The Ultimate Authoritarian Anti-Urbanism

Cairo is a dense megacity, without the infrastructure such cities require for high living standards. The city proper, according to Wikipedia, has 10 million people, living at a density approaching 20,000 per km^2, and the metro area has 20 million. With a subway system fit for a city a tenth its size, Cairo is heavily motorized for its income level, congested, and polluted. Despite high construction costs, urgent investment in public transportation is required. Ignoring this need, the current military government has just announced plans to build a new capital outside the city, eventually to house 7 million people, with all the public monuments of a planned city, at a cost of $300 billion (exchange rate dollars, not PPP), about the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. The first phase alone will be $45 billion.

Cairo itself is already suffering from neglect and disinvestment. There are 2 million cars in the city. This is enough to cause so much traffic congestion it costs Egypt 4% of its GDP. Cairo’s air pollution is legendary: pollution levels are akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. At least as of 1997, lead pollution caused by cars using leaded gasoline reduced Cairene children’s IQ by 4 points. The poor transportation options have led to a housing crunch, forcing half a million people to live in a historic necropolis as squatters.

The Cairo Metro would be a solution to these problems to a large extent, but is very small relative to Cairo’s size: it has 3 lines, totaling 78 route-km. Other cities of comparable size have many hundreds of route-km of urban rail, with a handful of exceptions infamous for their sprawl (such as Los Angeles) or pollution (such as Sao Paulo). Despite its small size, the Cairo Metro gets about 1.6 billion passengers per year, by far the highest number of passengers per route-km in the world, nearly twice as high as on the legendarily overcrowded Tokyo subway. Cairo has high construction costs, but in exchange rate dollars they only amount to about $130 million per km; a fully underground expansion of the subway to 400 km, somewhat more than the length of New York’s subway lines and less than that of Beijing and Shanghai’s, would cost about $40 billion, less than the cost of the new capital’s first phase alone. This is on top of all other possible infrastructure investments Egypt should consider: sanitation, sewage, water treatment, electrification, hospitals, schools, the Suez Canal. I bring up the Metro since so many of Cairo’s pressing problems would be substantially reduced if it had the capacity to transport a large share of the city’s population.

The problem is that the Egyptian government’s first priority is not to serve the needs of the Egyptian population. It is an authoritarian military government; it is not accountable to the broad public. I bring this up, because it’s a necessary check on things I have said in the past, attacking local American governance as authoritarian. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have the power to overrule useful spending bills and cause traffic jams in cities run by political opponents. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the power to jail political opponents without trial, and execute them by the hundreds after show trials.

Autocrats love planned cities, for two reasons. First, planned cities are monuments to their greatness, lasting long into the future. The people the autocrats trample will be forgotten. Tourists visit the Taj Mahal, and not museums commemorating the churches and temples Shah Jahan destroyed. They visit the Great Wall of China, and not any commemoration of the million-odd people who died in its construction. They visit the Old City of Jerusalem, while nobody commemorates any of the locals Herod taxed to build its monuments – even Judaism only commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, generations later. Autocrats know this. Even in antiquity, they knew monuments would make them more famous. And even in modern democratic regimes, politicians like signature initiatives that have their names on them; going back to Andrew Cuomo, his proposed Queens convention center is a typical example. But Cuomo still faces some democratic checks and balances. Sisi does not.

And second, planned cities can be built in ways that enhance social control. City Metric compares the new planned capital with Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, built in the era of military rule to replace Yangon. Purpose-built capitals can be (and are) built around the needs of the national elite, keeping the poor out of sight. They have street and building design plans that make it easy to bring in the military to quell riots: wide streets, buildings that do not touch, no central square where protests could happen. They also disallow squatters, without going through the difficult and controversial move of evicting squatters from the preexisting city. One rhetorical question I have seen on Twitter is, where will this city’s Tahrir be? An article on Cairobserver doesn’t make this exact argument, but does note that this plan disinvests in what will still remain Egypt’s largest city, and could only come about as a result of Egypt’s complete lack of democracy.

One of the bigger influences on my views of democracy is Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer’s paper from 1993, Princes and Merchants. I do not fully agree with the point they make, but one of the key components of it, on the spending priorities of an absolute ruler, is crucial to understanding the benefits of democracy. Per DeLong and Shleifer, absolutism chokes economic growth, since the absolute ruler will overtax the economy to maximize revenue. One may ask if actually, hereditary rulers would want to stimulate more economic growth in order to bequeath a stronger kingdom to their heirs. DeLong and Shleifer answer that no: even with clear rules of inheritance, succession wars are so common that kings have to constantly be on the guard against rebellion to make sure their heirs get to inherit anything.

