#HerBus: ‘Van 4, from dawn to dusk’—Virginie’s Story


« As long as it is not clean, I will not get in this bus »
« You’re not afraid?! Why don’t you take a service instead? »
« The Number 4? I did not even know there was a bus that goes from Tayouneh to Hamra! »

Van 4 by Virginie Le Borgne

Yes, there is indeed a bus that links these two places. A bus, or rather a minibus, a sort of van, often a semblance of damaged car body, sometimes customized, which passes at top speed and then slams on the brakes to let two or three persons escape from it. More than one bus, there are even 300 of it that go through the town every day, ferrying passengers around from Dahieh to Hamra, from dawn to dusk, for 1000 LBP. I am sure you’ve already seen it—at least heard it…

——Its impatient drivers who insult the others around, hail the coffee seller to have their caffeine shot, reign over their own kingdom, and share easily their mood of the day with their neighbors in the cabin and sometimes even sing a song——

Van 4 Driver by Virginie Le Borgne

I get on the Number 4 almost every day. Because it is fast. Because it is cheap. Because its price is fixed so that you don’t have to renegotiate for ten minutes once arrived because there was a lot of traffic on the way. Because when I am in its den, I feel like I am an audience member of a movie in which the town passes before my eyes as well as my own life. Because it is still one of the best ways to have a good idea of the contradictions and evolutions of Beirut. Because it gives space to women, men, others. Because I could write about the multi-confessionalism that takes place in it, the gender mix and also the public transportation—the so-precious public transportation—that it symbolizes; but these words are now trite, having been used every time something is said about Beirut. So it would be better to let you form your own ideas . . .

Van 4 by Virginie Le Borgne

I’ve taken the Number 4 under the rain at 7 AM after a party, taking advantage of this bubble to complain to my friend about the complexity of human relationships. I’ve taken Van 4 at midnight, under a pale sky, leaving behind me on the sidewalk a man who did not dare kiss me. I’ve taken it in the summer, at 9 AM, praying that it would speed up so that I can be at my Arabic class on time.

Van 4 by Virginie Le Borgne

I’ve hated the “4” during the ten irregular minutes I had to wait for it at Tayouneh, while twenty services or so hurried to honk at me. I’ve loved the “4” all the time that remains.

I’ve hit my head a hundred times against its metallic roof while trying to extract myself from it once arrived. I’ve almost fallen while entering, when the impatient driver decided to start up again before reaching my seat. And I will carry on falling.

As long as Van 4 will run, I will get in it.

Van Number 4 by Virginie Le Borgne

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This #HerBus contribution was written and photographed by Virginie Le Borgne, a freelance journalist living in Beirut. You can follow her on Instagram.

Virginie’s story is part of an ongoing series highlighting the unique and complex experiences of women who use public transport in Lebanon. Do you have a story you want to share? We will post it with as much, or as little, editorial input as you request, to make sure that your voice is in the forefront. You can write in English, Arabic or French, and when appropriate, we will share a translation that sticks as closely as possible to the spirit of your story. Share an experience, keep it personal, make it academic, be creative — your city needs your voice!

#HerBus: ‘Sweat and Perfume’—Florence’s Story

The first time I was in Lebanon as an intern, I had very little money and therefore used buses to move around everyday. Which led a colleague of mine to make a “joke” I didn’t understand yet: “Only Syrians and French take the bus everyday. Because the Syrians are poor and the French are used to it.” And in fact, it’s true, French people are used to public transportation, especially if you live in a city, so I guess that was convenient for me and not weird at all. Plus, it’s insanely cheap compared to everything else in Lebanon. I realized only after everyone reacted like “Yiiiii? You take the bus everyday? You’re not scared?” that maybe it wasn’t customary here.

The hardest thing was actually for me to know which one to take, where to wait for it, and where it would go. I had plenty of adventures getting lost in unknown neighborhoods before I managed to have some indication on what to do. But the drivers, when it happened to me, were always very nice, getting someone to talk in English or French with me if they couldn’t, and helped me with a big smile, a cigarette and sometimes even candies. So no problem, except for being late to my destination.

Now, I can use taxis, uber and services, but I still take the bus when I want to go around in Lebanon, especially to the North, South and the Bekaa. These roads are faster if you take a crazy minivan, if you don’t fear for your life! I was involved in an accident once, but got only bruises and a big scare that didn’t prevent me from going in one the following week. Seriously, these guys can avoid the traffic like magic. I remember once, we were stuck in the traffic of Jounieh on a Saturday, and another van driver talked to ours, telling him to follow his way. Of course, it cut us a full hour of traffic, and our driver was so pleased, the two men kept singing each other love songs for the rest of the trip, it was hilarious and sweet at the same time.

As a woman alone, I actually feel safer sometimes on a bus than on a service, because you always get the best seat away from all the men. Everyone is always watching out for you, and no one will dare look at you in a weird way or say anything insulting. Actually, a man was following me once on a bus, trying to seat next to me, other men saw it happening and pushed him out at the next “stop”. So it’s always a good experience, if you can deal with the smells of sweat and perfume!

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Photo by Idrissa Mboup, taken as part of our Bus Map Photo Action last summer.

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This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting the unique and complex experiences of women who use public transport in Lebanon. Do you have a story you want to share? We will post it with as much, or as little, editorial input as you request, to make sure that your voice is in the forefront. You can write in English, Arabic or French, and when appropriate, we will share a translation that sticks as closely as possible to the spirit of your story. Share an experience, keep it personal, make it academic, be creative — your city needs your voice!

#HerBus: هناك ما هو منظم و رخيص—Farah’s Story

This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting the unique and complex experiences of women who use public transport in Lebanon. Do you have a story you want to share? We will post it with as much, or as little, editorial input as you request, to make sure that your voice is in the forefront. You can write in English, Arabic or French, and when appropriate, we will share a translation that sticks as closely as possible to the spirit of your story. Share an experience, keep it personal, make it academic, be creative — your city needs your voice! N.B. Scroll down for our translation of Farah’s story.

