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20 October 2007

The Parking Meter Man!


The man who leased the streets of Cairo!

By Hoda Nassef

DEDICATION: Because it is my birthday today (20 October) and although we are now in year 2007, I dedicate this 2002 interview with him to my Blog, due to the fact that this genius engineer is also a ‘Libra’ like me; his birthday was on the 14th, and that he deserves a bit of international recognition. What I have not mentioned before, thus being my third reason for wanting to publish this again, is that Engineer Sayed Ibrahim has a fatal uncommon disease, and if he doesn’t take his (unnamed) medication – or pill – once a day, yet not bought in Egypt, he can literally die. So, here’s to you, Mr. Sayed Ibrahim! I don’t know how it ends, but this is how it began!....

Stealthily, small diggings have been going on in Central Cairo, during Ramadan in November 2002. After Ramadan, we would see these yellow and black metal apparatus protruding from the streets alongside the pavements, in an evenly spaced arrangement. The square metal, about two to three feet in height, and two to three square inches, could be pushed back into the ground, after what at first sight seemed like the substitutes for chairs or chains, and just about anything to keep particular spots for particular persons’ parking areas: big tippers, probably - or VIP government ‘employees’. In only a few weeks’ time afterwards, re-digging occurred again, but this time adjacent to the street ‘rods’. It seemed that every time the government would spend millions on pavement tiles and paint, it would be dug up again, either for plumbing, lampposts, lamppost wiring, telephone booths, or more new tiles. But, this seemed to be different. It struck me finally that they were installing parking meters! I decided to investigate, after it had become almost “old news”, and met the quiet inventor.

BEGINNINGS:

“My name is Sayed Ibrahim Abdel-Salam, but I am known professionally only as Sayed Ibrahim. I was born on 14 October 1956, in El-Gamalaya district in Cairo, in Kasr El-Shoak “haie” – you know, it’s the famous district which was written about by Naguib Mahfouz, and his novel went by the same name,” he said smiling. “I went to regular schools in Gamalaya, then my family moved to El-Kal’aa (Citadel area). After graduating high school and achieving my Thanaway Aama (high school certificate) in 1975, I entered the Faculty of Telecommunications, University of Engineering, and achieved my B.Sc. in 1980. I was employed in a private airlines company one month after graduation, which closed for political reasons. So, my next job was in a government bureau, working in computers, programming and statistics data entry. In 1981, I decided to work for a private sector and was employed at the Sony Company branch here, as a maintenance engineer for the brand products. Then, in 1982, the headquarters in Japan made an international competition for all their branches in which it was required to select ‘the fastest person” to repair a certain product, and each country would send to Japan one or two representative engineers. I was selected from Egypt, and sent to the headquarters in Japan. Thank God the Japanese awarded me Third Prize in the world.” Yes, Egyptians are really great, when given the chance to prove themselves. Despite the fatal and rare disease that I am disclosing for the first time, he preferred to talk about his work and ignore the subject of his health:

“I was intensively trained at the Sony headquarter factories in Japan, the Gulf areas, and in Singapore. In 1989, when their branch was shut down in Egypt, they considered having an Egyptian Power of Attorney and leaving it in the most appropriate hands to continue here, and decided that I was most suitable person to take over. From 1989, I became the sole Agent for Sony, and then later on, the sole Agent for Sanyo, and other international brands. From there on, I expanded to include electronic products and anti-theft equipment for cars and homes, for fire, and other safety and security items, as well as security monitors, cameras, alarms, micro-processors, emergency entrance and exit doors, electronic clock attendance and departure machines for employees.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER:

“Then, from 1994, my company dealt intensively in security and surveillance products of all types to suit hotels, banks, ministries, embassies, VIP or celebrity homes and other high-risk establishments. I also enhanced the (various) known brands with my own designs, reaching the highest level of technology. Most of my brands and inventions are security products that are mainly controlled by remote, wireless, microwaves and various other means. Gradually, my name became known amongst the highest calibre of officials in Egypt, and my company was commissioned to supply the security or safety systems for many conglomerates and structures.”