For Sisi, it is perfectly rational to spend so much money building a capital city that would make an uprising against him less likely. The money is not going to come from his pocket, but from the pockets of people he need not care about too much – the Egyptian people. The personal benefits to Sisi are invaluable: Sisi’s two predecessors, Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, were both overthrown and immediately charged with crimes, for which they were guilty (under Sisi’s influence, Mubarak was exonerated from most). Why not remove himself and the apparatus of the Egyptian state from the city where they were overthrown?

When I talk of infrastructure democracy in democratic first-world countries, I complain about (much) smaller versions of this exercise. One could reason with a democratic Egyptian government that there are better uses of the money in Cairo itself. One cannot reason this way with a military government. The same is true of the soft authoritarianism found in governments with a democratic deficit, from the European Commission to local American governments. Their power is ultimately limited by other layers of government, which are more transparent, and they are incapable of killing off political opponents, but they still do not have to listen to the people they impact, leading to decisions that are at times obviously ridiculous. Egypt’s new capital is this autocracy, taken to its logical end. A dictator, of the kind who the infrastructurists might praise as someone who can cut through the red tape and gets things done, is spending the country’s annual GDP on a plan to disinvest in the capital and build a monument to himself and his regime from scratch.


  1. Patrice

    Would be interesting to see a comparison of those cities which have “over-invested” in public transport? I’m guessing tha some of the Scandinavian cities would be near the top along with Switzerland/Austria and maybe Montreal, which I believe built a full metro despite an insufficient population. These are the places in my personal experience where good transport nixes the need for a car and at the same time it’s easy to find a seat in almost all cases.

    • Alon Levy

      In Stockholm, it’s usually easy to find a seat on a subway train, but then there’s rush hour, with a tidal wave of students riding the Red Line to KTH to get to class. Overall, ridership per route-km here is on a par with the London Underground, about 3 million annual passengers per route-km (vs. 10 in Tokyo and 20 in Cairo). Vienna, which is another small city with enormous subway ridership, clocks in at 5.4. Lausanne, which is the only city in Switzerland with a subway segregated from the mainline network, is also at 3. I don’t have cost per rider figures on hand for subway expansions in those cities, but I have numbers in France, and they’re all quite low, usually short of $10,000 per rider. A city of 2 million with good urban planning can support a highly-patronized subway: Prague has 10 million riders per km, and the per capita rail ridership appears to be the highest in Europe. Even a city of 1 million can support a reasonable urban rail network, though at this size subways are very rare and light rail is more common.

      The really low ridership/km figures are mainly in American cities, which have large, suburban-focused transit system. Washington’s average is 1.1. Suburban transit does worse than urban transit: in Paris, the Metro averages 7.1 million passengers per route-km, but the RER A, which is busier than any Metro line, only averages 2.8; and in Berlin, the U-Bahn averages 3.3 and the S-Bahn 1.2. Since BART, the Washington Metro, and MARTA are all suburban-focused, they have low ridership. But the Chicago L is also pretty low – too many spokes, apparently. I think Chicago might be the only city that really overinvested. The others malinvested, and failed to follow through by building too many park-and-rides and not enough urban lines and TOD.

      • Eric

        Chicago’s extra spokes are in the crime-ridden, depopulating south and west. The North Side needs more subways, not less.

          • al

            Perhaps, but there is no sustained political and social will. Those neighborhoods need everything from recidivism reduction, to conflict mediation, to jobs, to better schools, to getting adults up their game and catch kids at risk of falling through the cracks.

          • Eric

            Nope. A subway line costs a few billion dollars. Fixing the social problems of several million people probably costs much more.

      • threestationsquare

        Italy has some subways in small cities that might count as overinvestment. The short metro lines in Brescia and Catania each get around 1.1M annual riders per route-km, though as Italy usually has very low construction costs they might still be decent in cost-per-rider terms.

      • Sascha Claus

        Lausanne’s metros are a very steep rubber-tired line (a former rack railway) that’s comparable to a funicular and which is carrying the high average (FR/DE); and a light rail line with quite a few level crossings (FR/DE). Probably not the best comparison to a subway/metro.

        And in Prague, part of the “good urban planning” might be a lack of high-capacity roads from the communist era.

        • ComradeFrana

          “lack of high-capacity roads from the communist era.”

