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.

Access to Education: A Question of Mobility?

“Given our very bad infrastructure and transportation situation, no one can underestimate the inconvenience it causes for students that need to travel long distances to reach the university. Everyone is probably wondering what it is like to be a regular university student at the Faculty of Information located in Jdeideh, where few transportation options are available. No busing service is provided for the area; one must either travel by taxi or use one’s own vehicle. Moreover, only the faculty staff members are allowed to park their cars in the university parking. All students and visitors are forced to park in a paid private parking.”

This quote is taken from an article on Hayda Lebnan, written by the Media Association for Peace. It raises an important problem that many students face: getting into university is often half the battle, since after being accepted, getting to your class is still a headache.

Centralization, housing, infrastructure, traffic — it’s very important that people make these connections, because these issues are often addressed separately, though they intersect and amplify each other.

Interestingly, the neighborhood in question — Jdeideh/Sed El Baouchrieh — is one of the better connected areas around Beirut in terms of bus lines, due to its proximity to Dora. Could some of the burden on students be lifted if existing transit options are promoted?

Are you a university student who uses public transport? What routes do you rely on? What challenges do you face?

Stubbornly Modest

One of our favorite things to do is meeting with people who are curious about our project; not only do we get a chance to dive into topics we don’t always post about, but through these discussions, we are also reminded of the importance of issues we’ve become accustomed to as bus riders.

In one such conversation yesterday, we recalled why we’re so insistent on following the grain of the public transport system in Lebanon as it already exists: at the heart of this ‘ethos’ is the simple recognition of the fact that even though reforms are needed, reformers are not always necessary. For all its faults and challenges, the existing system — as a network of service providers and service receivers — already has the seeds of renewal within it. If we want to really notice them within the “chaos,” we should be stubbornly modest in our approach to the sector.

Number 5/8 Bus Notice (Dec 2016)

Here we see the return of a sign that showed up on a few buses two years ago, when bus tickets were first introduced on the Number 5/8. The language is different this time, but the point is the same: the bus route has organically developed its own regulations (“take a ticket and keep it with you,” “payment is upon entry,”, etc.), with no activist campaign or legal reform or ministerial edict imposed from above.

An earlier notice on the Number 5/8 bus

Perhaps this kind of service standardization is too small to make a big deal about, but when we realize what a sign like this means, we start to notice other self-organized features that are worth celebrating:>/p>

Who convinced bus owners that children ought to ride for free? Who forced the young to give up their seats for the not-as-young? Who figured out the emergency protocols for what to do when a series of delays causes one driver to abandon his trip halfway so he can make it in time for his second job as a school bus operator?

We have big dreams for our city, like so many of you out there, but because we dream big, we insist on keeping our eyes and ears open, so that the size of our hearts can match up with our dreaming.

Interview: BMP on WhereIsMyTransport’s Interchange Blog

“Capturing routes on a transport industry that doesn’t follow the same roads everyday or have a structured schedule is a challenge. But this is an even greater hurdle in a city where many are unaware of or refuse to acknowledge the informally-run industry’s place in the city’s public transport network.”

Learn more about the thinking that motivates us in this post on WhereIsMyTransport’s Interchange blog.

FYI : “How Do I Go From Kaslik to Bikfaya?”

Kaslik to Bikfaya (Photo Credit: George Abdouche)

From Kaslik to Broumana by bus, it took 2 buses, 2 hours and only 3,000 LL! Cheaper than a cheese mankoushi haha. Good experience

George asked us how to get to Bikfaya from Kaslik by bus, and that’s the result!

Want to do try the same trip? Here’s how:

From the main highway near , take any bus towards Beirut and stop at Dora, under the bridge. Take the Sakr Line bosta parked in front of the OMT building. It goes all the way to Bhannes/Bikfaya.

An alternative method is to stop at highway near Antelias and cross under the bridge to the road facing Armenian Catholicosate. Buses heading to Bikfaya pick up passengers from this area.

Taking the Bus to Movenpick: First Meeting of the INDC Working Group in Lebanon

INDC Lebanon (July 2016)

Today’s First Meeting of the INDC Working Group that is following up on Lebanon’s COP21 climate action targets was very informative. It was good to hear updates from Dr Ziad Nakat on the World Bank-led Greater Beirut Urban Transport Project that we keep reading about in the news. From today’s presentation, the project seems to combine the MoPWT-DGLMT’s ‘Pilot Project’ for a comprehensive bus network in Beirut with three BRT ‘backbones’ on the northern, southern and eastern axes.

We would have liked to hear more about how this project will fit into the existing transit system. Indeed, there’s a lot left unsaid when the project is referred to as “the first public transport system in Lebanon” while also saying that there are “important challenges related primarily to arrangements with existing public transport operators.”

We appreciated learning about the EU-funded SISSAF Project, and their work with the MoPWT to develop a Land Transport Strategy. Again, it wasn’t clear how this fits into existing projects, including the GBUTP, but the comprehensiveness of the project was impressive.

It was interesting to learn from First Climate Consulting about plans to implement a car scrappage and replacement program next year, focusing on ‘red plate’ vehicles in the first phase. Hopefully, this project will also take into consideration why transit operators keep their vehicular maintenance costs down, and, indeed, why so many — especially retirement-age men — buy or rent red plates and start driving taxis in the first place.

Our favorite takeaway from the event? By a show of hands, it seemed that we were the only two attendees who took the bus to the conference. Climate action starts today, no?

Interview: BMP on Beirut/NTSC

And so it finally happened, I found someone else who enjoys (and maybe needs) the bus system as a way of commuting (easily, calmly, punctually) throughout the city and further on. I was never keen on driving, I learned it late and never enjoyed it and had to stop it due to hearing issues (the problem with the hearing meant I could not anticipate what other drivers were going to do – my own driving even if not enjoyed was top notch). So what did I do? I went back to taking busses as I always have.

Read our guest-post on Beirut/NTSC — thanks Tarek!

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Interview: BMP in Agenda Culturel

Merci, Agenda Culturel!

‘Le but c’est d’expérimenter, de pousser les photographes à s’intéresser à la question des bus tout en passant un bon moment .. Nous espérons vraiment que leurs remarques et observations sur les trajets, ce qu’ils auront remarqué en prenant le bus, nous aidera à développer notre cartographie et nos idées’.

And it’s happening tomorrow! To confirm your spot as a photographer in the Bus Map Photo Action, please don’t forget to register at http://frame.life/Events!