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ان النقل العام في لبنان غير منظم بحيث لا يوجد محطات معينة لنقل الركاب ولا حتى الركاب على علم بمواعيد انطلاق الباصات

لكن لمن لا يملك خيار سوى النقل العام يخضع للأمر الواقع وهو عشوائية النقل. قد يكون هذا الخيار أسهل بالنسبة للرجال اما للنساء فالوضع يختلف قليلا بحيث نتجنب الوقوع في موقف محرج كالتحرش وما شابه
لذلك تتجه بعض النساء الى الباصات لأنها وسيلة أمنة وقد علمت هذا من تجربة شخصية

في احدى المرات كنت متوجهة الى الأشرفية، اخترت أن أصعد ب تاكسي لكن كان خياري خاطئ فقد كان سائق التاكسي ينظر بطريقة تثير القلق عندها قررت النزول متحجج بأني غيرت وجهة ذهابي طبعا بعد نزولي كنت أبحث عن سيارة أجرة جديدة وفي نفس الوقت كان باص رقم 2 يتوجه نحوي صعدت وكانت أول تجربة لي لم تكن سيئة بل على العكس فقد كنت أشعر براحة فالركوب بالباص يجنبنا ك فتيات مواقف
.محرجة كثيرة ومع الوقت أصبحت على علم بوجهة الباص تبعا للأرقام التي تحملها

.قد يكون النقل العام من ضحايا العشوائية لكن بالرغم من هذا هناك ما هو منظم و رخيص

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“Public transport in Lebanon isn’t regulated; there are no designated stations where passengers can be picked up, nor are passengers informed about their schedules.

Those who have no choice but to use public transport are forced to accept the way things are — namely, transit’s informality. This may be an easy choice for men, but for women, the situation is a little different, as women tend to avoid falling into uncomfortable situations, such as being harassed, and the like; for this reason, some women prefer to use the bus, as it is a safer mode of transport, as I learned from personal experience:

Once, on my way to Ashrafieh, I decided to take a taxi, but this turned out to be a bad decision, as the driver began to look at me in a worrying manner. I decided to get out of the car, pretending that I was changing the direction of my journey. Naturally, when I got out, I began to look for another taxi; that’s when I saw a Number 2 bus heading in my direction, so I boarded it for the first time. It wasn’t a bad experience. On the contrary, I felt relaxed, since riding the bus helps us young women to avoid very uncomfortable situations. And with time, I began learning about different buses by their numbers.

Public transport may be a victim of informality, and yet, in spite of this, it offers cheap and organized options.

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Photo by Megan Barlow, taken as part of last summer’s Bus Map Photo Action

BRT in Focus: The Unions’ Perspective

As we saw in a previous post on the BRT Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study that we’ve been covering extensively, a major factor influencing the receptivity of people to the project is “perception.” Generally speaking, having more facts about the project can help bring different perspectives together, but this does not mean that all views are easily reconcilable. Everyone has their own reasons for championing one view of the sector over another, and it is easy to get frustrated with “narrow interests.” But at the end of the day, individual or group bias is the natural starting point for any conversation. We all come to a topic “from” somewhere, and we all take part “because” of something. This is half the fun of democracy, but it is also half the burden.

The same is true for public transport in general. In our last post — part of the #HerBus series we’ve just launched — we see an example of a young woman who decided to try the bus as a means of re-inventing her identity and place in Lebanon, after some time abroad. In other words, many people’s motivations for championing public transport are not primarily economic or environmental; they want comfort, peace of mind, or prefer the bus because they can daydream while watching the city scroll past their window. The bus can make poet-philosophers out of all of us, and our right to public transport, in many ways, is at its core a right to switch off and experience the life of the mind, even if fleetingly, during our daily commute.

The challenge lies in making sure our perspective — our reason to care — does not crowd out the reasons, perspectives and “cares” of others, especially those for whom public transport is a fundamental part of survival. All people are created equal, but not all stakes in the sector are the same. This is why the point of view of transport worker syndicates is absolutely vital, even if it “inconveniences” the whole project.

Here’s the second challenge: Anyone seeking to include the voices of transport workers should be really committed to this goal, and not allow the way the system has been set up to become a game they play before moving on (“we called them and they didn’t send anyone,” etc). The need to deepen relations within the sector and beyond the formal representative mechanisms is not something that will be fulfilled during any particular consultation study, but it does require sustained effort and time from a network of advocates that build real and lasting relationships inside and outside of the syndicates, that, in turn, cumulatively get us to that more ideal culture of inclusiveness inshallah. We are happy to know that ELARD agrees.

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Way back on the 7th of February, ELARD opened up their consultation process by holding the first focus group meeting with transit unions at their office in Zalka-Amaret Chalhoub, near City Mall. Several transport-related unions and syndicates were invited, though only two representatives attended (for reference, a full list of unions is included at the end of the post).

We always talk about the importance of including existing transport operators in any proposed reform of the sector, but taking part in this session reminded us that it is too easy to romanticize this process, as though complex negotiations involving multiple, and often times clashing interests, with little-to-no history of interaction and commonality, can come to a quick and tidy resolution over coffee and petit four.

And yet, even with just two unions represented, a lot of useful information was shared, and through a spontaneous interplay between concerns over design and worries over jobs, the gap that can be filled today by groups seeking to reconcile divergent views became a little clearer.

