Learning to Use Lebanese Buses, One Trip at a Time—a #RiderStory

by Jad Baaklini and Mira Tfaily

Lack of information is the main obstacle stopping many people from using public transport in Lebanon. This issue, and the fact that this gap in public knowledge has too often been filled with simplistic myth or exaggerated legend, is the raison d’être of our project.

But overcoming this obstacle, in our view, is not just a matter of taking on the role of the cartographic “Godot” we’ve been waiting for; Bus Map Project has been and still is stubbornly insistent on pushing the problematic beyond the quick-fix mentality: if you’re interested in riding the bus in Lebanon, you can either choose to remain an outsider, or you can take a leap of faith and engage with the system to learn about it first-hand, route by route, journey by journey, contributing to a collective map that isn’t dropped from the sky, but rather, has been laboriously tended to, and is chock-full of living history.

Today’s #RiderStory introduces Clément, a French hiker who shares our zeal, and who has taken it upon himself to figure out the system at its very fringes. Building up a library of experiential knowledge, Clément has been sharing his discoveries and tricks on his hiking website, as well as contributing to our collective mapping process. In this post, we reflect on his learning as a way of better expressing our own.

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« The Lebanese bus system can seem difficult to access for neophytes, but once you start asking people on the ground, it can be figured out smoothly and little by little. My first time in Dora as a foreigner was quite an experience, but now I get around very easily there, » Clément explains. His first experience taking the bus was on a well-known route, the very busy Dora-Byblos line. He then started exploring lesser-known routes, learning about the system empirically and piecing together the bigger picture route by route. « I was surprised by how little information there is on public transport in Lebanon. One good way of seeing if the system is understandable to outsiders is to see whether foreigners are able to access it or not. I noted that the routes going from Cola to the South and Dora to Tripoli are indeed used by foreigners -– who hear of them by word-of-mouth -– but the rest of the routes are pretty much used only by locals who need the buses to reach their villages or workplaces. »

Clément’s reflections bring up a very interesting “epistemology” or theory of knowledge for a city like Beirut. We often say that our project attempts to make Beirut “more legible,” which is a word that evokes a very visual, or even textual, way of engaging with the city. It’s the kind of engagement described in Kevin Lynch’s “The Image of the City”, a classic in the urban literature. In it, Lynch talks about the « highly imageable (apparent, legible, or visible) city [as] well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation…Such a city would be one that could be apprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly inter-connected. » We hesitate to try and analyze Beirut by this definition; at the very least, we’d double and triple underline the “over time” part of that sentence. Instead, Clément’s observation of how Beirut’s transit system is gradually apprehended by outsiders through word-of-mouth is an important reminder of the fact that visual representations of a city — like mapping — will miss a lot about how a city like Beirut actually functions. Even Lynch admits that there are other properties in “beautiful environments,” like « meaning or expressiveness, sensuous delight, rhythm, stimulus, choice » — these are aspects of urban life that are too easily sacrificed when the issue of public transport is reduced to a problem of “lack.” As Jenny Gustafsson once wrote in a popular article on ‘mapping Beirut-style,’ « Maps, when functioning well, become an extension of our knowledge » — to which, we add the important caveat: maps can also easily become dysfunctional if they crowd out or colonize other ways of knowing.

Clément’s empirical discoveries allowed him to develop tricks to make the most of the system, and speak in the urban vocabulary and grammar more fluently: « In Dora for example, it is better to stand further from the bus stop and hop on a bus that is already on its way, rather than waiting at the bus stop for a bus to fill up and go. » Another clever strategy is to take a van rather than a bus when going to a far-away place like Tripoli: they fill up more rapidly than buses and hence will go straight to the final destination without stopping every few kilometers to pick up clients. What map can teach you that? Quoting from Jenny’s article again, it is important that transit solutions in the Middle East take seriously the way that MENA cities are actually put together: « It’s about learning how a city works. There’s usually a very clear order; you just have to understand it. »

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After getting in touch with us, Clément started volunteering his time for Bus Map Project exploring new and obscure routes, tracking the Cola-Niha line for example, among others. « I think it is a challenge to map the informal system because here people are used to orienting themselves differently, with landmarks rather than streets for example. The only map I was able to find was the Zawarib one for Beirut buses. However, I found it quite difficult to use; it looked like a metro map and some routes were outdated, » he explained. The predominance of the metro-style or “Tube map” is not just a matter of aesthetics; it is a deliberate choice to represent the city in a very particular way, one that sacrifices much too much cultural nuance for the sake of supposed clarity and visual appeal. One of our friends who produced a transit map in another city in the region once lamented to us how little their highly-schematic map was being used by the general public, saying that « people here aren’t used to reading maps » — we’d turn that problem on its head, and say, instead, that people here aren’t used to valuing how people here actually are (think, live, and get around). Mapping MENA-style is indeed a very real but worthwhile challenge.