“During 1994,” continued Ibrahim, “our surveillance and security systems included exits and entrances for cars and parking lots. It wasn’t too difficult to add to the designs at a later stage, when in 2000 the Governor of Cairo, Dr. Abdel-Rahim Shehata, announced his desire to install parking meters in Central Cairo, in order to be at the millennium civilization standard with the rest of the modern world.”

THE PARKING METERS:

The announcement was made four years ago in the local newspapers, and invited proposals from engineering companies to supply and install electronic parking meters in order to organise the traffic and parking in central (downtown) Cairo.

“This was a challenge,” Ibrahim commented, “and inspired me to add to the available parking meters additional advantages, in my own design. It was really what I have been waiting for, and dreamt of all my life. I wanted to do something Egypt. So, my company applied for the competition and bought the specification rules and offered our bid. The specifications were of a general nature, and the supplier or installer would supplement the details, design, strategies, cost, and so forth,” he said. “It stipulated one condition: the parking meters should be designed in a way that it would not use hard currency or coins; payment would be by plastic cards, such as Visa cards, or the cards used for mobile phones and in telephone booths. Also, the parking meters should be electronic and made in the highest and most modern standard of technology, while at the same time not too costly for the average citizen to use.” His bid, out of hundreds, was chosen.

“How did you manage to innovate and create a new design, differing from the existing foreign parking meters?” I enquired.

“I made a research and international survey from over thirty countries of all the parking meters, and came up with the conclusion that the existing parking meters would not be suitable for Egypt. Why? Because it needs scrupulously honest citizens, which most of us are of course, in order to run smoothly without cheating, such as parking, then getting away somehow without paying the time allotted. This happens in all the countries, so I have made a new design that would prevent cheating. In other countries, a person parks, pays, then returns and takes his/her car when the time is up. But, let’s face it; if we can park and return for our cars, not all of us would pay. So, I invented the ‘ground sensor’ and ‘gate’ – what is seen as a rod protruding after the car has parked. This ‘gate’ automatically elevates from the ground upon entering the lot and barricades the car from moving out. One cannot get the vehicle out unless one pays first. After feeding the machine (parking meter) the plastic card, the ‘gate’ automatically moves back into the ground,” he explained.

REPLACING THE ‘SAYESS’:

“Suppose someone parks crookedly, on purpose, in order to avoid going over the sensor, thereby avoiding the iron rod (‘gate’) to block the car from leaving, and consequently the driver does not pay?” I enquired.

“I employed several young men as guards to take care of this matter, and you will see them on every sidewalk. But the parking space is wide enough for any vehicle, and the underground sensor well immediately feel the pressure, once a car crosses over it. The guards are there also to supervise the drivers and direct them where and how to park. Each parking lot is about five metres, enabling vehicles of all sizes to park without trouble,” he answered.

“Are the guards in a way replacing the ‘sayess’ (the unofficial parking guys, sometimes called ‘minadi’)?” I asked, and as an afterthought enquired, “And, didn’t that get a lot of ‘sayess’ out of work?”

Ibrahim said, “Most of them have prison records and were on parole, some without records but unlicensed, others unscrupulous and would charge a minimum of one pound, even if you parked for only five minutes. Anyhow, the Government have relocated them to other areas where there are no parking garages or parking lots,” he replied. “We offered jobs to the forty ‘sayess’ of the downtown district, and only three accepted!”

STARTING THE PARKNG:

“How long did it take to make each lot? When exactly did you start this project, and where was the first meter installed? I think I noticed the diggings began one or two months, before Ramada 2003,” I said.