To help keep our focus on this gap, we will not detail everything that was discussed in this meeting. Rather, we will try to thematize the proceedings to highlight the areas where more attention and dialogue could help bring us closer to that more ideal system of participation that we all aspire to reach:

Points of Convergence:

The most common theme during the session was integration, though it was not necessarily expressed that way by all sides. Elias Abou Mrad of Train/Train was very concerned about making sure that each “island” (the areas in the highway where bus stations are built) is well connected to the other sides of the highway, in a way that takes into consideration the psychology of pedestrians. He believed that the success of the project lies in how integrated the transition from one side to the other feels for bus users, and recommended that the design of each island/bridge extends past the edges of the highway, so that open spaces are found on either side. This is important to avoid the feeling of crossing a barrier which inevitably comes from any major road slicing through an urban area.

Trying to imagine the implementation of this recommendation was eye-opening for us, as it was difficult to mentally picture where these open spaces could be found without going back out and exploring the whole highway on foot; the very fact that the meeting was being held in a part of Zalka that several at the meeting indicated they had not mentally imagined as part of Zalka proper further proved Elias’ point. And though it first seemed unrealistic to find open spaces at the entrance of every single pedestrian bridge given how randomly buildings have developed alongside the northern highway, the way that this suggestion forced us to re-imagine how the urban fabric can stitch itself back around the ‘gaping wound’ of the highway was very useful for us, as pedestrians who have learned to run across barriers and make due with the car-centric urban environment. “We have to set the policy in ideal terms,” Elias insisted, “and see how much we can reach that.”

From a different perspective, “General Federation” unionist Elie Aoun insisted that the project’s success lies in the socioeconomic integration of bus and van drivers who rely on the northern highway. He explained how leaving these workers as an afterthought will cause a big shock to the system, as their livelihoods are at stake, and insisted that alternatives or incentives must be found for these workers so that they see the BRT project as a positive development, and not an antagonistic intruder. “It’s a matter of image,” he explained, as much as it is a problem of competing interests.

The point of convergence between these two positions — the design problem of stitching together the urban fabric, and the sociopolitical problem of avoiding friction between two transport markets — is clear, but it is not necessarily obvious, as both sides focus more on their own primary concerns. Hence, it is absolutely imperative for the CDR to take the lead here by adopting a posture of reconciliation towards both sides, and doing the meticulous work of bridging the technical (with its focus on consumers) with the social (with its focus on service providers) in a solution that is mutually-honoring. In other words, for this project to succeed, the CDR must not act like one more lobby among others, but rather, to be the forum in which diverging views are heard, understood, and satisfied.

How can this be accomplished? We will not claim to be experts — especially when it comes to the granular level of every island and bridge — but, drawing on a comment that Elias Abou Mrad made, we can suggest the policy framework that ought to color every decision made in the design phase: at this stage, the average user imagined by the design cannot simply be the person who currently owns a car and is projected as likely to stop driving when the BRT system becomes successful. It cannot even be the existing bus user, who is expected to switch modes (while also being portrayed as another “problem” to solve, given their existing transit-riding habits and practices), from the informal to the formal system. Even the unions seem to agree that these transit users will make the switch, and hence, threaten the livelihoods of existing bus and van drivers. But having these two users in mind at this point skips over the fact that car drivers will only abandon the car when the BRT project is complete, and existing bus users will only make the switch when the routes they already rely on naturally and effortlessly fit into the new system. These two developments might happen rapidly, perhaps with the very first fleet to depart on day one of the BRT service; but we would like to suggest that this scenario is more likely to happen if the average user being imagined at this stage of the design phase is the existing transit operator: taxis, services, Uber, vans, buses, Bostas…

The issue of how feeder links will work cannot be an afterthought, and, indeed, this came up several times during focus group meetings with the general public over the next few weeks. It cannot be left as an emergent design shaped by market forces or other self-organizing dynamics, because there is no guarantee that these forces will go in the direction that support the BRT project (indeed, the issue of violent opposition to the project was brought up several times during the meeting). In our view, this is the most concrete bridge between Abou Mrad’s concerns about the urban tissue and Aoun’s worries over the socioeconomic fabric.

Points of Divergence:

This point of convergence, and potential site for cooperation, was undermined somewhat by subtle comments that were made that seemed to take us backwards by de-legitimizing public transport as it exists today. On the one hand, when a suggestion was made of directly compensating existing drivers who may lose business, the question was raised about “why the Lebanese people should pay for that,” as though the perfectly reasonable, free market mechanism of buy-out and buy-in was a burden too high to ask of the taxpayer. On the other hand, when the question of how passengers will deal with dedicated bus stops when they are so used to disembarking anywhere along the route, the blame was put on the transit user, as though the perfectly reasonable use of affordances provided by the system itself was a moral failing of individual riders. In both cases, the burden of change was discursively shifted in the wrong direction. When the state has been absent from a sector, it is not up to those who filled the void to somehow be less inconvenient to it when it decides to return. And when a system provides little to no structure for its users, it is not up to them on an individual basis to create that infrastructure through sheer willpower alone (though — irony of ironies — they often do).

Hence, for this process of bridging perspectives together to be truly effective, we need to once and for all exorcise that implicit but ever-present spirit of disgust that hangs over our discussions of existing public transport. We cannot reconcile differences while holding grudges. Let us, instead, accept where we are and excel within existing parameters — joud bel mawjoud.








List of Transport Syndicates invited to the Focus Group, in Arabic:

  • النقابة العامة لسائقي سيارات الاجرة اللبنانيين
  • اتحاد نقابات سائقي السيارات العمومية للنقل البري
  • الاتحاد العام لنقابات السائقين العموميين وعمال النقل في لبنان
  • الاتحاد اللبناني لنقابات سائقي السيارات العمومية ومصالح النقل في لبنان
  • اتحاد الولاء لنقابات النقل والموصلات في لبنان
  • نقابة اصحاب شركات ومؤسسات التاكسي في لبنان
  • نقابة اصحاب الاوتوبيس والسيارات العمومية ومكاتب النقل في الجمهورية اللبنانية

#HerBus: ‘First Times and First Impressions’—Zahra’s Story

On International Workers’ Day, we remember and celebrate the often-times hidden labor that keeps our cities running. From bus drivers to sanitation workers, nurses to waiters — we salute you.

