Zahma in Cairo: The Social Cost of Traffic Jams

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By Rayya Haider

From The Wharton School

With as many as 7000 vehicles traversing a single lane per hour, Greater Cairo has earned notoriety among both tourists and its own citizens for its traffic congestion. Cars sprawl across the city, causing blockages in nearly every corridor and square, with the most iconic being Al-Tahrir Square. Traffic jams have become such a significant part of life in Cairo that they even have a household term, "zahma," which means crowdedness in colloquial Arabic.

19 February 2020, By Author Wex Major 98, Licensed by Commons

What factors contribute to traffic congestion in Cairo?

Historical and current factors contribute to this ongoing issue. Informal urban development, which has proliferated since the mid-20th century, forces drivers to navigate sharp corners, U-turns, and a severe lack of traffic lights, stop signs, crossroads, and parking spaces (El-Kadi 2013). Another factor is the disproportionate number of cars and minibusses compared to public transportation in the city. With only 1,500 standard buses and 70 kilometers of metro lines, Cairo has a significantly low public transportation to population ratio compared to similar cities. Additionally, the popularity of private vehicles has soared due to cheap fuel and operational costs. Lastly, Cairo's lack of traffic governance is a major factor. Traffic laws are not only scarce but are also poorly enforced, with traffic officers often turning a blind eye to violations in exchange for bribes.

What are the costs of traffic congestion?

Traffic jams have numerous negative impacts on Cairenes. Visible costs account for up to 4% of the country’s GDP (compared to New York’s losses of about 0.07% of the United States GDP) (World Bank 2014). The time wasted by Cairenes on the streets accounts for 50% of the total cost. Other economic costs, comprising 30%, include loss of productivity, fuel wastage (from vehicles remaining stationary), and wear and tear of vehicle parts.

The remaining costs affect the environment and public safety. Carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions from outdated fuel and engine systems contribute to a quarter of particulate matter in the city’s atmosphere (Abbass et al. 2020). This air pollution poses a significant risk factor for medical issues such as cardiovascular disease and premature death. Another threat to public safety is the number of road fatalities caused by traffic congestion. Cairo ranks fifth globally in the number of deaths per million vehicles. To put it into perspective, about 700 pedestrians die every year just by crossing the street (Shawkat 2020).

The invisible costs of traffic congestion

Many organizations, like the World Bank, fail to account for the invisible costs of traffic jams in Cairo. Citizens and even visitors are inevitably harmed by the overcrowding and noise pollution that traffic congestion exasperates.

Tabishat (2000) found spatial pressure as one of the significant drivers of hypertension in the five patients he studied throughout his fieldwork in Cairo. The city has been overcrowded for almost a century due to its informal nature, but the surplus number of vehicles today makes the spatial pressure unbearable for many. Even one of his taxi drivers described the congested streets in front of him as “setting his blood on fire.”

Similarly, traffic congestion rose the existing sound cacophony of the city to harmful levels. The volume of car horns and microbus drivers causes noise levels in most areas to exceed acceptable levels stated in Environmental Law 4/1994 (G 2016). This causes the short-term effects of higher blood pressure, sleep disturbance, speech intelligibility (difficult hearing) and tachycardia (the increased secretion of stress hormones). Yet chronic exposure to such noise levels may lead more detrimental health effects such as cardiovascular disease and hearing loss (G 2016; Sivakumaran et al. 2022).

What does the future hold for Cairo?

Economists, public health experts, and policymakers are not turning a blind eye to Cairo’s worsening traffic jams and their effects. Attention has been drawn to potential solutions, or at least reductions, to this problem. The city's informal development is irreversible, akin to urban sprawl in the United States. However, many have called for increased traffic regulations in Cairo over the years to reduce congestion and improve safety. These include implementing more traffic lights, increasing policing, eliminating U-turns, and even imposing tolls for driving or parking (The World Bank 2014, Sims 2010). One proposed solution that is believed to be more effective is the establishment of more (and better) public transportation.

Yet, solutions like these come at a cost. Egypt has recently faced several economic challenges, including extreme currency depreciation, higher inflation, growing deficits, and threats to the tourism industry due to regional conflicts (Lewis and Werr 2023). Thus, the country is preoccupied with other reforms for development, such as improving the private sector and trade to create more jobs and better living standards (World Bank 2023). The World Bank recently launched initiatives for Egyptian development, and a few of them seem to offset some of the general effects of traffic congestion. For example, the Greater Cairo Air Pollution Management and Climate Change Project aims to reduce greenhouse gases and climate emissions. One of their key components is reducing emissions from public transportation, yet not private vehicles, which seem to be the real drivers of carbon emissions in Cairo. Therefore, there have not been any projects that truly aim to directly combat traffic congestion and its effects.

There is still hope, nonetheless. The World Bank and other major entities like The American University in Cairo are increasingly raising awareness of the effects of congestion and recommending practical solutions. It will be a slow and steady process, but future changes may be expected in the bustling city of Cairo.


Abbass, Rana Alaa, et al. “Car Users Exposure to Particulate Matter and Gaseous Air Pollutants in Megacity Cairo.” Sustainable Cities and Society, vol. 56, May 2020, p. 102090,

Fahmy, Ziad. Street Sounds: Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt. Redwood City, Stanford University Press, 25 Aug. 2020.

G, El Samra. “COMMUNITY NOISE in GREATER CAIRO.” Egyptian Journal of Occupational Medicine, vol. 40, no. 2, 1 July 2016, pp. 267–285,

Lewis, Aidan, and Patrick Werr. “How Deep Are Egypt’s Economic Troubles?” Reuters, 8 Dec. 2023,

Refat, Mostafa, and Yara Eissa. “Cairo, a Possible Aural Comfort: Factors Affecting the Cairene Perception of Soundscape.” Invisible Places Sounding Cities - Sound, Urbanism and Sense of Place, 22 Dec. 2014, pp. 60–81.

Shawkat, Yahya. “Cairo’s New Roads: An Assault on Pedestrians and Mass Transit.” Alternative Policy Solutions, 2 July 2020,

Sims, David. Understanding Cairo : The Logic of a City out of Control. Cairo, The American University In Cairo Press, 2011.

Tabishat, Mohammed. “Al-Daght: Pressures of Modern Life in Cairo.” Transcript Verlag EBooks, 31 Dec. 2000, pp. 203–230, Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

The World Bank. “The World Bank in Egypt | Overview.” Worldbank, 23 Oct. 2023,

The World Bank Group. “Cairo Traffic Congestion Study- Executive Note.” World Bank, 2014,

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Zahma in Cairo: The Social Cost of Traffic Jams
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