Interview: BMP in SOILS Newsletter

Our thanks to SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon for featuring the project in their latest newsletter! Check out the full issue here:

soils-nov2015

And if you want to learn more about SOILS, why not make the leap and pay them a visit in Saidoun?

The ‘last mile logistics’ will be a little tricky, but you can get most of the way there from Beirut by bus. From Cola Intersection, take one of the many buses or vans that go to Nejmeh Square in Saida. We recommend the comfy LTC (‘Sawi Zantout’) express route. In Saida, take another LTC down to Jezzine. You’ll need to tell the bus driver that you’re getting off at “Homsiyeh,” after “Roum”. Saidoun is 15-20 minutes away by car, so you’ll need to hitchhike, or arrange for someone to pick you up.

It’s definitely a trek, but no one ever said that sustainable living would be boring ✌️ 💖

Stigma & Fear

Stigma is a major hurdle to overcome when promoting public transport in Lebanon. When we spoke to Tarek Chemaly of Beirut/NTSC, he urged us to make this a priority in our future campaigns.

Sometimes, the effort to overcome negative images of the bus end up reinforcing those images. When activists say that “the bus can be modern, not like what we have,” they justify their advocacy by stigmatizing existing populations.

When we say a bus is ‘dirty.’ what are we saying about those who use it?

Fear is another hurdle. In fact, it might be the bigger challenge, and hence, more of a priority for us. There’s the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible, which is what mapping would help alleviate, but there is also the fear of strangers, and the related and highly-gendered fear of harassment or violence. Sometimes, in our zeal for fighting stigma, we forget to take fear into account.

Many women are afraid to ride the bus because they are told to be afraid. Many are afraid because they’ve had bad experiences. This is a touchy subject, because these dangers are often inflated and mixed up with racist, classist and patriarchal ideas. Indeed, warning women about taking the bus is often just another way to control them. But this does not mean that public space in general does not tend to be hostile to the free movement of women. This is a Lebanese problem and a global one as well.

For all these reasons, we would like to invite you to share your experiences, both good and bad. The bus can be a joy to ride, but this is not always the case for everyone. We should tackle this issue head on. Comment, share, link us to your own posts, in any language you’re comfortable with.

What Buses?

It’s interesting to think about the gap between how little information about the bus system is known in certain circles in Lebanon, and how popular it actually is. In fact, some routes are currently “too popular,” with ridership surpassing capacity, leading to overcrowding as seen in this photo below.

Packed Bus (Nov 2015)

This raises questions of safety, passenger rights, and operator responsibilities. It also points to a very basic paradox: why is this system so invisible to so many people in Beirut? We constantly hear surprise when we discuss our project; too many people simply have no clue that any system of mass transit exists. Why is that?

And what would it mean for the communities who rely of these networks if those of us who dream of more sustainable urbanisms engaged more directly with this actually-existing bus system?

What System?

At times, when people hear our call for ‘taking the existing system seriously,’ they rush to insist that “it is not a ‘proper’ system.” This sort of response seems to imply that we are somehow ‘letting down the cause’ of urban improvement by even referring to it as ‘a system.’

When we say “let’s work with what we have,” some may think that we celebrate the bus system without any criticism, qualification or complaint. When we say “let’s make the system more legible and accessible,” some may worry that we are abandoning any demand or vision of change. We hope that, in time, we can demonstrate that this is not the case.

We believe that no analysis of the transit system can be adequate when made from outside the system. Impressions gathered from the sidewalk, or from being stuck in a car behind a bus, or from second-hand stories and public lore, can be useful to a certain extent. Yet only the lived experience of regular ridership can truly form reliable ideas about the system, and the people and places that constitute it. Sometimes, positive ideas are formed that challenge our prejudices, as car drivers, or as people who only ride ‘proper’ buses in other countries. Other times, we are faced with the full truth of the inequalities that keep the bus system running, like in this article from المنشور

Mapping is a tool for making this system more visible, and hence, more inviting for diverse groups to take part in its formation. It’s a modest proposal, but it is also one small but necessary step towards collective change.