May Day is also a time to reflect on and challenge inequality. Attitudes towards public transport in Lebanon are often linked to class distinctions. Sometimes these attitudes are masked behind concerns over cleanliness or timeliness or safety — all of which are consumer rights that are not evenly distributed, and hence, are in themselves class markers; other times, attitudes will be much more direct in their aversion to mingling with ‘people who take the bus.’

Today, we want to share the first contribution to the series of posts on women’s experiences on public transport announced on International Women’s Day by highlighting the intersections of class, race and gender shaping how we get around Beirut. Zahra’s thoughtful story is about learning and unlearning, and the experience of challenging fear and privilege to participate more fully in the urban diversity of Beirut. This is a process that never ends, and requires bravery to face up to ourselves.

* * *

I took my first bus in Beirut under the Dawra bridge, heading north to Byblos on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day with an ex-boyfriend. Neither of us had a car, he was British, and I had recently returned from London, so bus travel was both acceptable and desirable. Before London, I had lived in Lebanon for 6 years but I never set foot on a bus partly because I didn’t need to, but mostly because it wasn’t an option. I was a student at the American University of Beirut and was surrounded by a circle of friends that were both revolted and terrified by the idea of public transport. But the aversion was shared by my family and friends outside of AUB, so it didn’t seem like just an issue of financial means.

Since my (non-voluntary) return from London, I was adamant on crafting a “fresh start” and was driven by preferences and considerations that were detached from the Lebanese context. Exploring options for public transport in Lebanon was a choice taken from a privileged position; it was something quite alternative and enjoyable. Taking the bus in a country where bus travel is not mainstream (to someone like me at least) was my way of living in the kind of city I want to live in, as opposed to the real one I have no choice but to be part of and be oppressed by. And so I repeated this journey of imagination several times and loved it. That day in Dawra, my British companion helped me detach myself even more from the social context and provided me with what I felt was an immunity from social taboos. Being a male, he also gave me a sense of protection, even though I knew that if anything were to happen, I would be the one doing the protecting.

As for first impressions, the first thing I thought when I rode a bus was: “it’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is”. People were ‘normal-looking’… there were women like me… young, some middle aged, Lebanese, and more or less “well-presented” or mratab as they say. This first impression discredited the assumptions that so many people around me held- that buses are run down, stink, full of migrant workers and haunted by the spectre of the dangerous Syrian worker. The second thought that came to my mind was that all these people were acting very normal and civil, including the bus driver. The normality reassured me. I was certainly in a new place, outside my comfort zone, but judging by the looks of the people around me, I wasn’t really outside my ‘circle’ and even if I was, these outsiders weren’t so different. The men were not astonished by the presence of women amongst them, even though some of them were young and attractive and alone.

Once I found comfort in this new space, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride and this is how the ‘entertainment value’ of the bus came to be my reason to seek it many times after. It turned out that I was an outsider after all because I wasn’t just commuting like everyone else, I was there for the journey. On a bus, I was the audience, and the city was my show. People, conversations, incidents, the humor and absurdity of Lebanese life flashed before me and I was both part of this show and its observer. It created a new experience of the city and a new sense of belonging to a ‘public’ space/facility/realm.

Bus No.2

Bus No. 2 passes right by my house and heads to Hamra as its final stop. Every day, I would see it passing by but always resorted to service taxis, even though they cost me much more (especially given my request to cross the imaginary desert that stood between Ashrafieh and Hamra). The 1,000 lira bus fare was very appealing to an unemployed graduate, so I decided to try it out one day. When I entered, I tried to act like a regular to compensate for the red lipstick and heels. It didn’t work and all eyes were on me, especially when I asked the driver how long the journey to Hamra takes. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer: “it depends on the traffic”. My insistence was holding back the bus so a commuter shouted from the back, “half an hour.” I thanked him, paid the fare, and sat in the back relieved that the ‘gaze’ had broken off and moved on to its new victims. On the way, I was overjoyed to be heading to work on a bus. I felt there was an order of things that I was never aware of in this city… something was working and people were abiding by rules. At the time I didn’t know LCC buses were operated by a private company and thought that they were government-operated. This initial idea however gave me a feeling I have never felt before in this country… that I was entitled to a service as a citizen, that there was a government looking after me, that I was no different than anyone else on the bus, migrant worker, Lebanese, man, female alike.

The bus also took me through neighborhoods I don’t usually go through on my way to work, always seeking the same and shortest route. The bus ride expanded the city’s horizon and it felt like everything was a lot more connected. I got to work in 50 minutes as opposed to the usual 20 something minutes it would have taken by car or service, but it was worth it and I was in a good mood. I haven’t repeated it since because it’s simply not practical to travel for 50 minutes. If that wasn’t the case I would gladly drop the service and car rental for the bus.

When we reached the final stop in Hamra next to Barbar, everyone was getting off and the driver noticed that I was confused so he asked me where I am going. I said I was heading right to the end of Hamra and asked if the bus heads in that direction. He said no so I politely thanked him and left to continue walking. As I headed off, the bus driver started beeping at me so I turned back to see if I had forgotten something. He told me “if you want I can drop you, just for you, walaw”… and so my experience of utmost equality came to an abrupt end and back I was to the city of preferential treatment, sweaty wrinkled winks and catcalling. I said no thank you and walked off doubting whether I was too harsh in my initial reading of the gesture. Maybe he was just being nice, can’t people be nice? Do we have to be programmed like Londoners? I yearned for the predictability I felt for 50 minutes while on the bus no.2. I may have made up this predictability entirely, it may have been just my projected expectations of what a public transport system should be like. Maybe another person would have appreciated the driver’s offer. Who am I to say? I now ride to work in my rented car.

