairo and Alexandria come to mind, and in Luxor, the sidewalk along the Nile's east bank is almost as wide as the road in some places.
It's the pedestrian's unwritten rule of the road: If cars don't park there, we shouldn't walk there. Clearly, we have a stronger sense of self-preservation than our behavior suggests.
The solution is simple but not easy or cheap, and it will be painful. Give us sidewalks. Revamp construction codes regulating public walking space — and enforce them. That means building owners have to give up their gardens and entrance decorations and, more important, provide proper parking areas for the residents' cars.
And please, make sidewalks a little more friendly to the disabled and able-bodied alike. Even the best maintained sidewalks in Cairo drop off 40 centimeters at the curbs and driveways.
Once we have our proper sidewalks and other pedestrian necessities, fine us when we don't use them. Oh, we'll whine at first, but I suspect the idea will catch on. To truly change the public mindset, though, we'll ultimately need a good media and education campaign to explain why after all these years walking in the street is 'suddenly' so dangerous.
Ultimately, traffic safety is not just a government problem. Every one of us has to stop acting like we're the only one on the road who matters.