From City to Studio and Back: Design as Civic Action

To what extent is it appropriate to formally map an informal system? Can collective mapping help spark new ways of thinking about public transit in Lebanon? These are some of the questions raised by Bus Map Project’s participation in Beirut Design Week this year, when we launched our second prototype bus map of Greater Beirut and the alpha version of our online transit platform BusMap.me, a participative tool that seeks to crowdsource, clarify and spread information about the people, places, voices and traces of Lebanon’s transit system. Will you join us on board?

By Mira Tfaily and Jad Baaklini


June 23, 2018. Photo by Moussa Shabandar


Slow-Hacking Beirut’s Bus Map

Beyond the brute fact of mapping, Bus Map Project has always been driven by a desire to disrupt the traditional talking-points around public transport in Lebanon. Our project is patient and incremental because it insists on a fresh perspective on urban change. By making visible the range and regularities of our ubiquitous yet little-understood transit system, our map is trying to prove a point; it is advocacy by other means. And what it demands is that we start taking this transit system more seriously.

Yet, in doing so, the bus map tends to hog the spotlight as an artifact — a solid, already-accomplished matter of fact — pushing these motivating questions into the background, like any utilitarian tool eventually does. How, then, can we (re)turn the map, from an object of design, back to a matter of concern and a locus for civic action? How do we keep its point — its advocacy by other means — at the forefront?

More importantly, how do we keep this traffic flowing both ways? From tool to platform and back again, how do we break the silos between expertise and experience (design and ridership) to widen the sense of shared ownership to encompass as many civic actors as possible?

As part of Beirut Design Week, and in partnership with Public Works Studio through their Forum on Cities and Designers, Bus Map Project had the incredible opportunity to organize a workshop on June 23th, 2018, entitled “Slow-Hacking Beirut’s Bus Map.” The idea of “Slow-Hacking” — coined at first in jest by Public Works’ Monica Basbous — came out of our concern for making sure that this map that we’ve been lovingly piecing together, route-by-route, for a while, remains an open question: open to change in itself, and open by catalyzing debate over the cities we live in and reproduce every day. The word is meant to appropriate the can-do attitude of hackathons — that helpful sense of agency and confidence that we want to see more of in urban advocacy in Lebanon — while rejecting the less helpful sense of misguided urgency and false efficacy behind the fantasy of quick fixes.

Over the course of three hours, we attempted to prefigure the slogan recently displayed on the state’s own buses (“shared transport is a shared responsibility”), while inviting participants into our process. Through an interactive presentation, we shared Bus Map Project’s view of mapping as a form of activism — the kind that not only pushes for recognition of the existing system of transport now marginalized within the dominant doxa, but that also stirs up conversations about the mobile inequalities that traverse it.

We tried to keep our presentation anchored in ourselves, as riders and advocates. We shared the context of our own meandering journeys into the project: Chadi’s early development work in 2008, Jad’s research and activism interests in 2010, Sergej’s work with Zawarib in 2012, and Mira’s journalistic introduction to our work in 2016 before joining as a researcher in 2017. From this personal and collective perspective, a lot has changed since the seed was first planted when someone once said that creating a bus map for Lebanon was one step too far (because a map would legitimize something ‘substandard’). Today, very few people will argue that public transport doesn’t exist in Lebanon — the lacuna where it all began.

From that point of view, much of our work is done; thank you for tagging along, and we hope that by foregrounding the ordinary ways that our personal stories became entangled in the politics of this often-mystified thing called the city, this small project can serve as a case study that inspires you and others to adopt similarly incremental approaches to seemingly intractable problems.

From a wider perspective, however, our work has only just begun. And we need your help to keep moving forward.

Photo by Chadi Faraj

Whose Streets? Our Streets

The workshop participants came from diverse backgrounds (architects, GIS specialists, urban planners, graphic designers, etc.) but shared overlapping interests. We opened the session by asking everyone to share their understandings of, and experiences with, Lebanon’s buses. Some came to the event with a lot of experience riding transit; others were curious and wanted to learn more. Some had initiatives of their own, like a WhatsApp group to share information with newcomers on how to get around Lebanon by public transport and a “mobility transformation” Meetup.