BRT in Focus: The Riders’ Perspective (Keserouen)

On the 28th of March, ELARD hosted its second focus group for the general public, this time at Haret Sakher, at the Saydet Al Maounet Church. The majority of attendants were youth from a scouting group, with a few women also connected to the organization also in attendance. Overall, around 20 people took part in the discussion, which touched on several points already heard in previous gatherings, while bringing particular aspects into sharper focus.

The overall discussion took on a for/against vibe, as though the BRT project was being put up for a vote. This atmosphere was productive, however, as it sparked critical conversations that are important at this stage of the Impact Assessment. One middle-aged woman raised a very interesting point about the whole process. She wanted more details about the design (numbers of buses, etc.), and inquired about the follow-up process (like receiving the final report that ELARD is preparing), insisting on her right to information. The team assured her that she would be able to request a copy from the government, thanks to the recently ratified transparency law (“2anoon el-shafafiyeh”).

As in the previous focus group meeting in the Matn region, concerns were raised over the narrowing of the highway. One person worried about the project failing (due to lack of ridership) after the investment and road changes have already been made, leaving a “useless” lane in the middle of the highway.

Others raised more specific concerns about the project design. One young man wondered whether 28 stops would translate to 28 minutes of stopping time, which he thought would mean too slow a journey, which he would prefer to cover by car. It would be interesting to see whether his calculation is accurate, since the BRT system uses prepaid boarding precisely for this reason: to shave off seconds at every stop. But more broadly than this, it would seem that a major challenge for encouraging people to make the switch from car travel to public transport is to — somehow — convince more people that public transport produces more value than just time. Even if the bus takes 30 minutes longer than it “should,” in comparison to single-occupant travel (because it has to “stop for other people”), this journey time is socially valuable. To expect buses to compete with cars at the level of Point A to Point B convenience for the individual user — others be damned — is simply ideological. Public transport is social. It cannot be tailored to individual whim, alone.

Having said that, it is interesting to test out the assumed efficiency of car travel given the amount of traffic all modes have to face today. This week, one of our team members left Hamra at exactly 5 o’clock, in the direction of Fanar, for two consecutive days. On the first day, he took the Number 5/8, which was especially packed with passengers at that time. This route tends to be seen as circuitous, as the bus has to “stop for others” from Hamra, through Basta, Sassine, Bourj Hammoud, Jdeideh, etc., all the way to Ain Saadeh. Due to peak traffic, this trip took 2 hours. The next day, this exact same trip was done by car, taking a “more direct” route (Hamra, DT, Ashrafieh, Dekweneh, Fanar). Due to peak traffic, taking the car only saved 15 minutes. The point here is not that the bus will always match the car; it’s that traffic needs to be reduced before any mode can be called “efficient,” and the main cause of congestion is the personal car. Any comparison of journey time between the two modes must take this basic fact into account.

Another noteworthy theme in this focus group was the relatively high number of participants who wondered why the existing system isn’t improved. One young man asked why the state is investing in new routes if the work to better integrate existing routes isn’t already done: “If I have to buy three tickets, what will the overall cost be for me then? It might mean 8000LL each way overall, making it less affordable than paying to fill up my car.” He suggested that existing buses can also be upgraded and cleaned. Another young woman also worried about the total journey, since the BRT system only takes into consideration the coastal highway, though many people need a way to reach the highway from the surrounding hills (as we pointed out in the Matn discussion).

Another young man who rides buses also thought that improving the existing system was a good idea, but he suggested that no infrastructural upgrades would be enough, as the main reason that people don’t take the bus is psychosocial: “people don’t ride because they don’t want to be with certain people,” he said. The way he said this seemed to imply that he was referring to “newcomers” like Syrian refugees, but when he was pressed to reflect on why those people didn’t take the the bus before the Syrian crisis, the moderator steered the discussion elsewhere. We believe that opening up this thorny discussion is critical for project success, however: class disgust is an invisible barrier to increased ridership, and even if more mixing is achieved, there is no guarantee that social harmony will automatically emerge through propinquity.

This social, psychological and political dimension of public transport was flagged up more directly by one young woman who arrived late to the meeting. She didn’t care about buses because her parents don’t let her use them. “It doesn’t matter if they’re clean, because people on the bus are scary,” she said. She shared stories of harassment of friends, and said: “I wear short skirts and don’t want to be stared at.”

It’s issues like these that are often defined and pushed to one side as matters of “awareness,” as though technical solutions can really “fix” anything if the social conditions for their proper implementation are not addressed throughout the whole project design. For example, a solar-powered water pump will not be maintained by a village if people would rather hook up their televisions and computers to the grid, and keep sourcing water from their wells by hand, no matter how “efficient” the system is deemed by designers. In other words, things will only work as well as their users want them to, and designing for the wrong needs will only ensure project failure. We hope this assessment process can make this clear to the CDR, as we do not want to see this project fail.

Bus Rhythms & User Hacks

Beirut.com has published an interesting post from the perspective of a daily bus and service user. The site has posted articles about services and vans before, but what’s nice about this one is that it includes some practical tips for the would-be bus rider. This one’s quite useful:

“If you can get a fast bus for half the way, do it. For example, if you’re taking the Bikfaya bus from Dora, don’t. From Dora to Antelias it’ll take you around 30 mins as he’ll drive slowly, so jump on a Tripoli or Jbeil bus to Antelias and then board the Bikfaya bus. These routes are known to be really fast.”

What this tip underlines, for us, is how all systems have a learning curve.

First-time signups will stick to the basic functionalities, but pretty soon, the pro-user will figure out the hacks that work for her. It’s the same kind of learning that happens when you start driving around Beirut’s convoluted streets. Or, on a smaller scale, when you masterfully dodge pedestrians and parked cars on your way to your favorite pub on Saturday night: you’re syncing up your rhythms with flows and moorings of others, in a jaunty jingle-jangle, look-at-my-dab dance.