Among Clément’s repertoire of urban tactics was learning to avoid congestion by deftly choosing internal versus external routes to get around faster; for example, hopping on the external Bikfaya-Dora line to get from Sin-el-Fil to Dora. These are tricks that can only be learned over time. « Lebanese people are often surprised when I explain that I take the bus; I’m guessing the lack of information available contributes to unnecessary stigmas such as danger or violence, which is very far from the truth, » he reflected. We’d add that the lack of information is also an opportunity to contribute more intentionally to the city-making we are always already part of — Clément’s tips and tricks are urbanism, no less important for shaping the city than any engineering blueprint or national land transport strategy.

Clément's watch, that he uses to track the bus routes
Clément’s watch, that he uses to track the bus routes

Sensing that he is contributing to something larger than himself, Clément started a hiking website to share his transit discoveries. « I am a hiker and I wanted to explore Lebanon by myself, but I quickly figured out that all hiking websites took it as a prerequisite to have a car to get to the trails. So I started tracking the bus routes I would take using my watch and uploading them on my website. » By documenting his experiences with routes, precise information and pictures, he encourages and equips wanderers of all kinds to experience Lebanon differently. « I am just sharing the information I would have liked to have had when I arrived here in January. The website of the Lebanon Mountain Trail is very complete but does not display any information on how to get to the trails by public transport. The travel agency Living Lebanon gathers some useful routes, but not all of them; it’s the same for the WikiLoc portal. » While a lot of hikers in Lebanon go on organized group tours where everything is taken care of, Clément’s sharing of information is an invitation to explore, learn and document more individually and freely. And in doing so, helps us connect the dots between two engaged, but previously-disconnected communities that #LiveLoveLebanon in the city and beyond.

Are you a transit rider? Do you want to contribute to our project? Email us at hello [at] busmap [dot] me

Has the Existing Transit System in Lebanon Finally Been Recognized? / هل بدأنا اخيرا بالاعتراف بوجود نظام نقل شعبي و غير رسمي بعد ان كانت حتى النقاشات لا تذكره ولا تعبره؟

On October 25th and 26th, we had the pleasure and honor of being invited by Dr Tammam Nakkash to a symposium organized at the Order of Engineers and Architects called “Towards Organized Public Transport in Lebanon.”

في ٢٥ ت١ ٢٦ ت١ ٢٠١٧ ، لقد كان  لنا الشرف بتلبية دعوة من قبل الدكتور تمام نقاش للمشاركة في سيمبوزيوم في نقابة الهندسة في بيروت بعنوان ” نحو نقل عام منظم”.

We were first introduced to Dr Nakkash almost seven years ago, as a keynote speaker in an event called “Public Transportation, Public Concern,” where he lectured on all the necessary, institutional prerequisites to transport sector reform in Lebanon. The message he clearly articulated that day in December was that there were no apolitical quick-fixes to introducing new transport modes in the country, and in doing so — in calling for real “champions” of public transport — Dr Nakkash helped plant the seed for what eventually became the Bus Map Project in 2015. So for that alone, we are thankful for his interest in our work today.

كنا قد تعرفنا الى دكتور نقاش منذ حوالي السبع سنوات كمحاور رئيسي في مؤتمر “النقل العام شأن عام” حيث حاور بكل الحاجات الاساسية من قوانين واجراءات لاعادة الاعتبار للقطاع النقل واعادة تنظيمه. وقد اعلن بشكل واضح ان لا حلول سياسية سريعة –.
فبهذا، ومن خلال دعوته الشبابية ل “الأبطال”  في احياء القطاع، يكون الدكتور نقاش زرع البذور الاولى لما اصبح يعرف بمشروع خريطة الباص في ال ٢٠١٥. لذلك نشكر اهتمامه في مشروعنا اليوم.

The other important detail we remember from that day in Masrah el-Madina was a question posed by the only politician in attendance, MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who, after listening to the problems of congestion in Beirut and the bright visions of Bogota, politely yet firmly asked to hear more about the existing transit situation in Lebanon. The panelists had very little to say. One speaker admitted she had taken a bus in Beirut only once in her life, having vowed to never repeat it, because it was too slow.

