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Africa's Only Subway System Soothes Cairo's Traffic Woes, Slightly

Traffic in Cairo is notorious. It can sometimes take hours to drive from one side of the massive city to the other. But the city is also home to Africa's only subway system, one that is surprisingly modern, clean and efficient, especially compared to the chaos on the streets.

Visitors to Cairo usually describe the traffic as "terrifying." The streets are packed with cars, and there seem to be no rules about how they should behave. There are white lines painted on the roads, but everyone ignores them. There are traffic lights on many corners, flashing from red to green, but nobody pays attention to them.

Veterinarian Sameh Abdel-Fatah describes navigating the streets of Cairo as a very bitter experience.

"There are no rules, just people and cars everywhere, and traffic, traffic, traffic," he says.

Cairo is a city of 18 million people. Despite the crush on the roads, most people do not have cars. The average Cairene gets around in mini-bus taxis, or buses that are so jam-packed at rush hour that people hang off the sides as they blunder through traffic.

And then there are the infamous black-and-white taxicabs. Most of those are battered, ancient Peugeots or Fiats, with aggressive drivers, dirty, uncomfortable seats and doors that can suddenly swing open as the car rounds a corner.

All of these four-wheeled vehicles battle for space on Cairo's crowded streets with mopeds, bicycles and, quite a few commuters of the four-legged variety.

It is quite a sight, watching a horse-drawn carriage or donkey cart merging across five lanes of traffic.

Add to that the legions of pedestrians weaving their way across the roads, dodging cars, and you get what one American tourist described as a giant game of Frogger - a computer game in which the player tries to get a frog across the road without being squashed.

But there is an alternative.

There is the Cairo Metro, the only working subway system on the African continent. Compared to the chaos on the streets, the Metro is like an oasis.

The first trains started running nearly 20 years ago, and the system has been gradually expanded. Today, the two subway lines carry 2.5 to three million people every day.

If those commuters were forced above ground, most people agree, it would bring the already overloaded roads to a standstill. As he walks out of a downtown subway station, a retired army officer says the Metro is his favorite way to get around.

"The Metro trains run every three minutes," he says. "That means if you have an appointment, you can be sure you're going to arrive on time." With a car, he says, there are no such guarantees.

Hospital secretary Sania Galal Ahmed holds tightly onto the hand of her giggly four-year-old daughter, and says she takes the subway to and from work every day.

"It's great.... You can ride the nine stops in 10 or 15 minutes," she says. "If you were traveling on the roads, it would take an hour."

At Ramses Station in the city center, a man shoves his shoulder between the train doors as they slam shut. He wedges them open just far enough to wriggle his way inside.

Like everything in Cairo, the subway can get very, very crowded. At peak travel times, the trains are so packed that standing passengers do not need to hold onto anything in order to stay upright as the train grinds to a halt. There is just no room to fall over.

Sania Ahmed, who covers her hair with a pretty white scarf, usually rides in one of the first two cars on the train. Those are set aside for women only.

"This is the best thing they have done in the Metro, allocating two compartments for women, especially for women like me, who are veiled, or who cover their faces," she says, "During rush hour, the trains are packed, mostly with men. It does not look very good to be stuck so close them."

The yellow tickets that people feed into the Metro turnstiles cost 75 piasters apiece, or about 13 cents, with heavy discounts for students and military veterans. The ticket price will soon go up to one Egyptian pound per trip, or 18 cents, but that is still a bargain, relative to the cost of a taxi.

"The cost cannot be compared. It is very cheap," Ahmed says. In a taxi, she says, her commute would cost five times as much. But 75 piasters, she says, that's nothing.

The subway may sound like the perfect solution for the beleaguered Cairo commuter, weary of battling traffic, but it is not for everyone, at least not yet. Even with 53 stations and 65 kilometers of track, the Metro still reaches only a fraction of this sprawling city. The government is planning to expand it, and work has already started on a third line, but that is not expected to open for at least four years.