Bottom line? The city is a sprawling text that doesn’t immediately reveal its deeper meanings.


Feature photo by Garine Gokceyan, taken as part of the Bus Map Photo Action (July 2016)

BRT in Focus: The Riders’ Perspective (Matn)

On February 27th, ELARD held a focus group with the general public in the Matn district, at the Saydeh Church hall in Sin el-Fil, as part of their ongoing Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study for the proposed BRT project that we blogged about previously. A good spectrum of views were voiced, and we were pleasantly surprised by the significant number of attendees who already use buses and services-taxis for the majority of their trips (in fact, only one young man admitted to “being a little annoying,” and using his car “for everything,” which was a brilliant way to put it).

We thought we’d pick up our coverage of the BRT conversation again with a brief summary and even briefer analysis of the views expressed in this session:

→ A man who served at the church and identified himself as a law graduate immediately voiced worries about the way the project design would mean “narrowing” the highway along the northern axis to accommodate a dedicated bus lane. He argued that, unless measures are taken to avoid increasing traffic for car drivers or at least prepare them beforehand through awareness and marketing campaigns to know what to expect, there will be an immediate backlash against the project. “This needs to work well from Day 1,” he insisted.

His comments were quite pertinent because they touched on a theme also discussed in an earlier focus group with transport unions (which we will post about in some detail soon): while the BRT project postulates an indirect theory of behavioral change based on speed, efficiency and rational choice — i.e. “when people see a bus running smoothly while they are stuck in traffic, they will think about taking the bus next time” — which seems reasonable on the surface, this comment and others like it point to an underappreciated emotional and maybe even moralistic dimension to this change as well. “People in Lebanon will not react positively to any change if they are not preconditioned through direct appeals to see their personal interest in this change,” he argued, echoing a similar point raised by one transit union representative about the project’s “image.”

→ A student who takes the Number 15 from Sin el Fil to AUB did not think the issue of awareness would be such a big deal, agreeing with the project designers’ hypothesis: the biggest argument for the project is its smooth functioning. She also added that billboards and advertisements could go a long way in preparing people for the change.

As for her existing transit use, the student said that even though the Number 15 is too slow, she prefers using it over having to deal with parking and traffic on her way to university. “When I’m forced to drive, I get angry,” she said. She also enjoys encountering her friends on the bus, as many take the same route. The only thing she doesn’t like about the bus is when they get crowded way beyond normal operating capacity. She likes the idea of having fixed bus stops along the BRT route, as this may reduce overcrowding as well as speed up the trip much more, as the slowness of existing transit tends to be due to all the arbitrary stops that drivers have to make to pick up passengers anywhere along the journey. One young man who came in late to the discussion jumped in at this point and argued that this overcrowding is also due to the incentives that drivers currently have to maximize profit by maximizing capacity: “if they become regular employees of the BRT operator, they won’t keep piling on people.” He also suggested that BRT buses would be designed to have people standing up, unlike the Mitsubishi Rosa models that we’re used to on our roads.

We wish more people who don’t take the bus in Lebanon would realize that overcrowding isn’t always due to there being too few buses on the road (though that is the case on some routes); there is a real demand for public transport right now, every day, meaning that anyone claiming that “Lebanese people will never take a bus” — yes, some people say this — is not basing their opinion on facts.

→ Another young man who goes to work to Ashrafieh by service-taxi, and occasionally takes the bus when heading to Batroun or Tripoli, was enthusiastic about the BRT project. The aspect that appealed to him most was its increased level of safety. He also mentioned how he hoped such a project would reduce the number of non-Lebanese transport workers in the sector.

A few comments in this vein, about “too many foreigners” driving buses, were made by others in this meeting, and in other discussions we’ve had with people about public transport. We think that such views need to be reconsidered, not just on humanitarian grounds, but also by realizing that the transit sector is always the easiest job market for migrants to enter, in any society. This can be seen in cities as diverse as New York and Melbourne, in countries where Lebanese people we know personally have worked as bus drivers and own taxi licenses like everyone else. The real issue in Lebanon, then, is not the identity of transport workers, but the unstructured way that non-Lebanese drivers have become integrated into the sector. This leaves everyone, including migrants, at a disadvantage. But let’s not forget as well that there is a war on our border, and the transport system’s receptiveness to new labor flows has been, in many ways, miraculous.

→ A middle aged lady expressed how much she likes existing buses “despite all their negatives.” Taking the bus puts her mind at ease, because she knows exactly where they go, unlike the less predictable routes of service-taxis. She mentioned taking a bus from Cola to Hasbaya, emphasizing how amazing it is to be able to go such distances with ease. “Why would I drive my car all the way there?” she asked. The aspect of the BRT project which she appreciated most was the punctuality of the bus scheduling that would be maintained.

→ A young woman who participated with her mother also agreed that she feels safer on the bus than in service-taxis. This is a common theme we hear from many women who use the bus regularly; buses tend to be seen as more public than taxis, leading to less harassment. She also added that she supports public transport because its better for the environment and personal budgeting than driving a car.

When asked what she thought the BRT project could add to improve personal safety even more, she said that video monitoring would help a lot to convince more women to consider the bus. The issue of women’s experiences of public transport is very important to us, and we will be publishing a series of posts on this subject very soon.

→ Interestingly, the sole car driver in the group claimed that even though he prefers his car, having taken a bus only once and losing his temper over its slowness, he might also be convinced to start taking public transport if the BRT project proved to be an effective alternative.

→ The final intervention came from a man who identified himself as a plumber and a Syrian who has lived in Sin el Fil for over 30 years. He argued that the new bus system should be run by the state, with existing operators hired by the state (ta3a2od), with social security and a fixed salary that would better their circumstances. It would be interesting to see whether transit unions would be open to such an idea, as their suggestions were more “free market”-oriented in scope (more on this in another post).

