Cairo's classic cabs get snubbed

The city's exhaust-spewing fleet has long been a pillar of its charm. Now, the government is introducing new yellow taxis.

For many visitors to Cairo, their most memorable experience is not their visit to the Giza pyramids or even the Egyptian Museum's Tutankhamen exhibit. It's the city's taxis.

To engage one of these exhaust-spewing cars, you bellow your destination as it careens by. If it stops, you jump in, soon finding yourself bumping along in a rickety, grime-encrusted 1970s vehicle, often lacking rearview mirrors and door handles.

At the end of the ride, the 30-year-old meter is still frozen at 10 cents per kilometer. So the driver determines the fare based on your nationality, fluency in Arabic, and insider knowledge. Arguments are not uncommon.

But this tradition - so much a part of any visitor's experience in this city of pharaonic antiquities and largely ignored traffic lights - may become a thing of the past.

Earlier this year, the Egyptian government launched a fleet of spanking-new yellow taxis complete with air conditioning, credit-card-friendly meters (that work), phones, seat belts, spotless vinyl seating, rear- and side-view mirrors, windows that close, doors that open, and drivers in suits and ties who don't smoke, blast the radio, or yell.

The government hopes that these cars (and drivers) will be more welcoming for the country's citizens and tourists alike.

"We want taxis with a more civilized appearance, to offer our citizens and tourists more comfort," says Gen. Mahmoud Yassin Ibrahim, Cairo's vice governor.

Until the new taxis were introduced, Cairo offered three main public transport options besides the black-and-white cabs with their busted taillights: sardine-stuffed buses, death-defying minibuses, and a surprisingly clean and efficient metro, complete with women-only cars to protect female passengers from jeering males.

In addition to adding an appealing alternative to the mix, the new taxis could also help alleviate the pervasive pollution of desert dust, factory fumes, and car exhaust in this growing megalopolis of 16 million, since the government is considering fueling the vehicles with natural gas.

Plans to gradually replace Cairo's 70,000 black-and-white cabs have been in the pipeline for a while, but it wasn't until Egypt's reform-minded Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif took office in 2004 that implementation began in earnest. The government chose three private companies to operate the 150 new Volkswagen Paratis and Hyundai Elantras - a fleet it plans to increase 10-fold by the end of the year.

Customers pay 60 cents for the first kilometer in the new taxis, and then 17 cents for each additional kilometer. And rather than yelling their destination as these cabs speed past, customers can call for service or go to any of the city's 36 taxi stations.

I went down to Tahrir Square - one of Cairo's loudest, most crowded, and hottest centers - on a recent afternoon to see how this service was catching on.

At the new taxi station there, three glistening yellow cabs stood neatly in line, contrasting starkly with the noisy, dusty haze of jockeying cars, trucks, motor scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Watching a young Egyptian man and woman wait in the suffocating sun for 30 minutes as streams of black-and-white taxis pass them, I can't help but ask why.

"I prefer to wait than take a regular taxi," replies Mohamed Ossama, an engineering student at a nearby university. "They're much more relaxing."

Finally my curiosity - and the heat - get the best of me and I decide to head home in one of these new-fangled cabs. I do so reluctantly. Yes, Cairo's black-and-white taxis are smelly and grimy. Yes, the drivers are abrupt, rude, and money-grubbing.

But these cabs are so much a part of this crazy city that I hate to see them go - especially since I long ago mastered the art of hailing these relics and haggling over the fare.

I take the plunge, though, and settle into the yellow cab, civilly mentioning my destination. The well-groomed driver in a blue suit and tie closes his window and starts the air conditioning.

Instantly I'm transported from Cairo's horn-blasting, traffic-jammed streets, away from the heat, the crowds, the dust and dirt, to this cool oasis of smooth black vinyl, seat belts that quickly snap into place, and a meter that clicks away as methodically and efficiently as a grandfather clock. We glide over the Nile on the Kasr El Nil bridge, sail into the island of Zamalek, and come to a gentle stop at my apartment.

I pay the 6.50 Egyptian pounds ($1.12) shown on the meter - 25 cents more than a regular taxi. There's no Cairo charm, no insider knowledge necessary, nothing that separates me, a 17-year Cairo resident, from the tousled, backpack-lugging budget travelers. But, I decide, as the air conditioner hums away - who cares?

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