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Checkerboard progress in Egypt.

Byline: Louis M. Wasser

Summary: As Cairo says goodbye to its unruly fleet of black-and-white taxis, opinions are divided. Some will miss their chaotic charm but many believe an overhaul is overdue, says Trends magazine.

It's a ride on the wild side. Arguing over fares, sitting in a seat that's not bolted to the floor, having door handles break off in your hands. These are just a few of the quirky discomforts that come with riding in one of Cairo's ubiquitous black-and-white taxis.

Although many of these vehicles are decades old and barely chugging along, the 'black-and-whites' are a mainstay of Cairo's streets - often boisterously decorated, with stereo systems blaring, and adorned with colorful inscriptions, both religious and inane.

But recently the black-and-whites have encountered a new competitor. Many drivers of older taxis are scrapping their vehicles and buying new white cabs. These new taxis - which actually have a black checkerboard pattern on their white bodies - are the result of a Ministry of Finance project that is helping to take some of the older black-and-white taxis off the streets of Greater Cairo. Often seen with the plastic still on the seats, these new white taxis stand in stark contrast to their decrepit black-and-white counterparts.

The taxi replacement initiative was inspired by a new traffic law passed in the summer of 2008 intended to bring order to Egypt's unruly streets. Among other aspects of the law - which includes everything from requiring first aid kits in cars to an increased penalty for failing to wear a seatbelt - is a regulation requiring that all taxis more than 20 years old be retired, albeit with the legislation stipulating a grace period.

When the new traffic law was passed in 2008, there were some 47,500 taxis 20 years or older in Greater Cairo, and every year around 2,000 more join their ranks, according to Mohamed Youssef, who manages the program and is an assistant deputy minister at the Finance Ministry.

"Without the program [an affected driver] would basically lose his source of income," Youssef says, noting that the driver would have to either stop operating a taxi, or sell his old vehicle and purchase a new one - an expensive proposition for the driver.

Under the terms of the replacement project, which is limited to Greater Cairo, drivers with taxis 20 years or older who scrap their vehicles get a 5,000 Egyptian pound ($910) incentive payment from the Ministry of Finance, and receive loans from one of three banks on a new vehicle.

Five manufacturers are providing vehicles, and monthly installments range between 940 and 1,755 Egyptian pounds (between $171 and $318). As an additional incentive, drivers are given the option of letting an advertising company put an ad on their car in return for a 550 pound ($100) monthly payment.

"There's a huge demand," Youssef says - and the numbers prove him right. By mid-December, 28,500 drivers had received loan approvals and more than 18,100 drivers had been allocated a car. Meanwhile, some 16,330 cars had been scrapped and more than 15,450 new licensed vehicles had been received by drivers - indicating a lag between turning in vehicles and getting new ones.

The older taxis being replaced are often in dilapidated condition, continuously breaking down and requiring repairs.

The chairman of the Public Works Department at Cairo's Ain Shams University, Ali Salem Heikal, says that the aspect of the 2008 legislation removing older taxis from the roads will be beneficial. "It will contribute, of course, to better traffic movements because bridges here are built assuming that traffic does not stop," he says. "But cars break down - private cars and taxis - so it will help, definitely."

And Cairo's roads can use all the help they can get. Drivers routinely flout safety regulations, and if traffic isn't moving chaotically and at seemingly suicidal speeds, it's often crawling or even stopped entirely.

Besides being cleaner and more mechanically sound than most black-and-whites on the road, the white taxis have an added bonus: functional meters. While black-and-white taxis technically have meters, they are a hodgepodge of different styles more suited for an art exhibition than an organized system - and their tariff systems are woefully out of date, ensuring that they are never used.

People pay fares according to unspoken agreements or negotiations, and arguments between passengers and drivers are common. The new white taxis have a uniform meter system, reducing the potential for disagreement.

"The new taxi [system] is sweet because it prevents problems between the client and the driver," says a 42-year-old driver, Khalifa Ahmed Khalifa. Some passengers, however, say that drivers sometimes tamper with their meters in order to increase the rate.

Although yellow cabs - which are owned by private companies and also have meters - have been around since 2006, they are not nearly as common a sight on Cairo's streets as the newer, individually owned, white taxis.

Proponents of the replacement program cite additional benefits regarding emissions, among other things. And the country's car manufacturers have benefited from the program as well.

"It happened at the right time," says the chairman and managing director of General Motors Egypt, Rajeev Chaba. "The global economic crisis hurt the Egyptian auto industry last year and the taxi replacement program helped generate production volumes for manufacturers during this rocky time," he says. GM Egypt sells the Chevrolet Lanos - the most popular model in the program.

Chaba says that the government negotiated low prices with manufacturers and also took other steps such as removing customs duties on imported components. For a number of reasons including the elimination of customs duties, he says a Lanos taxi bought through the program is around 25 percent less expensive than purchasing a Lanos retail.

Buying a new taxi will force drivers to pay more for fuel, however. Most of the older taxis burning gasoline use 80-octane fuel, and for the new cabs using gas, drivers will have to purchase higher-octane fuel. The government has been working to phase out energy subsidies, and in summer 2008 the price of gasoline was raised for almost all grades of fuel, except 80-octane, which remains cheap.

Chaba explains that new "taxis have to use the higher-quality fuel - which is less subsidized by the government - so the government actually ends up saving money because they don't have to lose the subsidy amount on this [80-octane] fuel."

While some drivers point to high gasoline costs, Youssef says that the program offers different options, including cars run on natural gas - which he says is even less expensive than 80-octane fuel.

The program still faces difficulties. In addition to the waiting list, there are insufficient arrangements for shredding the old cars - which have been stacking up. This month, there will be an auction to sell the taxis from the project, with the buyer having to recycle it.

- Trends magazine



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Date:Feb 21, 2010
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