→ We asked whether any of the participants would have a problem walking ~500 meters to get to a bus stop, since the issue of bus user behavior was raised in a previous focus group as an obstacle to be surmounted, but the response in this session was unanimous: people are willing to walk to bus stops if this means increased safety for them. We wonder if this would be true for Beirut bus users as well.

→ The last two points of discussion that stick out for us have to do with pricing and geographic integration: When we asked about the expected price of the BRT journey, since there has been some public talk of a 5000LL fare, we were told again that this issue is still being studied: should there be a flat rate or a sliding scale based on distance traveled? We asked participants how much they would be willing to pay for a trip to Hamra from where we were: 3000LL? Some said that this was reasonable, but the law graduate argued for a “fair usage system” that balanced between different social classes and the state’s need to recoup its investment in the project. We wonder what the World Bank’s loan for this project would stipulate in this regard, and whether a real balance can be found in a society with such a stark difference in classes. We tried to make this point during the meeting: that a great majority of existing bus users are migrant workers and retirees, for whom even a 500LL increase could make a significant impact – would the new BRT project create a two-tier system, with the most vulnerable forced to stay in the informally-run sector?

The second issue is equally thorny: the project design as it exists seems to cater too much to the coastal areas in and around Beirut, with suburban residents being left as an afterthought. Even this session, geared towards Matn, focused mostly on the areas closest to Beirut. The ongoing traffic chaos due to construction in Mkalles should raise a red flag about taking the traffic flow from the Upper Matn and surrounding regions too lightly. There are many educational institutions in this area, and morning traffic is a disaster on a regular basis, with far-reaching effects beyond the Matn. The only scenario being presented now, it seems, is: “people coming down from Bikfaya can park their cars [in Park and Ride facilities] when coming down to the coast” — but shouldn’t Park and Ride be encouraged further away from the coast? How many commuters would drive all the way from Bikfaya to the coast, going through all the traffic in that area, just to take a 10 minute bus ride into the city? The incentive to leave their cars at home should be planned for much earlier in the journey as a basic part of the BRT system itself. This is why, we insist again, that feeder buses from the regions surrounding the northern axis of Beirut must be planned for early on for this pilot project to effectively reduce traffic from Day 1; this cannot be left as an emergent possibility we hope will happen once the BRT system is up and running.

Since this project is ostensibly part of a much larger master plan, there is a real opportunity here for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the OCFTC and the CDR to work together with local municipalities and transit unions and operators in order to use the BRT project as a catalyst for mobility improvements across Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The way this project is implemented can set the tone for all projects to be developed in the foreseeable future: will it be a form of urban acupuncture that frees up blocked energies and flows making even further improvements easier to attain, or will it be another bandage on a gaping wound?

BRT & Integration

This is a follow-up to the previous post, titled ‘BRT & Inclusion’.

As you can see from these slides, the BRT project consists of:

  • Three BRT routes, including two loops within Beirut and its outskirts, and one northbound axis terminating in Tabarja (N.B. the bus service is supposed to keep going until Tripoli, but this would happen in mixed traffic, i.e. without a dedicated lane).
  • For the northbound route, the dedicated lane will occupy the center divider of the highway, necessitating the building of pedestrian bridges connecting each side of the highway to 28 bus stations separated by 850m. The specifications of the two circular routes are still being studied, segment-by-segment, but from comments made in the Q&A session, these routes will most likely use the right side of the road (i.e. take up parking space), with around 23 stops separated by ~500m.
  • Eight park-and-ride facilities, on land already owned by the OCFTC, in areas like Dora, Antelias, Nahr el-Kalb, etc. These would allow people to park their cars and hop on the BRT, hopefully reducing the amount of cars entering Beirut from the north.

Some experts and activists will justifiably want to follow up on every single one of these details, but we’ll keep our eyes on the bigger picture for now (but not too big; this project will certainly not solve the problem of the over-centralization of jobs and services in Beirut, as one audience member complained on Thursday):

These three axes are expected to fit into the existing bus system, and to integrate additional routes that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport is also planning. The same park-and-ride facilities could potentially also be used for the revitalized railway project that is also part of the MoPTW’s master plan.

More broadly, the northern axis could — in theory — motivate the OCFTC and the private sector (and maybe even some enterprising municipalities) to invest in feeder links that connect suburban towns and villages to the coast. Clone this project in other regions, and car-dependency could drop dramatically over time. By creating new flows and interconnections, who knows — maybe even the problem of over-concentration will be lessened over time, as new markets are created in better connected regions.

By finally tackling the problem that most people complain about on the road (i.e. traffic congestion), the state would be in turn liberating the pro-transit lobby from a forced obsession with road safety and air pollution. Hence, another effect of this project could be to shift NGO priorities to more specific improvements, like advocating for rural transport, night buses, nationwide cycle infrastructure, etc. The BRT system could also draw attention to problems we all know exist, but which are kept out of sight, out of mind: if prices are affordable, there may be more mixing of social classes and nationalities in our highly-segregated city, forcing latent tensions into the open, and creating more sites of intervention for rights-based advocates.

Keeping this bigger picture in mind does not mean that we can afford to engage in fanciful, blue-sky thinking, however. The only way we can get to the bright and dynamic future described above, with all its opportunities and challenges, is to get a viable system built, and the only way to do that is to do the hard work of getting more people to talk to each other more often.

Spoiler alert: this is a political process.

At one point during Thursday’s session, a presenter assured the audience that this theoretical system-wide integration isn’t a complicated issue: “nothing is unsolvable” (ma fi shi ma byen7al), he said. This is certainly something we believe as well — if we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be here, doing what we’re doing. But it would be naive to think that integration would happen by itself.