الشيء الاخر الذي يجب ذكره عندما نراجع ذكرياتنا في مسرح المدينة هو سؤال من قبل السياسي الوحيد الذي كان حاضرا، النائب مخيبر، عن نظام النقل الموجود فعليا الان في لبنان، وذلك بعد استماعه لمشاكل زحمة السير والحل الذي حصل في بوغوتا وغيرها من المدن النموذجية. فالمحارون كان لديهم القليل ليقلوه حتى احد المحاورات قد اعترفت انها اخذت الباص مرة واحدة فقط في بيروت طوال حياتها وانها لن تعيدها مرة اخرى بسبب بطئ الباص.

Fast forward to 2017. The two-day event at the OEA began with a recurring leitmotiv that made us feel that plus ça change in the way that the “public concern” of public transport was conceived. “Detailed and updated plans to implement change in Lebanon have been studied for over 10 years,” we heard again and again, “but what has been failing dramatically is the enforcement and implementation.” From there, the different panelists and discussants focussed on the different ways to break through this institutional barrier of policy immobilism. Dr Nakkash’s presentation dove into more details about the causes of the status quo of stasis in Lebanon. Suggesting concrete solutions to address some very specific issues (e.g. architects and engineers who participated in the construction of buildings on lands owned by the OCFTC should be invistigated), he also highlighted one of the main problems of transit in Lebanon: the tie between transport funding and the government, that makes any plan correlated to possible institutional instability and lack of political will. This was one of the same prerequisites he had spoken about in 2010.

فلنعود الى ال ٢٠١٧ والى النهارين في نقابة الهندسة اللذان اعطا انطباع الى اعادة الاهتمام الى قطاع النقل من قبل المجتمع عامة والمهندسين والمختاصين خاصة. اكثر من عشرة سنوات ونسمع ان هنالك دراسات وخطط ومخططات للقطاع تدرس تعدل ولا تطبق. من هنا حاول المحاورون شرح ومناقشة السياسات التى جمدت هذا القطاع والعقبات التي وقفت في تطوره.

محاضرة الدكتور نقاش حاولت الغوص في تفاصيل هذا الوضع مقترحا حلول عملية لمواجهة بعض المشاكل (كأقتراح العمل على سحب تراخيص المهندسين الذين شاركوا في التعدي على املاك مصلحة الحديد والنقل المشترك). وشدد على مشكلة من المشاكل الاساسية للقطاع النقل في لبنان وهي الربط بين ميزانيات النقل والحكومة التي تعاني من عدم الاستقرار وعدم ايجاد الارادة السياسية لتطوير القطاع .وهذا ما كان صرحه في محاضرته في ال ٢٠١٠.

Nakkash elucidated how he had been suggesting for years a simple solution to the imbroglio of overlapping responsibilities between the OCFTC, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the municipalities: the creation of a higher, centralized transit authority that would bypass the frustrations and disentangle the bureaucratic knots by having its own fund, separated from the government’s budget, which only conspires to suffocate projects at birth. One example he gave was the rejection of the BRT plans by the Municipality of Beirut: in his view, the presence of an independent transit authority would bring consistency to transit strategies.

نقاش صرح واعلن كم يعاني لسنوات من تضارب الصلاحيات بين الادارات والوزارات ومصلحة السكك الحديد والنقل المشترك والبلديات المسؤولة عن القطاع، وانه منذ زمن طالب بأنشاء هيئة مستقلة مسؤولة للنقل لديها كل الصلاحيات لتكسر البيروقراطية الموجودة وتتمتع بأستقلال مالي تستطيع من خلاله  تمويل طول  مدة مراحل المشروع، من التخطيط الى التنفيذ الادارة اليومية حتى لا تموت المشاريع في مهدها كما يحصل الان. واحد الامثلة الذي اعطاها رفض مشروع الباص السريع من قبل بلدية بيروت ومن وجهة نظره وجود الهئية المستقلة للنقل سيعطي قوة وتكامل لخطط واستراتجيات النقل.

LRT in Saida

While it was inspiring to see Dr. Nakkash’s tireless fight to save policymakers from themselves, the issue that was most pertinent from our perspective was his challenge to the mainstream definition of public transport that we often hear in casual and even activist conversations: “Public/Shared transport is not defined by the entity who owns it and operates it.” Rather, Nakkash argued that public transport is characterized by fixed routes, fixed stops, fixed schedules, and access for everybody in exchange for a fee. While this definition of public transport may seem to exclude Beirut’s existing transit at first glance, it certainly opens up much more room for understanding how this system fills many gaps — and hence, meets most criteria — of more formal systems.