This personal approach helped us keep the discussion rooted in the city as a lived experience, far from the technical abstractions that create artificial and disempowering distance between our reality as ordinary practitioners and the infrastructures we help reproduce every day.

To emphasize this idea, our presentation of the basic features of Lebanon’s transit system turned the usual definition of public transport on its head: instead of starting at ‘the top,’ drawing conceptual contours and differentiating ‘para-‘ from ‘-transit’ proper, we privileged the concrete reality of riders first: their flesh-and-blood facticity, their cosmopolitan diversity, their eyes looking directly into yours, demanding recognition and ‘equal access’ to visibility.

When we put things in this way, we swerve very close to romanticism. That’s fine. This is because the simple profundity of the person is the foundation of everything we do. From this understanding, we define public transport as first and foremost a transport public. From that, we branch out and begin to notice the spaces of conviviality that connect user to operator, bus to system, street to map. On this foundation, we clarify our shared stakes in combatting misinformation and stigma (that perennial problem that we mustn’t underestimate) and keeping transit advocacy rooted in real lives and livelihoods. Only then do we dare to offer definitions.

Lebanon’s transit system is best understood as a network of networks, gelling together along several spectra of agglomeration and ownership:

  • state-owned (OCFTC) ↔ municipally-owned (Ghosta, Dekwene) or organized (Bourj Hammoud)
  • corporate (Connexion, LCC, LTC/Zantout…) ↔ family businesses (Ahdab, Sakr, Estephan…)
  • route associations or fleets of a few owners with shared management (Number 2, Number 5, Van 4…) ↔ loose networks of individual operators (Number 22, Bekaa Vans…)

When our discussion turned to these concepts, a lot of debate was sparked, including a conversation on the controversial BRT system that we’ve blogged extensibly about. Hence, one consequence of taking the existing system seriously — people first, places second, conceptual categories last — is making the question of working with what exists (joud bel mawjoud) much more realistic and pressing. Why can’t we invest in existing people?

Connecting the Map to the City

After the presentation, everybody was invited to pitch in and make our map their own: What would they add? How would they represent informal landmarks? What changes would they propose to make the map more accessible?

Many participants thought that the Number 5 and Number 2 bus were the same, when the two lines separate at Sassine heading north. Misapprehensions like this point to the importance of involving more and more people from ever-wider circles in this collective project; indeed, the majority of us agreed that collective and incremental design can be a powerful language and tool for encouraging a change of mentality needed to shift our society towards more sustainable and just mobilities. June 23 was Day 1 of hopefully many more in this new phase in our project, and we will continually look for more ways to involve as many people as possible in the making and hacking of our collective output.

One tool we hope will facilitate this is our online participative platform (BusMap.me), launched during the workshop. It’s still in alpha development, but we’re so happy to finally make it public — a big thank you goes out to Chadi and our grassroots mappers for their hard work! BusMap.me aims to become a hub for crowdsourcing GPS data and annotating Lebanon’s transit routes with photos, tips and stories — material that can’t fit into a single, static bus map, but which is pretty much the essence of mapping our word-of-mouth urban geography, Lebanese-style.

The platform is imperfect and incomplete by design — and we mean it when we say that this is by design; we refuse to wear the crown of authority over this endeavor and proudly wave the banner of engaged amateurism in the city, with stubborn determination — because beyond mapping, the platform is meant to be an invitation for people to engage with shaping the system, contributing what they can to a collectively-owned map that celebrates the cacophony of voices that constitute Lebanon’s transit system. Think you can do better? Get in touch!

Our involvement in the Beirut Design Week continued on June 26th, 2018, when Sergej presented our work and his design process during a roundtable organized by Public Works entitled “Between City and Studio: Connecting the Map to the City”. Building on the previous participative workshop, he emphasized the activist role of the mapper and map designer. Every map is a collection of choices — deciding how and what to display influences the collective imageries and tropes that either challenge the established urban mythology, or, on the contrary, contribute to furthering the gap between urbanist discourse and lived reality. Mapping is and should remain an open question and we hope that more and more people recognize and join this political process that we are catalyzing.

