Friday, April 13, 2007

Back from Egypt - Taxis and Taxing

This was also posted on GT-Talk.

The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel where the tour began
was interesting in several respects. The first one was the taxi
itself. Since I was staying in a relatively expensive hotel, the
taxi contracted to take me to the hotel was upscale from the
average taxi. Nevertheless, it was a wild ride. Egyptian drivers
seem to think that lane line markers are for wimps - they are totally
irrelevant for the normal flow of traffic and are obeyed basically
by busses only. The cars weave in and out of lanes as if they
weren't marked at all. A street that is supposed to be 2 lanes
can have as many as 4 cars driving in parallel along it. Stop
lights are virtually non-existent in most of the city and where they
do appear, they are frequently not working. Red lights, in my
experience meant, though, that the taxi driver DID at least slow
down. And the drivers do usually obey the policemen who
preside over some of the busier intersections.

Surprisingly, though, there aren't that many accidents - at least
in the city. The frequent use of the horn meant that drivers
usually weren't blind-sided. At night, the cars often do not turn
on their headlights, but they do flash their lights in place of the
honking that they do during the day. But outside of Cairo is
evidently much different. The accident rate in Egypt is one of
the highest in the world. And few vehicles are insured, since
the cost of insurance is too high for most vehicle owners to be
able to afford.

Pedestrians, though, have it even more difficult. Trying to cross
a busy street is not a task to be undertaken lightly by either the
inexperienced or the infirm. I think the drivers enjoy using the
pedestrians for target practice. We missed hitting many pedestrians
and many other taxis by mere inches (or centimeters).

Taxis are not expensive, though. A ride across Cairo, from the
Nile to the airport generally costs around $10 (American dollars).

Another interesting thing about that first taxi ride was the first
impression I got of the city: it is very brown and looks like it has
been bombed out. The brownness might be expected - after all
the raw materials for building - rock, dirt, and sand - are all various
shades of brown. But the bombed out look is due to an interesting
feature of their tax law.

When Cairo began to grow rapidly many years ago now, there
was a severe lack of housing. To encourage people to build
new apartment buildings, the government decided not to tax
buildings while they were under construction. Well, it worked.
Most of the buildings, probably 90% of them, are still under
construction. Even though the lower floors of a building are
inhabited, the roof is virtually never finished. There are usually
partially finished floors at the top of every building. It gives the
city an impoverished look that isn't entirely deserved.

I discussed this tax law with our guide who seemed to feel that
there should be a time cap on building - after 5 years a building
should be taxed no matter what. I told him that the way it worked
on our property in Alaska was that assessors checked on the
value of the land and any buildings on it by comparing them to
other land and buildings in the neighborhood. Then, finished or
not, they were assessed according to their current value. He
seemed to think that was a good idea, but that it had little chance
of being implemented, as the people like not being taxed for their
"unfinished" apartments.

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