ورغم كل الجهد الذي صرفه الدكتور نقاش في المؤتمر لمحاولة تبيان العجز السياسي والتنظيمي في منظومة النقل، الا اننا يهمنا بشكل خاص اظهار تعريف النقل المشترك او العام او العمومي حسب ما عرفه دكتور نقاش والذي لطالما كان موضوع جدل بين الناشطين في القطاع.

فعرفه بأن النقل العام او المشترك او العمومي و هو نقل لا يهم صفة ملكيته او تشغيله، اهو قطاع عام او خاص، انما هو النقل على خطوط ثابتة محددة مسبقا يتم الصعود والنزول في محطات محددة ويعمل حسب جداول و توقيتات معلنة واستعماله متاح للجميع الراغبين يشتركون مع غيرهم مقابل بدل مادي. وهذا التعريف لا يستبعد النظام الغير رسمي المستعمل في بيروت بشكل كامل، بل يفتح المجال امام فهم كيفية عمل هذا النظام وملئ النقص والحاجات للناس ولديه الكثير من النقاط والايجابيات

Using the example of the Van Number 4, which takes advantage of the unregulated environment to reach a dynamism that formal transport could never compete with, Nakkash called for the formalization of the line to a certain extent, and hence, acknowledged the need for planning for integration, and not exclusion.

إستناداً على مثال الفان رقم ٤ الذي استفاد من عدم وجود بيئة تنظيمة للقطاع والذي وصل الى دينامكية لا تستطيع الانظمة الرسمية التنافس معه فيها، دكتور نقاش طلب بأيجاد اطر تنظيمية لهذا الخط، والتوجه نحو الدمج وليس نحو العزل.

الاشخاص الذين يعملون على موضوع النقل المشترك في لبنان يجب ان يتعاملوا مع قطاع النقل الغير رسمي وكذلك في العالم اذ انها جزء من التحديات التي تؤثر على القطاع النقل والتنقل.

The people whose job it is to plan public transport in the MENA region and in Lebanon have to address the question of informality, as well as global challenges that affect transit and mobility everywhere. This is what Dr Ayman Smadi, former Director of Traffic and Transport at the Greater Amman Municipality and current Director of the MENA branch of the UITP, emphasized in his keynote speech. One of these challenges is the penetration of private companies like Uber or Careem in the transit market, a phenomenon that is more striking in a country like Lebanon, where transit is almost wholly run by private operators due to endemic state neglect. To what extent is it possible to create a holistic, national land transport strategy that integrates all the stakeholders from the public and the private sectors? The acknowledgement of the existing system is an obvious prerequisite, as well as a state vision that is transparent and which is as concerned with addressing sociocultural attitudes as it is on built infrastructure.

هذا ما تحدث به الدكتور ايمن الصمدي المدير السابق للنقل والسير في مدينة عمان والمدير العام للمتوسط في الاتحاد الدولي للنقل العام واكد عليه في مشاركته. واحد هذه التحديات دخول شركات الخاصة الى القطاع وخاصة اوبر وكريم وتأثيرها على القطاع خصوصا في لبنان حيث القطاع الخاص لديه اليد الطولة في تسيير الخدمات في ظل غياب الدولة.الى مدى نستطيع خلق خطة واستراتجية ناجحة تجمع كل الاعبين المساهمين في القطاع من القطاعين العام او الخاص؟ الاعتراف بالنظام الموجود هو خطوة مطلوبة واساسية كما رؤية الدولة مع الشفافية التي تواجه وتعالج االمشاكل الثقافية والاجتماعية لبناء البنى التحتية للقطاع.

Even though most panelists still saw our bostas, vans and minibuses as a temporary gap-filler that should be replaced, the fact of even acknowledging their existence in a setting like this was an important step forward towards integration. While seeing them as insufficient, Jad Tabet, presiding head of the OEA, listed these modes in the options available for citizens who want to get around the country: “There isn’t in Lebanon any choice for mobility except private cars, services, buses, vans.” Ramzi Salameh from the Road Safety Authority even took it one step further, encouraging the use of the actual existing system whenever possible.