Later that week, some encouraging signs of this happening emerged! We had the pleasure of attending YallaBus’s first meet and greet, where they facilitated their own participative discussion to debate the mapping of Lebanese bus routes, and presented the first version of their transit app. Taking inspiration from our work and building on our second prototype, YallaBus has started working on their own static map; during the event, attendees also came up with new and exciting solutions to face the challenges of mapping and visualizing an informal system.

We also took the opportunity to raise some questions about YallaBus’s release of the live GPS feed of Number 2 in Beirut. While we are excited to see progress in this live-tracking work, this beta release poses privacy and security concerns, since the location of buses (and, presumably, the homes of bus drivers) in the initial release was on display, potentially endangering the drivers. We are happy that YallaBus has been open to such feedback and look forward to seeing how their app develops.

We are also enthusiastic to see more events and gatherings of this type happening in the future. Let us keep catalyzing the change we want to see! Proactively, pragmatically, sometime’s poetically — our cities are ours for the (re-)taking.

“Shared Transport is a Shared Responsibility”

2018 has been very busy for Bus Map Project, and it’s already almost May! It’s time for a catch-up post; we have a lot to tell you…

On January 6th, we held our very first #BusCommunity event in Hamra and had a lively discussion with friends and peers from YallaBus, H2 Eco Design and others from our network of collaborators and supporters. Later that month, we did a mini-collective map action in Tripoli, to familiarize ourselves with the city and plan for more mapping in North Lebanon. This was followed by our first foray into informal ‘guided tours,’ introducing people to Tripoli by public transport.

On February 5th, 12th and 13th, we presented our ongoing collaboration with H2 Eco Design at all three NDU campuses (Zouk, North, and Chouf) and received very good feedback from students and faculty. We were especially happy to hear a real commitment to public transport from the lecturer and FAAS coordinator at NDU Barsa, Dina Baroud! In between, we managed to find time to take part in Beirut Design Week’s Open House, — which we plan to follow up on in June! — and even do a few press interviews (Mayadeen and Al Araby).

How to summarize the purpose of all of this buzz and activity?

The photo at the top of your screen is a good start! Spotted by a veteran and friend in the sustainable transport scene in Lebanon, this slogan on an OCFTC bus very much captures the spirit of our message in 2018. It says: “Shared transport is a shared responsibility. Together towards an integrated transit plan.”

Cynics will argue that this campaign is an empty (and maybe even fiscally irresponsible) gesture that off-loads the state’s actual responsibilities towards the transport sector; while this may be true on some level, we welcome this shift in language, because it breaks the chains that people imagine to be essentially linking “public” to “state-owned,” and “private” to “corporate.” Shared transport is not just an odd Lebanese expression — it’s a potentially powerful concept that can undo a lot of false binaries and help us see the incremental changes already happening (that is, if we allow it to).

In this same spirit, April was the month when a significant milestone for informal transport in the Middle East and North Africa was set. We had the pleasure to be invited by FES to take part in their MENA region’s civil society delegation and attend UITP’s MENA Transport Congress (April 23-25), where two sessions on informality took place, and a working group on informal transport was inaugurated for the first time in the organization’s history.

Under the theme of Pioneering for Customer Happiness, the congress highlighted the concept of Mobility-as-a-Service (which is an idea that has strangely similar characteristics to our very own informal bostas and taxis, if seen in the proper light…), but above all, demonstrated the need for better acknowledging the way that informal transport can be a real partner in our shared responsibility to more fairly share our cities. We have a lot more to say about this, so for a detailed summary of the stakes and problematics emerging out of the push towards formalizing the informal, stay tuned for our next post!

CDR’s BRT Impact Report—One Step Closer to Inclusive Urbanism?