          That’s not quite correct. The communist-built housing estates have ubiquitous four lane stroads, usually going through rather than around them. There were also several plans for a system of urban highways requiring demolitions of large swathes of old 19th century districts (prime example being Žižkov). Thankfully, most of this plan didn’t come to pass. I say mostly, because there is the so-called “Severojižní magistrála”, which is a 6 lane north-south stroad/highway/traffic sewer largely parallel to the busiest metro line C, and built mostly at the same time. It’s carrying about 100 000 vehicles per day, divides the city, lowers the value of every building next to it and literally poisons people around because it consistently manages to exceed the imission health limits.

          Check out the “beauty” for yourself:

          tl;dr the roads could “lack” a little bit more

  2. electricangel

    A different take, to be sure, but a worthwhile article. Thanks for writing it; it made me think.

    • Alon Levy

      Not really the same. Three reasons:

      1. Rome had no economic existence – it was purely an extractive imperial capital.
      2. Byzantium preexisted as a city, with a strategic location.
      3. The move from Rome to Byzantium came about because of the decline of the western parts of the Empire, and reflected the economic shift toward the east.

      • Yoav

        1. I don’t understand you. All goverments aare extractive – it is called taxes.
        2. True.
        3. Mostly because it was closer to the frontiers, but also to get away from Rome, and its politics.

        • Alon Levy

          1. Not really the same. Modern democracies have very high tax rates, but have politically weak states – the politicians can easily be replaced in elections, and usually are. Government spending is also subject to media scrutiny, so it’s hard to engage in massive corruption (Martin Kolk, who comments here sometimes, tells me that until recently, senior Social Democratic politicians in Sweden would live in 70 m^2 apartments). It’s nothing like the Roman Empire, which taxed the provinces into starvation and crucified any village where people complained too much. Rome itself produced nothing, which contrasts with a lot of modern capitals, which are also economic centers.

          3. Not really. Later on the Western Empire moved the capital around, for example to Milan, in order to be closer to the frontier, but the move to Byzantium was deliberately a consolidation around the Greek-speaking East.

  3. orulz

    I suspect either your numbers for Cairo are doubled somehow – or else the wikipedia page on the subject underestimates Cairo by a factor of 2.

    Wikipedia has Cairo at about 10.3 million yearly riders per route km.

    For comparison, on Wikipedia, Tokyo as approximately 10.6 million. This is combining Eidan/Metro + Toei. When you take Metro by itself, it comes in at about 12.1. This ignores JR which also performs a metro-like role in some areas, but then you have to draw a line between suburban and urban service which is difficult.

    For further comparison, Sao Paulo actually tops the charts among systems >50 km, at 11.8 million. Also according to Wikipedia, other cities in the same ballpark in terms of ridership per route km are Prague (9.9), Guangzhou (9.5) and Hong Kong (9.15). Then there is a gap through the 8’s where you find only a few smaller systems, followed by Kiev (7.9), Seoul (7.8), Moscow (7.6), Mexico City (7.4), and Paris Metro (7.1).

    • Alon Levy

      Wikipedia’s numbers are a few years out of date. If you follow the link I provided, you’ll see the very large increase in Cairo Metro ridership in the last few years.

      • orulz

        You’re right, and what confuses me even further is that the ridership numbers for Cairo are from 2010 (prior to Line 3) while the route km is from 2014 (including the first two phases of Line 3).

        • Alon Levy

          They clearly include projections; it’s unclear to me what year the numbers are current to – I assumed it was current to 2013/4, but it could just be the coloring in the graphic.

  4. Pingback: Metro Systems by Ridership Per Kilometer | Pedestrian Observations
  5. Danny

    oh, yeah, artificial capitals in the desert worked out SO well for Akhenaten! but more recently Central American countries in the 19th century typically fought over the capitals, each party tied to one of the contenders, shifting the capital back and forth: Comayagua vs. Tegucigalpa for Honduras and León vs. Granada for Nicaragua: the latter split the difference and settled on Managua after kicking out the filibuster trying to annex it to a proto-Confederacy, while Tegucigalpa won in 1880 (closer to the mines); ironically Managua’s doing better, while Teguz is as congested as you’d expect from a city built by a merchant-comprador class! it’s very intriguing to bring geography into politics as well as using it for more plain-vanilla transit

  6. Nathanael

    Military governments generally fall to military coups. Occasionally to foreign invasions.

    The thing to watch is whether Sisi actually has the support of the military class. It’s fairly easy to lose that support if you’re an incompetent jackass. And then your custom-built city doesn’t help you at all.

    Remember how the Carnation Revolution happened in Portugal.

    • Alon Levy

      Do they? The Assad clan lasted for decades without a challenge. So did Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, and the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak succession.

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