“Exactly. As for the design,” declared Ibrhaim, “After my international survey, I collected the information I needed and discovered that there does not exist in the whole world parking meters which include the underground metal sensors. These sensors feel when the car is in. They are connected to the meters. The meters, in turn, gives the car three to five minutes to park, then it is programmed to ‘tell’ the two-feet ‘gates’ to rise from the ground and block the vehicle. The rods remain transfixed in place, preventing the vehicle to move in either direction. Once the meter is fed with the plastic currency card, after it has calculated the amount, the ‘gate’ is programmed to return in its ground slot, and the car can leave. I created the design in almost in one day and added the underground electronic sensors.”

I asked him, “How deep are these ‘gates’ inserted underground?” “Not much; 20 centimetres.”
“But, what if it rains?” I said, trying not to sound pessimistic. “Maybe the government should have concentrated first on how to install a sewage system, in order to protect these parking meters, for one thing. When it rains in Cairo, the streets become flooded with mire and mess in twenty minutes. This is also dangerous considering all the electric wiring and cables underneath and above ground level. Don’t you think so?” I asked. “It might be a problem, but for the moment, everything is on a test and trial basis,” he agreed.

“Do you think that rain or sandstorms could ruin or erode your parking meters somehow? And, is it possible for the parking meters to miscalculate, like other electronic devices?” I enquired.

“No way could it miscalculate because they are digital devices. We have maintenance engineers if ever anything should go wrong,” he replied, not too pleased with the question.

“But, I must admit that they are not very attractive, and look like tin boxes on poles,” I said.
“What factory made the bodies of these parking meters?”

“You are right, they are not attractive, but are just temporary bodies, due to the rush we had in implementing a huge stock immediately. I hired a private factory, but the new parking meters will be much more attractive. These are temporary bodies until the new models are completed. The new models will be greyish-blue, in a mixture of polyester. Not only more attractive, but anti-rust and erosion,” declared Ibrahim.

“Do you think that rain or sandstorms could ruin or erode your parking meters somehow? And, is it possible for the parking meters to miscalculate, like other electronic devices?” I enquired.

“No way could it miscalculate because they are digital devices. We have maintenance engineers if ever anything should go wrong,” he replied, not too pleased with the question.

STREETS WITH THE PARKING METERS:

“Officially, when was this project inaugurated? And, how many streets do you plan to install the parking meters? For Cairo only, or throughout the country?”

“We are on the first phase and have mapped 1,270 parking lots and meters, in the middle of Cairo.”

Installation of the parking meters started in Abdeen district and west central Cairo, from 26th of July Street (to the left side), Qasr El-Nil St. from Tahrir Square up to Talaat Harb Sq. (on the left side), then from Talaat Harb St. (on both sides) up until El-Gomhouria St. (on both sides). Installations of the parking lots will continue from Abdel-Khalek Tharwat St., from El-Gomhouria St., up till Talaat Harb St. (on the left side), and Adly St. from El-Gomhouria St. to Talaat Harb St. (on the right side), and Mohamed Farid St. frm 26th of July St. to Moustafa Kamel Square (on the left side). From the square through Talaat Harb St. to Abdel-Khalek Tharwat, the parking lots are on the left side, and Champollion St. coming from 26th of July to Tahrir Square, on both sides. More parking lots are Mahmoud Bassiouni St. coming from Talaat Harb Sq. to the Tahrir Sq. (on both sides) and Maarouf St., from Ramses St. to Talaat Harb St. (on the left). Ramses St. from the Tahrir to 26th of July St., and Galaa St. from Tahrir Sq. to 26th of July St., on the left sides. Finally, from 26th of July Street to El-Gomhouria St. up till Ramses Street, the parking meters will be on the right side. In each street, there is at least one parking lot for free. These are indicated in big signs, and are only for the handicapped.

PROBLEMS IN REGISTERING HIS INVENTION:

“I bet your invention is patent-registered now?” I asked him rhetorically. To my amazement, he replied, “No. I am having problems convincing them that it is my invention. When I went to register the design, the employees there said that ‘parking meters’ are old inventions. I said, yes, I know, but I am registering the sensor, blockading ‘gate’ method, paying by cards, and a different method of payment; we pay after, on departure, and not before, as with all the parking meters in the world.”

