When bridges fail: Alexandria’s Mahmoudiya Axis leaves pedestrians in a bind
 
 

A new urban project, dubbed by the media as “the Axis of Hope,” has had a visible impact on several Alexandria districts. Formerly a canal paved with mountains of garbage, the path is now a neat, 21.1 kilometer-long, 16-lane, two-way highway. The water stream has been moved underground and flows through a set of wide pipes. But the project, carried out by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority and Alexandria University’s Engineering Center, has created major problems for pedestrians.

A quick walk in any of the residential neighborhoods along the length of the Mahmoudiya Axis – including Moharram Beik, Karmouz, Ragheb and Hadra al-Gedida — can give you a glimpse into how the project has affected residents’ lives. While the plans made for 25 smaller axes splintering off of the main road, designed as entryways for vehicles from neighborhoods that are farther away, there are only 14 footbridges. The pedestrian bridges, named after members of security or military personnel who died in service, are too high, the residents say. Even though they have become the only designated way to cross the Axis of Hope, senior citizens, people with disabilities, pregnant women and people suffering from certain health conditions find them difficult to use.

The footbridges are roughly three or four stories high, with 40-step staircases — making them non-wheelchair accessible. Kamal, a government clerk in his fifties, has a high school-age son who uses a wheelchair. Kamal told Mada Masr about his experience with one footbridge in their neighborhood of Moharram Beik. “I have three sons. One of them is disabled; he uses a wheelchair. He only ever goes out for school and for his regular medical checkups; he always has to be accompanied by his mother, his older brother or myself. Now, I have to carry him in his wheelchair up to the footbridge and down the other side. You can imagine the backbreaking labor involved every time my son goes out and we have to cross the road.”

“The Mahmoudiya Axis project has resolved the traffic issue for us,” says Kamal. “But it introduced new problems — which I still think are easy to address. This is what the media should be [talking about], rather than constantly touting it as a ‘transformative urban development.’ It’s a positive effort, no doubt. But people’s voices have to be heard. Personally, the only ‘development’ I feel is of having to carry my son every time we cross the road.”

People with disabilities are not the only ones affected. The towering, few-and-far-between pedestrian passages and U-turns have also posed a challenge to people with various health conditions. “I’ve been a teacher at a school in Hadra al-Gedida for 12 years,” says 58-year-old Ms. Rabab. “One upside to this job was how easy it was to get there and back, as the school is just across the way from where I live. Recently, after the axis was built, my commute came to involve climbing the stairs to a very tall footbridge. To me, it’s nothing but a nightmare. It’s equivalent to climbing four flights of stairs in a residential building. Even the one flight I have to climb up to my house is an arduous task because I have arthritis in my knee. How am I supposed to do this twice a day?”

When asked about potentially using a different means of transport, Ms. Rabab told Mada Masr: “No available means of transportation is affordable enough for me to do that. The only available options are: Taking a taxi, which would cost no less than LE15 per trip so I can’t take it every day; or taking a tuk tuk, but they aren’t allowed at some U-turns, and even if they are, a tuk tuk ride costs LE10. I can’t afford either of those on my salary.”

“To me, it’s nothing but a nightmare.”

Residents spoke up about this on Facebook. A group of them, including Kamal, submitted a petition to the local council and to members of Parliament. Haytham al-Hariri is one of the very few MPs who has been responsive to their calls.

“I receive complaints from angry residents about the height of the footbridges over the new Mahmoudiya Axis almost on a daily basis,” says Hariri, the representative for Karmouz, Moharram Beik and Mina al-Basal. “Overall, there is a sense of satisfaction with the new project as a highway that parallels the Corniche and Abu Qir Street and allows for smoother traffic flow. This is a very good thing. But the problem is that it cuts the [area] off from the heart of Alexandria. Most people who live along the Mahmoudiya Axis often need to cross from one side to the other. I climbed the stairs up to one of the footbridges myself and can confirm that they are in fact too high.”

“There are certain aspects of the new Mahmoudiya Axis that cannot be ignored,” says Hariri. “First, the footbridges are too far apart. Citizens who live midway between two footbridges have to walk a long way just to cross the road. One example of many is Ezbet al-Tiro in Moharram Beik. This area is densely populated. Most children who live there go to school in the adjacent area of Rusafa. The project layout placed the footbridge too far away from where they live, and so they find themselves having to navigate high-speed traffic on foot. This is why I petitioned the governor of Alexandria to set up a footbridge at Moharram Beik’s Ezbet al-Tiro to provide citizens, including school children, a safe path to cross the road without risking their lives.”

Karam is a young man who sells clothes out of a street stand. He has a respiratory condition that prevents him from exerting himself too much. “I live in Hagar al-Nawatiya. To be honest, I was happy with the construction works because the area was cleaned up and the garbage was cleared. Even when they were working on the footbridge and it looked too high for me to climb, I thought to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just won’t use it. There must be an alternative.’ I have a respiratory condition and no health insurance. But then I found out that there’s no traffic light or anything that would allow me to cross. I tried the footbridge twice and had an asthma attack each time. Treatment cost me LE200. So now, I just jump the barrier every day.”