The CDR’s BRT impact report is finally out! Prepared by ELARD with input from EGIS, the document is quite a beast, clocking in at almost 400 pages. But it’s very readable, and it includes plenty of background for people who need to catch up on the basics of this proposed project. Many of you will be interested in the technical details, but in this post, we will focus on the socioeconomic dimension. If you have any thoughts about this or other aspects of the report, please do share them on our #BusCommunity discussion board.

We’ve been following ELARD’s track in this study over the past year, publishing several blog posts about the various focus groups and public consultation sessions they organized. And as much as we’ve enjoyed documenting this process, we’re also quite pleased to see our modest involvement documented in the report itself!

It’s a little bit surreal to see our work acknowledged in an official CDR study. On pages 244, 247 and 253, the report quotes some of our questions and feedback during the first public meetings. On page 249, ELARD focuses more directly on our coverage: “One of the special interest groups who attended the meeting are active in the public transport domain and have a website, an online blog, and two pages on social media (Facebook).” Showing screenshots of Facebook posts we’d made, the report links to our blog as well (“a good summary of the meeting proceedings”, “the second blog article focused on the BRT system and integration”). In their words, Bus Map Project “portrayed a general positive outlook on the merits of the BRT System and most importantly on the process of engagement of the public in the early stages of the study.” Sounds about right!

But what’s much more important than this tip of the hat is seeing our major concerns fleshed out in the impact assessment findings. In Section 7.11 on page 299 (“Impacts on Socio-Economic Aspects”), ELARD provides a table showing “the potential impacts and their respective consequence assessments” of the proposed BRT project. There’s a lot of different categories in this section, but given our focus on the existing transit system, we’ll highlight the measures we find most relevant to that topic.

Relevant consequence ratings range from “beneficial” (e.g. “SE.O.10. Local public transport development around bus stations to further serve commuters,” “SE.O.6. Creation of job opportunities including personnel with limited skills”), to “moderate” (e.g. “SE.D.1 Impact on other secondary public transport systems,” “SE.O.5 Difficulty in changing the behavior of people to stop using their cars and shift to the BRT system”). All of these challenges are obstacles to project success, but let’s focus on the only factor given a consequence rating of “critical”: “SE.O.1. Impact on livelihood of current bus drivers and public transport operators due to passenger shift to BRT.”

This critical matter is discussed in more details on page 301: “Currently, the public transport system in Lebanon is not regulated, where various buses, mini-vans and taxis serve the demand in a random manner in most cases. The existing public transport modes is a source of livelihood for many individuals and source of profit to private operators. The introduction of the BRT system will impact the existing services through the shift of passengers to a more regulated, faster and comfortable system. Hence, there will be a significant impact on the income and livelihood of the existing operators.”

ELARD BRT Report

While we’d take issue with characterizing the system as “random” (a characterization that is in itself based on a problematic distinction between SE.O.1. and SE.D.1; see below), we greatly appreciate the gravity with which the problem of operator livelihood is addressed and emphasized in several places in the report.

In Section 8 (p. 307), the consultants offer a Mitigation Plan, calling for further impact studies, or “site-specific ESIAs” that “should include” a “Livelihood Restoration Plan (LRP)”: “Inclusive of a detailed socio-economic baseline of affected bus operators and businesses subject to temporary disruption with detailed measures to mitigate risks and impacts arrived at through consultation with the PAPs [Potentially Affected Persons].”

Furthermore, the report describes mitigation measures already taken to address this problem (SE.O.1.): “The project has considered options and incentives to encourage local operators to join the new BRT and bus concessions. Such incentives include requiring the new concessionaires to buy or rent a number of existing red plates from the small operators, the recruitment and training of drivers, encouraging local operators to join as shareholders and partners into the new concessions, and allowing operators to continue operations along the new bus and BRT lines according to specifications (schedule, bus requirements…) agreed with the concessionaires and public authorities. Since it is expected that the project will contribute to increasing the overall demand for public transportation in Lebanon, new markets are anticipated to be created and new passengers attracted to the system. This will benefit local operators since not all trips and destinations will be covered by the new system and many new passengers will still need an additional public transportation mode to bring them closer to their final destination. The existing local operators are therefore expected to adjust their operations in accordance with the newly generated demand, resulting in complementary systems” (p. 49, our emphasis).