جاد تابت نقيب المهندسين في بيروت صرح انه لا يوجد وسائل متاحة الان للاستعمال الا السيارة الخاصة,التاكسي والسرفيس والباصات والفانات وطلب بوجود انماط اخرى فعالة للنقل والتنقل .
وايضا هناك البعض من المتكلمين كانت ارائهم تتمحور حول قضية ايجاد بديل للنظام الباصات والفانات الموجودة الا ان ذلك نعتبره اعتراف بوجودهم وانهم يملؤون فراغ الموجود في القطاع بتقديم خدمات النقل وهذا اعتراف هام للدمج في المراحل اللاحقة.

As we pointed out in our presentation during the last panel, physical infrastructures and technologies alone are not sufficient for implementing sustainable change. This was further emphasized by Wissam al Tawil, president of the Scientific Committee of the OEA, who said that policies only oriented towards improving infrastructures are doomed to fail. The issue of transport in the country is not only technical, but cultural. The omnipresence of car culture was widely debated by MP Mohammad Qabbani, who is a member of the parliamentary workgroup on transport issues. Dr Christine Mady from NDU broke down the definition of infrastructure even further, dividing it into four categories: physical, social, institutional, and information/technological. Hence, a holistic shift in all levels is needed to re-orient urban development towards transit use.

” ليس في لبنان حالياً خيارات أخرى غير السيارات الخاصة سوى سيارات الأجرة والفانات والباصات، ولا يوجد اليوم خطة متكاملة لتنظيم وسائل التنقل هذه تسمح بالحدّ من الفوضى وباحترام معايير السلامة العامة”.
رمزي سلامة امين عام السلامة المرورية اخذ الموضوع الى بعد اخر بأستعمال النظام الموجود والعمل على تحسينه.

كم ذكرنا في مشاركتنا في المؤتمر البنى التحتية المادية والتكنولوجيا لا تكفي لتغيير مستدام وهذا ما اوضحه واكده رئيس اللجنة العلمية لنقابة الهندسة وسام الطويل، الذي قال: السياسات التي تتبع مسار تحسين البنى التحتية المادية هي تفشل دائما ولا يتخيل احد ان حل مشكلة النقل تكون بتوسيع طريق او مد جسور. والمشكلة في موضوع النقل ليست فقط تقنية انما ثقافية. هذا ما اوضحه رئيس لجنة الاشغال والنقل محمد قباني. الدكتورة كريستين ماضي من جامعة اللويزة فصلت البنى التحتية الى اربع اقسام: مادية،اجتماعية، تنظيمية، وتكنولوجية ودعت الى التحول الى التخطيط العمراني على شكل التنمية نحو العبور transit oriented development الذي يؤدي الى شعور الانتماء للمجتمع ويسهل الولوج الى الخدمات العامة.

In conclusion, we reiterate that the problem of (im)mobility in Lebanon cannot be solved through a set of top-down policies that keep ignoring the existing transit system and the daily livelihoods and reality of thousands of riders and workers that it represents. The OEA symposium has brought to the fore the obstacles preventing the implementation of a national transport strategy; but shouldn’t the first step for change be the use of the available and functioning transit system of the country?

في الخلاصة نكرر ان مشكلة النقل والتنقل لا يمكن حلها بسياسات تغيير فوقية تتجاهل النظام الموجود وحياة واقع الكثير من الركاب والسائقين العاملين في هذا القطاع، والذين لهم الحق في ابداء رأيهم ويكونو شركاء في القررات. وقد ابرزت الندوة في نقابة الهندسة العقبات التي تحول دون وجود استراتجية وطنية للنقل؛ لكن الا يجب ان تكون اولى الخطوات لها استعمال نظام النقل الموجود الفعال في البلاد؟

Dr Mona Fawaz from AUB closed the symposium on this note, with these very encouraging final words: “Decision makers need to be convinced by the culture of public transport. The main point that came out of these two days is that there indeed is an existing system and we need to use it when we can, because this is the first step towards change.”

الدكتورة منى فواز من الجامعة الاميركية لخصت السيمبوزيوم بهذه العبارات المشجعة: “المسؤولين يجب ان يقتنعوا بثقافة النقل المشترك. والنقطة المهمة بعد هذين النهارين هناك نظام موجود وندعو الى استعماله عندما نستطيع لانه هذه اولى الخطوات للتغيير”.

We hope to see more of Beirut’s transit champions riding the bus with the likes of us in the near future.