Jumping the barrier between the two sides of the road poses a daily risk to Karam’s life. “I wouldn’t be going the dangerous way if I were able to go a safer one,” he says. And Karam is not the only one. It’s common to see people jumping the barrier at every residential area along the axis. Even senior citizens do it; they drop their belongings on the other side, then have younger pedestrians help them climb over.

“The main U-turns are far from the smaller roads feeding into the axis,” Karam says. “When you take a taxi or tuk-tuk, you pay more than you used to. Some areas have had their fares doubled because the distance driven is twice as long now. Residents of these areas could barely afford to take a LE10 tuk tuk ride before; they can’t be paying LE20 now just because the layout of the highway doesn’t properly match the streets and entrances to residential areas.”

“Footbridges are the second-worst solution for pedestrians.”

For Dr. Mohamed al-Khatib, an urban studies and sustainable mobility researcher, the Mahmoudiya Axis was designed to facilitate thru traffic — but did not have residents in mind. “If I were the design [engineer], I would have relied more on at-grade intersections and put in more squares or traffic lights. I would also have aimed to direct thru traffic away from residential areas, while only allowing public transportation (such as busses) into them, extending the tram line and lowering the speed limit for private vehicles in order to make the road safer for residents as well as promote the use of public transportation.”

We asked Khatib about internationally recognized alternatives to footbridges. “Footbridges are the second-worst approach to pedestrian crossing after foot tunnels,” he says. “There have been studies on the efficacy of footbridges in residential areas. Most European and Latin American cities are now building more at-grade crosswalks. This is possible through the use of traffic lights to halt traffic or smart bumps that would slow down cars; or by rethinking planning such that traffic inside residential areas is limited to residents themselves, while thru traffic … is kept outside — that way, streets between residential blocks are quiet and intersections are pedestrian-friendly public plazas where vehicular traffic is either banned altogether or restricted to certain types of cars with speed limits. One example of this kind of system is how Barcelona is laid out.”

According to the World Resource Institute, a US-based nonprofit research organization, safety considerations start at the design stage. Footbridges and foot tunnels may be appropriate for intercity roads. But they are not suitable in cities, especially not in residential areas.

Khatib suggests several solutions to the problems posed by the Mahmoudiya Axis. “The optimal solution would be to set aside one lane on each side of the road for a tram line. It could also be a dual tram/bus line. In tandem, the pavement should be widened, the number of lanes reduced and the speed limit lowered to 30 kilometers or 50 kilometers [per hour], depending on the width of the road. Safe crosswalks should be put in every 800 meters, such that the maximum walking distance to a crosswalk would be 400 meters. People with disabilities should be taken into account when deciding on the height of the pavement. Clear signs and traffic lights should be set up, possibly with pedestrian call buttons. Cameras could be installed to help enforce the rules.”

Khatib’s traffic light suggestion is not a novel idea for the city of Alexandria. Traffic lights were in fact recently installed on the Corniche Road. But strangely, the Mahmoudiya plans did not pick up what similar national projects had already implemented. “When the Corniche Road was built,” Hariri recounts, “accidents happened all the time despite there having been foot tunnels. With the increasing rate of accidents, they started thinking about road bumps. But that only led to more accidents, except now they were car crashes too. Finally, the latest solution implemented was traffic lights — which was more suited to the road and had great success. So the argument that the new Mahmoudiya Axis can’t have traffic lights because it’s a high-speed highway isn’t really appropriate. When the issue at hand is citizens’ lives, everything else pales in comparison … If five to 10 traffic lights are installed along the Mahmoudiya Road, where each stop would be one minute long, the total time lost from beginning to end would be no more than 10 minutes. I think that’s nothing if it saves even one life.”

According to Hariri, the planning stage looked more promising than the end result. At a meeting at the Northern Military Region headquarters, an official said that billboards would hang off of the footbridges, in the charge of selected advertisement companies, and the proceeds were to go toward installing elevators. When Hariri discussed the issue during a Local Administration Committee meeting in Parliament, he was told that the plans provide for 12 footbridges stationed at the more densely populated residential hubs, and that they would be used to hang billboards, part of the proceeds from which would go to installing elevators with a security guard in each elevator acting as an attendant and observing regular maintenance. Members of Parliament were satisfied with that plan, but the execution turned out differently.

Hariri documented and broadcast his experience with the Axis and bridges on Facebook. Later, he submitted several requests for public briefings to the governor, the Defense Ministry and the Northern Military Region. He submitted a similar request in Parliament and had it discussed at a Local Administration Committee meeting.

Yet, his requests went unanswered. Kamal’s proposal to Wasat District — in which he suggested that elevators or escalators be installed and regularly maintained, or that traffic lights be set up to allow pedestrians to cross safely — was ignored as well.

On Wednesday, November 4, it was raining heavily in Alexandria, in what seemed to be the prelude to a looming winter storm. Lacking sloping or any other drainage method, the footbridges over the Mahmoudiya Axis collected water, rendering them unusable. The project plans had been said to include the first-ever rain drainage system, which was to be completely independent of the wastewater network in order to avoid rising wastewater levels during the rainy season. It is unclear why this system was not built to drain water from footbridges as well.

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