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Last Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006, 02:45 GMT
Taxi revolution on Cairo streets
By Neil Heathcote
Editor, BBC Middle East Business Report

Hani Elwi, taxi driver
Taxi driver Elwi believes the new taxis will appeal only to the rich
Hani Elwi is a Cairo cabbie. So was his father, and so was his grandfather.

In a year's time he'll have paid off the instalments on his 1979 Peugeot, and will finally own his dream car.

It's taken him a long time to get this far, charging his passengers around 15 US cents (9 pence) for every kilometre driven.

"It's very hard to make a buck," says Elwi.

"This car is worth nearly $8,000, which is a lot of money for me, but it's a very nice car and I'm very happy with it."

Hazardous work

Driving in Cairo's congested traffic is not a job for the faint-hearted.

City cab in Cairo
Drivers of the yellow cabs must speak English

There are 50,000 taxis on the streets of the capital.

Many are over 30 years old and are visibly dented from multiple collisions.

For passengers, flagging down a cab can be a journey into the unknown.

You have to haggle over the fare, trust the vehicle is roadworthy, and maybe share with a couple of strangers to keep costs down.

But now, there is about to be an alternative.

Decent transportation

Cairo's local government wants to see the capital's taxis modernised.

Cairo cab
Black cabs are much cheaper than the yellow ones

And in Egypt's new business-friendly climate, it has called on the private sector to help.

It has licensed several companies to launch new fleets of yellow New York-style cabs.

They will be modern, air-conditioned, and have working meters.

They will have in-car radio so you can order them by phone.

All the facilities, in short, that European or American commuters have long enjoyed.

Dr Abdul Kader Ismail, who is looking after the project at the municipality, lists a whole string of benefits to the Capital Taxi project.

"Firstly, of course," he says, "it'll make the taxi cabs look nicer.

"Secondly it'll provide job opportunities for our young unemployed.

"We also want to encourage tourism, and provide decent transportation for the middle classes."

Women drivers

Drivers in the yellow cabs will be required to speak English, a boon to visitors and travelling business people, as well as providing jobs for graduates who cannot find work.

"Definitely, in comparison to the current taxi system, you will feel a difference," says Instant Rentals director Khalid Al Alamy, who has won one of the contracts to run 500 new "City cab" taxis.

"You'll feel that you are getting a service that is comparable to anywhere else in the world."

But the changes may turn out to be far reaching.

"We'll certainly be looking - just as a political statement and as part of our corporate culture - at employing women drivers," adds Mr Alamy.

"We're hoping that a third of our workforce will be women."

Expensive fares

With the new service, safety will be a much higher priority.

Women will be able to call for a cab in the knowledge that the drivers have been vetted and that they will not end up sharing with strangers.

But there is a catch.

Under rates set by the municipality, the new cabs will cost more than the old ones: around 50 cents flagfall and 17 cents a kilometre after that.

Instant Rentals director Khalid Al Alamy
Instant Rentals director Khalid Al Alamy wants women drivers

The black cab drivers are reassured.

"They look good, but they're probably for rich people only," says Hani Elwi about his newer rivals.

I get all sorts of people riding with me. They give me one pound or two pounds.

"You tell me, a cab that costs 100,000, they're going to look for a one pound fare?"

Raising standards

And the municipality is only licensing a couple of thousand yellow cabs to drive the streets.

It knows that there's no other jobs for the black cab drivers.

"We won't be seeing a radical change except on a very minute level," says Mr Alamy.

"Hopefully, it'll be felt by the public in Egypt, but I don't think, when it comes to the number of taxis we're talking about, that it'll solve the transportation problems in Cairo."

He hopes that competition will raise standards across the board.

But whether passengers opt for the cheaper cabs or the more comfortable ride, at the end of the day, there'll be even more cars on the roads.

And whatever your choice, it will not get you through the city's gridlocked traffic any faster.

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