نأمل أن نرى المزيد من الأبطال في بيروت الذين يركبون الحافلة مع أمثالنا في المستقبل القريب



 

Symposium report prepared by Mira Tfaily, Chadi Faraj and Jad Baaklini

“Our transport is mirroring our society”—Reflections on the “Amman, Beirut, Cairo” Regional Exchange

by Mira Tfaily

Last week, five of us from the Bus Map Project team (Chadi, Jad, Mira, Haifa and Sergej) had the pleasure of participating in a Regional Exchange conference organized by FES Cairo and A2K4D around the question of transit and mobility in the MENA region. The conference brought together grassroots mapping initiatives and various stakeholders from the engineering, advocacy and research worlds from the MENA and beyond, to spark conversations, explore synergies, and engage in new creative thinking about how to work with the infrastructures and ‘infostructures‘ we find ourselves in. Though we had different perspectives and experiences, our shared aim was “making a shift from car-oriented cities to people-oriented cities” across the region. In this post, Mira reflects on some of the interesting points of convergence and tension that came up during the conference:

an unexpected encounter in the streets of Cairo
“The Lebanon Company for Mass Transit” — an unexpected encounter in the streets of Cairo

“A developed city is not where the poor have cars, it is where the rich use public transportation” — these words by Gustavo Petro opened the conference hosted by the American University in Cairo, in the iconic Oriental Hall of the historic Tahrir Square campus. The two days of discussion linked up stakeholders across the pro-transit spectrum. Panels included Dr Ayman Smadi, former Director of Traffic and Transport at the Greater Amman Municipality and current Director of the MENA branch of the UITP, and five transit mapping initiatives, big and small: Transport for Cairo, (Egypt) Ma’an Nassel (Jordan), Digital Matatus (Kenya), WhereIsMyTransport (South Africa/UK), and of course, our humble Bus Map Project representing Lebanon.

Much to our enthusiasm, actors from such different perspectives seemed to have reached very similar conclusions: to tackle mobility issues in cities where there are large gaps in transit provision, the most effective way for encouraging new patterns is to rethink our old, top-down planning tropes.

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As Dr Ahmed Mosa from MASARAT put it, a crucial shift is needed in public transport organization from a hierarchical to a network approach. This surprising language from an engineer and planner helped us see that there are openings for grassroots mapping initiatives like ours to enter the policymaking conversation. Our bus riders’ perspective becomes a policy instrument and a way to give birth not only to technical solutions but to deeply sustainable ones, rooted in incremental change and the gradual adoption of new behaviors.

As the subject of informality came up again and again, we were encouraged to challenge more and more the categories and frames that shaped what we believe to be true regarding our transit systems. Dr Jacqueline Klopp from the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University questioned the terminology used to describe the transit gap-filler: is it even relevant to call these buses and vans informal, when they are so ubiquitous and deeply embedded in society? And why is “elite-informality” tolerated, while the mobility practices of the poor are completely unacceptable? Mohamed Hegazy from Transport from Cairo suggested a more neutral term for informal transport — “paratransit” — but the question remains: what is at stake in holding on to language that neatly differentiates between centrally-regulated state-owned mass transit and privately-operated public transport?

We have always referred to the buses and vans we use and map in Beirut as “existing transit” for this very reason, and are happy to see more questions being raised about the categories we’ve inherited for understanding our cities.

A slide from our presentation illustrating how data and culture shape each other
A slide from our presentation

The obvious nature of “data” itself was also challenged and questioned. As Dr Sarah Williams from the Civic Design Data Lab at MIT pointed out, data is only useful when it is built into a tool that benefits the public. So how can we use the data collected to highlight inequality in access and service provision? Visualizing data through a map is a powerful way to stir up and steer the conversation about accessibility, for example, but are there other ways to turn data into useful information? This is a question also raised by Bianca Ryseck from WhereIsMyTransport, who said that, as an urban sociologist, developer-focused platforms aren’t always useful for her. While many stakeholders are interested in transit data to make smart planning decisions, it is important to remember that, as Jad put it, data is “a bridge but not an end goal.”

This is why, for our project, the way we do data collection is just as important as what we do with it.

If, following Chadi’s words, transport is mirroring our society, then as citizens, we have the direct power to implement change by shifting our behaviors. What are our rights and duties regarding mobility in our cities? Isn’t the least we can do to engage with the existing system to try and understand it better? We often quote Wim Wender in our presentations, so here’s another point to consider from a cinematic auteur: “Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem,” says Woody Allen — hence, unlearning our pre-conceived ideas about mobility will eventually help us realize that maybe, just maybe, our transit problems don’t lie where we think they do. We need to rethink our questions so we can work on answering them step by step, with more efficiency and more inclusiveness.