Participatory systems are only as effective as their mechanisms of reconciliation — in other words, there’s no use listening to a variety of views if there’s no means of fitting them together in a coherent and broadly-satisfying way. This is especially imperative for infrastructural projects which are inherently meant to meet a wide range of needs. As we often find out too late in the game, nothing is purely technical, and all infrastructures “are inevitably imbued with biased struggles for social, economic, ecological and political power to benefit from connecting to (more or less) distant times and places” (Graham and Marvin, 2002: 11). That quote’s a mouthful, but it’s the reason why engineering can’t be simply left to the engineers.

With regards to public transport in Lebanon, we know from research that many existing stakeholders in the sector want the state to return to its role as regulator, but there is a lack of trust between them, and little confidence in the state’s ability to play this part. One researcher has described this situation in the following terms:

“Although [operators] prefer more regulation and order under transit reform on one hand, they are also apprehensive of their future roles, on the other hand. Placing blame on each other also suggests a “prisoners dilemma” scenario in which each stakeholder operates individualistically, lacking the reassurance to cooperate in a mutually beneficial system.” (Aoun, 2011: 8)

From what we heard on Thursday, it appears that the proposed BRT system has the potential for becoming a catalyst of such a “mutually beneficial system.” The design is supposed to leave enough space for other operators and modes — since there seems to be a (technical) way, all we need to wait for now is the (political) will.

BRT & Inclusion

If you’ve been following our story so far, you may remember an interview with us in The Daily Star that came out in July. In that article, our modest little project was paired with an interview with a prominent Member of Parliament, who seemed somewhat dismissive of our grassroots approach to public transport advocacy. He spoke about a BRT system that the government is pursuing, as though any single infrastructural project could stand alone in a complex sociotechnical “thing” like urban mobility.

Though the pairing of our project with something as complicated as a BRT system is somewhat odd – they serve completely different ends – the unintended (?) and productive consequence of the journalist’s choice to put these two interviews in conversation was to highlight an important difference in rhetoric, and not (necessarily) in goals. This difference being, namely, the one between making do with present realities (a tactical, citizen-centric approach), and imposing radically new ones (a strategic, state-centric approach).

Yesterday, we had a chance to finally hear some details about this proposed BRT system, after being “teased” about it for a long time. A company called ELARD reached out to us and invited us to the first public consultation session they were organizing on the behalf of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, as part of an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study they were conducting. This was a great opportunity to learn about the technical details of this proposed system (more on this below), but it also was a pleasant surprise — the event and our invitation seemed to indicate a serious (?) desire among policymakers to be a little more inclusive than we’ve been used to. Indeed, as Hanadi Musharrafiyeh of ELARD said in response to a great question about their participatory methodology, they could have easily stuck to the letter of the law and simply posted flyers calling people to the meeting at the Municipality of Jdeideh (and thus, dooming the session to formalistic oblivion); instead, they chose an “active” approach, reaching out to as many actors as they could, which we as Bus Map Project can attest to.

Above is a summary of the components of the project, but before we get into the details of what we learned during the session, it’s important to reflect a little further on this desire for inclusion. We’ve seen proceedings of public sessions for various projects in the 90s and 00s. One document we’ve seen — of a session held in Bourj Hammoud to discuss the construction of Dora Bridge — stands out in particular for us: in it, a certain official from the CDR assured session participants that the traffic capacity of the bridge should last until 2015, as a comprehensive, state-regulated public transport system would definitely be developed by then. We’re now in 2017, and most of us who care about our cities have little confidence in any projections, promises or assurances.

This mood was palpable in yesterday’s session, with Elias Maalouf of Train/Train directly addressing the issue by urging the consultants to avoid becoming “part of the long history of studies.” Having said this, however, we did sense a generally positive and open attitude within the session, and in the way that Fadi Matar in particular (representing CDR but not officially part of the panel discussion) responded to some questions and challenges from the audience. If this positive approach is genuine, then we can say that the rhetorical distinction between tactics/citizens and strategy/state need not be as stark as we tend to think.

Indeed, evidence for the bridging of this gap may be seen in the BRT project design itself (as it currently stands; the study is still in its feasibility stage, and not yet officially in the design phase): even though it’s being implemented by the CDR, the BRT project is meant to fit into a broader strategy produced by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (see above), with the OCFTC (i.e. the Rail and Public Transport Authority) slated to operate the system. The very fact that the BRT will not use the old train right-of-way on the Seaside Highway, as we used to hear often whenever the BRT system was brought up in previous years, indicates that the CDR may be trying its best to work more delicately, and as a “team player.” Perhaps we’ve become too cynical as civil society actors, but we’d be lying if we didn’t say that we’ve come to expect more bullying and jockeying for power within “the” state (and perhaps there are more problems backstage than we’re currently aware of).

More strikingly, the issue of existing public transport operators came up several times during the discussion, both from the podium and among the audience. This a huge leap, for us, as it was only a few years ago that we heard extremely dismissive and stigmatizing language being used in similar sessions. Indeed, even a few months ago, in a presentation from the World Bank, the issue of existing operators was included at the very bottom of a long list of “challenges” on one slide, but not even verbalized by the speaker. Hence, the fact that a) at least two audience members asked about plans to “integrate” (damej) the existing system within the project, and b) this was already being planned for, both on a ‘social impact’ level (in upcoming focus groups), and on a ‘design’ level (as feeder links that the planners assume will remain active), is a major step forward, from our point of view. With this shift, even on the level of discourse, we are hopeful that the days of violent, tabula rasa infrastructural fantasies can be put behind us now (*fingers crossed*).

There’s a lot more we can say about the technical details of the proposed system, but we’ll leave that for another post. For now, we want to affirm that in this process, we see hints of a positive step towards a more inclusive, incremental approach to urbanism in Lebanon. As users of the existing public transport system with a stake in both championing and improving it, we look forward to helping push this conversation forward in any way we can, and hope to take part in the focus group sessions planned soon.

Good luck to everyone involved, and let’s keep on keeping on.