He still did not get it registered, so I told him not to neglect this issue, otherwise one of our nearby ‘friendly’ neighbours will claim that it was their invention, just as they claim that they built the Pyramids! “You know what? Some European countries, and even Japan, have requested to use my model in their countries, ” he said proudly.

COSTS AND DEDUCTIONS:

“How much does it cost to park, say, for one hour?” I asked.

“From 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., the hour costs one Egyptian Pound. And from 4:00 p.m. until 11:00 pm., the hour costs 80 piastres. And, from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. the next morning, the price for parking is only ten piastres.”

“Ten piastres, only?!” I exclaimed.

“Yes. Because we want to encourage parking at the parking lots, and those who park till the morning are usually residents and are sleeping at home. But, the Governor then asked us to make a fifty percent deduction for the night-to-dawn price. Now, from eleven at night until seven in the morning, parking costs only five piastres an hour! That means that a resident would pay per night only forty piastres – if he takes his car out at seven!”

“What do you gain out of this, and what does the Government gain?” I enquired.

“The contract between my company and the Government is based on B.O.T. This means in terms of money that we supply the equipment, technology, manpower, training, and everything. We take profits from the meters, and give a part of the profits to the Government, which amounts to paying the Government one million and a half or a quarter Egyptian Pounds, per year. The rest of the profits go to cover my company’s expenses – in creating, financing the feasibility studies, equipment, manpower, salaries, installation and maintenance, for five more years. After completing five years, we hand over the project to the Government; i.e. all the equipment, parking meters, and everything goes to the Government, and will be completely owned by them, unless they request a ‘renewal’ after fiver years, in which case we will continue on this B.O.T. for a bit longer. We are only in Phase One to cover Central Cairo. There is the strategy plan for Phase Two and Phase Three.”
“And, after the B.O.T. is over, where do all the employees go? Will the Government keep the same employees?” I asked.

“If they want to keep the same standard of performance, they should keep the same staff, and with new phases in the plan, they could hire even more young men, and even girls, if they want to.”

PARKING METER CARDS:

“Are you also making the plastic cards? Do you have a stock of cards available and ready for the parking meters? I noticed many parking meters are already being used, so tell me more about how you make these cards.” I asked.

“No, our company does not make them, but we contracted a firm to make the cards. We started out with a foreign firm and exported from them the first batch of one hundred thousand cards. They are exactly like telephone cards in which specifies the currency or price amount, until it is used up, then thrown away. But, I added a new creation to these cards, which I think would be a good idea for all companies who use and sell them. I hired a foreign company to make these cards, and asked them to make them in a way that each card could be recharged after expiration. To encourage the clients or customers not to throw them away, we will reimburse a fee for the empty card when he returns it. This means the customer who buys a parking meter card will get back some money if he hands it in after it has expired. Our company has its own recharging machine now, and we will recharge the expired parking meter cards that are returned, instead of wasting them and throwing them away. And then it is resold at a cheaper price.” He is also ‘environmentally friendly’, practical, economical, and as sharp as they come.

Actually, he is a genius.

In conclusion, I said in awe, “How come no other country has thought of the underground sensor, digital meter, gate barricade, and now this new type of ‘recharging card’ idea?”
Sayed Ibrahim said gravely, “This is what I love about my career. To tell the world, ‘We are Egyptians’. We can think, invent, and create. This is my target, my goal in life, to really create, invent and make something unique – even in modern electronics, and say: Made in Egypt.”

*Interview with Eng. Sayed Ibrahim in end-2005
Photography by Hoda Nassef:
1) Parking meter sign for the handicapped; in each main street
2) Eng. Sayed Ibrahim
3) A 'guard' supervising a parking meter lot
H.N.

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