[editorial work and input by Jad Baaklini]

Towards a Seamless Public Transport Experience: Smart Bus Stops by H2 Eco Design

by Mira Tfaily and Jad Baaklini

The earliest roots of what became Bus Map Project began as a search for grassroots, incremental approaches to public transport improvement in Lebanon. Over the last three months, we have been following and working closely with an eco-business and civil society initiative led by H2 Eco Design, a design and consulting firm working on implementing sustainable bus stops all over Lebanon. Their analysis and outlook very much fits into that bottom-up approach we have been eager to promote and contribute towards developing since day one.

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Picture this scene: brand new bus shelters powered by solar energy that provide users with sockets to charge their phones — what cities or countries pop in your mind?

You may be surprised to know that we are talking about a Lebanese scenario. So far, the bright, young team of H2 Eco Design have installed four such bus stops in the Mount Lebanon municipality of Beit Mery.

Launched in May 2016 by Rodrigue Haibi, Ralph El Hajj and Charbel Hajj, H2’s Smart Bus Stops initiative aims at slowly nudging the informal transit system into a more organized and legible network of interconnected infrastructures. “While some bus stops actually exist in Lebanon, they are implemented by municipalities without any consistency. H2 works on ensuring a consistency to better regulate the informal system of stops,” explains Charbel Hajj.

The team was inspired by the way that public transport promotes social mixity in Europe, and started looking for strategies to encourage Lebanese people who dismiss these modes of transport to shift their perceptions and learn to use them locally. H2 Eco Design’s theory of change is bottom-up: “We can’t force drivers to stop at our stops, so we study the field in the most detailed way possible, so that drivers feel it’s organic and natural to stop there. Sometimes we work on an informal bus stop where all riders tend to wait and we displace it just a few meters to ensure better road safety and protection norms,” Charbel continues, showing how a perspective that takes the existing system seriously is generative for advocates of improvements in the transport sector.

“Our first obstacle was the blurred line between public and private… It was a bit of a mess,” he smiles. Yet, by allowing the existing system to speak for itself, the team was able to learn and adapt for a greater chance of project success.

This pragmatic and flexible approach is also seen in H2’s funding model. While one bus stop unit costs between $3500 and $4000, the team is able to finance the project through a tiered scheme that brings in both local business advertisements and investments from the municipalities they partner with.

“The reactions of the municipalities are really diverse: some are reluctant about our project, and reject and dismiss the existing bus system all together; others are extremely enthusiastic and responsive.” From this perspective, H2’s initiative is also an advocacy project, and a civic service that citizens are offering the state, filling the gaps in a concrete and practical way.

Beyond the obvious convenience of having marked stops all over the bus network, H2 Eco Design’s Smart Bus Stops catalyze broader benefits for the Lebanese transit system:

          – Organizing public transport through consistency and formalization
          – Stirring up interest of sustainability stakeholders regarding transit
          – Mainstreaming the use of solar energy
      – Attracting younger users (15 – 30 years old) through modern conveniences like USB charger sockets, because they are the future generation that will shape the country through their aspirations
          – Contributing to road safety by encouraging more predictable bus starts and stops
          – Advocating for people to understand and use public transport more: if they wait at the stop to charge their phones, half the work is done.

In parallel to their eco-business and the indirect lobbying they do when negotiating with municipalities, the H2 team has been intentionally developing the advocacy dimension of their work by holding talks in universities to discuss the stigmas attached to the Lebanese bus system.

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Within the next two years, the team’s short-term goal is to help bus drivers get used to the stops, as well as encourage riders to use the buses through a combination of increased advocacy and more unit installations. With a projected rise in demand, it is hoped that bus drivers will start to organically adhere to these pick-up points, where the riders would be waiting. H2’s longer-term goal is to have about 10 to 15 bus stops per municipality, spaced by a maximum of 250 meters, in order to achieve a seamless public transport experience across the country through adaptation and coordination.

This collaborative spirit is very much the heart of the initiative; when a bus stop or shelter of some kind already exists in a municipality, H2 Eco Design works on renovating it, and not replacing it from scratch.

This does not mean that the team denies the usefulness of some top-down policies: “Ideally, we are pushing for a legislative step towards a fine for drivers who stop in the middle of the road; a little bit like what happened with traffic lights. At the beginning, people saw them as decorative lights, but when the law with a fine was implemented, 60% of people started to stop, and now we’re up to 98%. We’re aiming towards a gradual change,” concludes Charbel.

Just like the Bus Map Project, H2’s approach is rooted in small-scale, appreciative measures; working with the system to better the system — joud bel mawjoud.

