THE UNSOLVED MYTH OF THE LEBANESE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM
A DIALOGUE BETWEEN LOCAL ACTORS, CIVIL SOCIETY AND YOUTH
Amid the dire crises that Lebanon is passing through, young people from all over the world joined an online session organized by YAC (Youth Against Corruption) and Riders’ Rights (RR) to reflect on mobility in Lebanon. Congestion and transport-related exclusionary with regards to various aspects of Lebanese social and political life, the ineffectiveness of the state, on-going instability, and the lack of a consolidated approach to planning by the post-civil war state (1975-1990) were highly discussed. The primary data of this blog is built on a dialogue between the young participants and the mobility civil society initiative Riders’ Rights during the YACtime session.
As discussed in the previous blog “the unsolved myth of the Lebanese transportation system. A dialogue between local actors: part one” and during the YACTime session, the emergence of an informal transit system was the answer for the failed strategies of the Lebanese government to implement a long term vision for sustainable urban mobility after the civil war. The manifestation of informal practices in public transport network is characterized by its resilience to the apparent chaotic transportation system, a reflection of a mitigation tool responding to instability and the absence of public transport, which is necessary for an equitable urban mobility. Yet, it had to cope with the country and capital’s unending instabilities, affecting the politics of the urban mobility situation in Lebanon. In addition to political and sectarian differences, the socio-economic classes have shaped the informal transit system and networks as being underprivileged (شعبي). Therefore, the politics of everyday mobility have trapped the system under the preconception of being perceived as unsafe, unregulated, monopolized, which indicates that there is a lack of information about the system and its importance in such a context. Actually, the act of not sharing information about this sector is a factor that shows how the governmental policies are turning a blind eye on the existing system, as if it is forbidden to talk about.
In that manner, Riders’ Rights initiative (RR) - previously known as the Bus Map Project (BMP) – emerged to reframe the debates regarding the informal transit system and networks. Their aim is to promote, share information and make the system more inclusive for children, women, and people with disabilities through tracking and mapping the informal buses and vans routes. The use of “mapping” and producing a readable and transparent map for the routes eliminated the “it does not exist” debate, and exposed multi-layered transportation injustices. This transparency challenged the long-standing negative perceptions of informality and highlighted the role and effectiveness of such transit system in the country.
Yet, the latent question of the role of such data in improving the urban mobility situation is still not answered. To what extent can ‘mapping the informal’ in mobility improve service provision for the citizens? What is the capacity of planning and policy reformation to incorporate such systems in their future scenarios? Moreover, by offering a “map” and an “app” in the immediate future, can we expect a change in the culture of mobility? And what is the role of youth in this initiative?
During the YACTime session, the speakers indicated that in addition to the work of RR, other mobility initiatives in Lebanon are trying “to reshape and promote a better a culture of mobility”. Smart Bus Stop , for instance, is a project of H2ECO Design. It aims to induce incremental changes by implementing bus stops all over Lebanon which will be a pragmatic and eco-friendly solution to transport infrastructure. The Chain Effects and Bicycle Mayor of TripoliLB aspire to create an inclusive mobility landscape. Community projects and public interventions, such as street arts and public activities, are promoting and facilitating cycling as an alternative mode for transportation. Also, Train Train NGO is advocating for Lebanese railway rehabilitation & preservation. Not to mention also the dedicated 2-day seminars by the Order of Engineers and Architects in 2017, in an attempt to shed light on the public transportation situation in Lebanon. By "public reputation correction" on alternative mobility modes, and their applicability, many “collective community actions” (freely paraphrased) can – to a large extent – achieve their initial goals and objectives, which in turn, will provoke more than just socio-political changes.
The idea of “Carpooling could be a solution” was also raised during YACTime. Carpooling is a ride sharing system used by people when they are heading to the same destination. Many highlight that it is more eco-friendly- as it reduces CO2 emissions, traffic congestion, and the need for parking spaces, not to mention the sociability factors, too. The freed space can invite more greenery and air to the overcrowded polluted city. It also reduces the daily travel charges on all users by sharing the costs. “Carpolo” is an app that promotes such an idea. Founded in 2015, the app’s goal is “to widen the circle of people that you can carpool with by connecting you with trustworthy individuals from the community”. Other ideas such as private buses and shuttle services also came up, especially for organizations and universities with a minimum or free of charge.
Would such projects succeed in Lebanon?
“The country needs a full strategy and requires efforts from governmental authorities, municipalities, governors, funders, and of course security forces” (freely paraphrased) said one of the participants during the YACTIME. Then, someone else added “the state actors were always in favor of their benefits and community. In fact, corruption in the transportation sector is the consequence of the sectarian division in the country. Therefore, "none of the politicians can think collectively of what is beneficial for the public" (freely paraphrased). Indeed, the gaps found at the level of the public transportation service provision is the result of state dysfunctionality.
Then, how to be part of this change?
Since October 2019, the streets of Lebanon are boiling with waves of young collectives demanding a “real” structural reform in the political power of the state. This includes robust ousting of the corrupt ruling elite, sectarian-based politics and forming a government of technocrats. Aspiring for a more inclusive change, the creation of a joint platform for transportation activists interested in public and environmental works is crucial. The platform can play the advocacy role for taking immediate actions, improving and sustaining existing informal transit, and gradually integrating other alternative modes of transportation. By investing and funding such mobility projects in Lebanon – such as the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – there is an increased dedication towards improving the daily lives of all citizens and in becoming more inclusive. This “inclusivity” approach extends form the physical apparatus to the operators of the system of drivers and works, and in ensuring their livelihoods are not – in any form- jeopardized.
What about today?
Lebanon is still collapsing and relying -unofficially- on different informal practices. Yet, moments of real change always emerge in crisis, and have to start from somewhere. Relying on recent events, the Lebanese youth have shown their ability to be active agents in demanding and advocating for social and political change. With this spirit, many can become a part of different initiatives, including the ones mentioned above, to accelerate the change. Whether by individual or group changes of daily use of transportation modes, thinking and developing together applicable ideas and sharing successful practices can also achieve the desired change. Still, institutional shifts and a just transparent frame for interdependent relationship between the state and private actors of informal transit operators are a must. All of this is in favor of golden future that Lebanon and its youth has always deserved.
Last, your ideas, comments and critiques are highly appreciated!