Sitting immobilized at jammed intersections, Cairo's frustrated motorists are accustomed to the approach of vendors and beggars to chat with.
Teams of police cadets and Cairo University students, equipped with clipboards and printed forms, were making inquiries. Address? Destination? Purpose of trip?
It was a survey, designed by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and financed by the U.S. Government, aimed at compiling some basic date on travel patterns and traffic flow in the chaotic streets of the capital. Its purpose is to give the transport planners something to work with as they look for ways to get the traffic moving.
But it is safe to say that it will take more than statistics to make any headway against a transport snarl that is among the worst of any major city in the world. The skepticism of city in the world. The skepticism of the editorial cartoonists who ridiculed the survey project was not surprising, since it might be easier to solve the riddle of the Sphinx than to unsnarl the Cairo traffic.
According to government statistics, the number of cars and taxis in the Cairo metropolitan area has more than tripled in the years of president Anwar Sadat's economic liberalization, from 70,000 in 1972 to 220,000 today. But Cairo, with a population nearing nine million, still has fewer cars and taxis than Washington, D.C., and everyone recognizes that the traffic problem is caused by factors other than the number of vehicles.
The deputy minsiter of the interior, Major General Kamal Kheiralla, hinted at part of it the other day when he announced a crackdown on the issuing of drivers licenses.
He said he had given orders "to make sure that no license has been issued to unskilled drivers." It will be quite a feat. In theory all applicants for drivers licenses are required to pass a road test, but anyone with a few piaster to pay off the right inspector can evade that rule.
Many Cairo drivers have a survival-of-the-fittest attitude and behave as if the rules were for other people. White lines, one-way restrictions, rights of way and parking regulations mean nothing to them.
Hornblowing in the city is illegal, as an irate editorial writer pointed out recently, but enforcement of this law is as casual as the others, part of a generally cavalier attitude on the part of drivers and police alike. "If only they would enforce the rules, they would improve things a lot," an official observed.
But the drivers of the cars and taxis don't deserve all the blame for the traffic mess. The pedestrians are equally undisciplined, spilling off the crowded sidewalks and into the streets in such numbers they form a major obstacle to the flow of vehicles.
Then there are the bicycles and donkey carts and horse carts. This is a city of poor people to whom the desire of the car-owning classes to drive about freely is of less concern than their own need to market their vegetables or deliver their milk or sell a few bricks. This commerce is not motorized.
City officials say they are trying to encourage the import of small trucks to replace the horses and donkeys and speed up the pace, but they lack the money to achieve this in the foreseeable future.
The list of problems goes on - heavy trucks going from the Port of Alexandria to the industrial zones south of Cairo must go right through the capital because there are no bypasses. Double and triple parking on downtown streets blocks movement. Almost all traffic signals are still hand-controlled, with the policemen who perate them responding to the blare of the loudest horns.
And there are only five bridges across the Nile, one of which is one way. At the approaches to these bridges during rush hours, drivers commonly switch off their engines and read their newspapers, waiting for the jams to clear.
Cairo has an extensive public transport network of buses, trams and troley coaches, but the rapid growth in the city's population has overwhelmed this system. Mobs form at bus stops, but often only those who can find a place to cling to the outside can get a ride.
One result of that, Egyptians say, is that those who own cars feel compelled to use them. An upper class young woman, for example, who lives on an island in the Nile and studies at the American University, perhaps a mile away, says she tried the bus and tried walking but gave up on both. She drives. It often takes more than an hour, not counting the time it takes to find a place to park.