Bus 15, horloge urbaine – Mira’s story

Scroll down for English translation

 

Bus 15, horloge urbaine

par Mira Tfaily

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Courir pour l’attraper alors qu’on sait pertinemment qu’il en arrivera un autre cinq minutes plus tard et sauter pour en descendre parce qu’on est trop impatient pour attendre qu’il s’arrête. Les sièges en cuir patiné qui craquent quand on s’assoit un peu trop bien, les cigarettes grillées en cachette à l’arrière en essayant d’éviter le regard amusé du chauffeur.

Porter ses écouteurs sans musique pour ne pas se faire embêter; aller s’asseoir exprès à côté de tous les passagers pour les entendre raconter leurs histoires. Bus stoppé à Dora, bus stoppé à Cola, bus stoppé partout parce que Fawda w ma fi dawle, habibte, c’est ça, Beyrouth. C’est ça, Beyrouth, ou en tout cas c’est beyrouth par morceaux, et ça n’a jamais été autant Beyrouth que dans les fragments de vie que l’on capture à bord du bus.  

Bus 15 bondé en milieu de journée avec les piétinements des passagers debout qui forment une dabke folklorique sur des musiques de 2011; bus 15 solitaire de 4h du matin, tu ne sais pas ce qu’il fait là, il est désert, furtif et il roule plutôt vite.

Les chewing gums à l’abricot, les colliers de jasmins, les billets de 1000LL et les camel qui passent de main en main. Les pelures de bezer partout par terre, les restes de café qui jaunissent au fond des gobelets.

picture Garine Gokceyan
picture Garine Gokceyan

Le bus en août et sa chaleur suffocante qui se mêle à l’odeur des gardénias flétris.
La pluie d’octobre qui suinte à travers la fenêtre mal fermée.
Le coucher de soleil insignifiant et majestueux de janvier sur la corniche.
En mai on ne prend plus le bus on marche.

Les ados qui descendent à Gemmayze pour humer l’interdit et brûler leurs ailes sur le bitume âcre de la nuit tombée, les amants qui semblent n’aller nulle part et les ouvriers qui reviennent de Cola avec le sentiment du devoir accompli. La plupart ne savent pas où il va, mais reconnaissent par où il passe.  

Le bus 15 en escarpins en revenant de Mar Mikhael, le bus 15 en baskets après un jogging avorté sur la Manara. On décide de s’arrêter au Luna Park, on monte dans la grande roue déserte à 4000LL, et on regarde enfin les bus microscopiques d’en haut, qui rythment inlassablement le trafic de leurs striures blanches.

 

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Bus 15, The City’s Clockwork

I usually run to catch it even though I know for a fact that another one will come five minutes later; and I jump to get off because I’m too impatient to wait for it to stop. With its patinated leather seats that crack when I make myself a little too comfortable, and the cigarettes I grill on the back seat trying to avoid the amused glance of the driver.

Sometimes wearing my headphones without music to avoid being annoyed, sometimes sitting on purpose near all passengers to hear them tell their stories. Bus stuck at Dora, bus stuck at Cola, bus stuck everywhere because “fawda w ma fi dawle, habibte, this is Beirut.” This is Beirut; or at least, pieces of Beirut, and never has it been more Beirut than in the fragments of life you get to catch onboard.

Bus 15, overcrowded in the middle of the day, where the feet of passengers standing draw a folkloric dabke on songs from 2011; bus 15, solitary at 4am, you don’t know how come it is still on the road, empty and stealthy.

Apricot-flavored gums, jasmine necklaces, 1000LL bills, camel running from hand to hand, with bezer shells all around the floor, and coffee leftovers yellowing the wrinkled plastic cups.

The bus in August and its suffocating heat, rising up in the air along with the mesmerizing smell of rotten gardenia.
The October rain oozing through the half-closed window.
The meaningless and majestic sunset of January on the corniche.
In May, I don’t take the bus — I walk.

The teens that get down at Gemmayze to smell the forbidden and burn their wings on the pungent asphalt of the falling night; the lovers that aren’t heading anywhere, and the workers coming from Cola with their satisfacted sense of accomplishment. Most of the riders don’t know where the bus is going, but they are certain it will pass by some place they know.  

Bus 15 wearing stilettos after an evening in Mar Mikhail, bus 15 wearing sneakers after an aborted morning jog on the Manara. I decide to stop at Luna Park, I pay 4000LL to climb in the deserted big wheel, and I finally catch a glimpse of the microscopic buses seen from above, relentlessly punctuating the traffic with their white streaks.