THE UNSOLVED MYTH OF THE LEBANESE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM.
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
A DIALOGUE BETWEEN LOCAL ACTORS
The objective of this blog is to open to discussion, with young activists, the reasons behind the major gaps encountered at the level of public transportation service provision, which led the emergence of informal transit practices falling under the category of clientelism* (الزبائنية). The findings are built on an ongoing fieldwork since 2018, such as interviews with local stakeholders, observations and socio-spatial and ethnographic analysis for the informal transit network in Beirut.
Today, the streets of Beirut mourns the glorious history of mobility through rhymes and songs, as Al hadir el bosta, Toot toot a Beirut, Kellon aadon siyarat, Tram way Beirut since the mobility landscape is taken by almost 80% of commuters relying on private cars, leaving a small room for other modes of transport, including 18% for taxi-services, 1.7% for vans and buses, and 0.3% for un-motorized transport. Clearly the socio-economic losses in Lebanon due to the mass use of the automobile are magnified. These losses affected Lebanon’s natural and social capital to be limited and sacrificed to feed the car paradigm. Hence, to (re)shape the car dependent society and to (re)implement a sustainable and efficient public transportation service, a very strong political will is needed and the government should be ready to face many hurdles.
“Let me first explain to you the situation. To travel every day from Beirut to Batroun for example, or vice-versa, one can tell a lot about what is happening in our society. You have to look for what is beyond the traffic; people are being stressed because of the traffic, yet they are oppressed because we have been living in an unstable state since the end of the civil war (1975-1989). The perpetual instabilities of the country are affecting the socio-economic and political life. In fact, what you see on the roads is people are fighting for a space to breathe, to sit and enjoy their time. Instead, there are no proper sidewalks, parks or public transportation service” an old taxi driver told me in 2018 while I was having my break in one of the main transportation hubs, Dora. I did not bother to ask him for his name or age, but I could say that he was a retired person who opted to rent or buy a taxi license upon his retirement to secure a source of income for the grey-haired years. He continued, “Politicians since the end of the Lebanese war did have the will to invest in public transportation infrastructure” (freely paraphrased). Therefore, a journey of reconstruction had to begin in 1990 as an act to reconstruct the nation. A fast and immediate plans were undertaken to set sustainable plans to expand, improve and reconstruct public transportation networks.
However, all the plans done were not implemented and remained ink on paper. Surprisingly, these studies were not shared with the public. To illustrate, Abed Al Hafiz Al-Kayssi, the Director of Land and Maritime Transport in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport affirmed in a personal interview in 2018 that “many studies and plans were done and ready to be implemented because the grants were given. However, some of the grants were spent on different project because some changes in the state’s priorities (…)” (freely paraphrased). But, Ziad Nasr stated during a personal interview in 2018 (head of Railway and Public Transportation Authority, O.C.F.T.C.) that “public transportation became a priority in the government’s agenda because we will face gridlocks within two years. The World Bank hence will be supporting the implementation of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to improve mobility” (freely paraphrased). Two years later, the whole country is now facing a total breakdown on political and economic level.
In other words, the reality of the Lebanese mobility landscape shaped by the political sectarian conflict lies on whose needs to be addressed, by which means and why? According to the taxi/bus driver, “the state is benefiting from the car dominant paradigm. If tanket bezine, for example, is around 25000 LBP, the taxes to the state is around 12500 LBP, and you tell me that we will have collective transportation one day?” (freely paraphrased). Therefore, the willingness and decisions of the state are embedded in corruption and chaos triggered by the “laisser-faire” approach.
Second, the public transportation has been silenced after the civil war. A very small fleet of very old badly maintained, around thirty-five state-owned buses (O.C.F.T.C. ), continued to operate on the Lebanese routes. These state-owned buses carry out a total of less than 20,000 passengers a day. In parallel to the state's system, there are more than 4000 (registered) privately-operated buses and minivans. The private transportation corporations started to multiply and made their own services, without timetables nor fixed routes after the war. Tammam Nakkash (transport systems expert and founder of Managing Partner at TEAM International) explained the situation during a private interview in 2018 that “the state did not set any measures to stop the privately operated buses and vans. Consequently, competitions were created among public and private operators, which lead the state-owned buses to imitate the privately-operated buses and vans by opening their bus doors while driving and not stopping on the dedicated stops. The informal transit system was hence born, and the politics of urban mobility made it invisible and unsafe to many” (freely paraphrased).
Therefore, the weak law enforcement has led to serve chaos and uncontrollable mushrooming of informal transit practices and the use of fake license on different vehicles. To illustrate, a bus driver explained for me that “the state provides permits for those who aim to be part of this practice, but does not care if we are using the same plate number for 100 vehicles. On a checkpoint, a driver will be only asked for the permit, no one will check the number of the vehicle’s chassis. In that way, this system is satisfying those in need to move around the country” (freely paraphrased). Such statement was validated during my private interviews with state actors in 2018 like Ziad Nasr, Hoda Salloum (former Chair Board of Directors of Traffic Management Committee in Beirut), Abdel Haffiz el Kayssi and Ali Mohieddine (vice president of Union of Syndicates of Drivers of Public License Vehicles in Lebanon) “the state knows there are illegal buses, vans and taxis operating on the Lebanese roads, but there is nothing can be actually done. This system is by people and for people” (freely paraphrased). Informality has hence created a situation for the marginalized people to belong, filled the gap of lack of public transportation service provision, and became a mitigation tool for the perpetual instabilities of the country. In the words of Nasr, “You want to call it corruption, but these informal arrangements are customized to our needs” (freely paraphrased).
In conclusion, an institutional state reform has to precede any new plan implementation. Indeed, thinking about the transport problem in Beirut goes beyond the subject itself, it is multi-faceted issue and not easy to be solved, especially that the state failed to adopt a wise and long term transportation national vision and good policies. These failures are connected to the lack of having serious governmental institutions and parliamentarians that work more for the well-being of their citizens rather than for their own agendas. The consequence of the absence of strong political will in having an integrated transportation system lead the emergence of bottom-up / civil society initiatives such as Train Train NGO, The Chain Effects, Riders’ Rights NGO previously Known as The Bus Map Project, and alike. These collective initiatives aim to provoke socio-political transformations in the national mobility pattern, to promote different modes of transportation and to acknowledge the existing informal transit system and to build a solid transit community. In that manner, young citizens have the opportunity to join these initiatives with a purpose to create advocacy on the state’s decision making, to acknowledge the existing transit system and to make an impact on mobility culture in Lebanon.
 1 Tank of Gas= 20 litres of Gas = 25000 LBP  Nakkash, T. (2018, March 1). Personal interview  Salloum, H. (2018, February 22). Personal interview  Mohieddine, A. (2018, March 10). Personal interview