And this expectation isn’t completely left up to chance, as we feared would be the case, given how the problem of integration was initially discussed in the preliminary consultation sessions. To insure that these mitigation measures are successful, the report recommends that “the integration options…undergo further negotiations with political entities and syndicates and unions,” going as far as calling for monthly monitoring of impact based on “surveys of bus operators, taxis, mini-buses, etc. at areas impacted by the BRT service” (p. 347) conducted by Ministry of Public Works and Transport (Traffic, Trucks and Vehicles Management).

We wholeheartedly welcome this approach, and hope that both sides take seriously the need for cooperation. With recent shifts in discourse (see also), we are cautiously optimistic. At the same time, it’s worth pointing out how this “accommodationist” approach awkwardly negotiates an underlying tension between two different understandings of the city: the city as a project (designed, regulated, legislated), versus the city as a practice (emergent, patterned, lived).

On the one hand, the impact report deploys analytical and rhetorical strategies that still prioritize state-led initiatives, as seen in the way that impact source “SE.O.1” is separated from impact source “SE.D.1”. For the latter, ELARD writes that “the preliminary assessment of the project already considered the wider Land Transport Sector Strategy that has been recently developed by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MoPWT)…reducing the chances for any conflict with future public transport developments” (p. 312). This subtle splitting of “secondary public transport systems” into two categories re-inscribes a hierarchical distinction between the formal and the informal. Note how this is even reflected in the different languages used: the formal has “strategy” and “developments,” while the informal “serves demand,” has “operations,” and is “random.” We bring this up only to acknowledge the limits of the whole “paratransit”/”gap-filler” approach to informal transport, from our perspective — it’s greatly appreciated, but only in the sense that it tames state aggression.

Having said that, we concede that we would not really expect more than accommodation in a governmental study. Indeed, while there’s a lot more that can be said about the various mitigation measures recommended by the report with regards to BRT affordability, accessibility, etc. (see p. 350), within this single matter of concern, we would be remiss if we did not underscore how impressed we are by the inclusive spirit of this report. Taken as a whole, the BRT impact report very clearly recognizes that project success requires state willingness to work with and include existing transit actors as legitimate partners.

This central point is re-emphasized and placed in its wider social context in the conclusion (p. 388-389):

“The social impacts from the Project are the widest in breadth and depth, and they range from beneficial to the overall public to sensitive to the current operators of the informal public transport system. The beneficial impacts from implementing the Project will ultimately be realized and noticed through reduced travel time and lower overall mobility costs. There is a serious call from all social groups consulted as part of this ESIA study to implement a solution for public transport, where the system should respond to the needs of all groups – women, elderly, persons with mobility challenges, students, professionals, etc. The quality of the services of the BRT System is also of primary interest to all stakeholders. The need to have the public transport system organized and the level of services to be improved is a call to improve the quality of life of commuters on the overall. The integration of current operators in the new setup that will operate the BRT System is a vital strategy to reduce livelihood impacts from the competition that the new system will create. All the environmental and social impacts assessed in this ESIA Study can be mitigated if negative and enhanced if positive through inclusive and universal design, through responsible implementation, and through serious operation, maintenance and follow-up from the concerned institutions. Above all, there is a great need for more consultation and coordination among institutions and municipalities to realize the social and environmental benefits that this project is anticipated to bring”.

We sincerely hope that the CDR takes heed of these recommendations, as the participatory principles extolled in this report are the only real foundation for sustainable and socially-responsible investment in Lebanon’s transit system.

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.

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.

* * *

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

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.

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.

Year-In-Review 2015

As 2015 starts making its exit, and the various ‘Year in Review’ posts begin to proliferate, we are excited about what’s in the Bus Map Project pipeline in the coming months. We are buzzing with ideas and have several threads to follow up on after the holiday season, so this is a great time to reflect on the project so far.

Our modest proposal emerged during one hot summer of great anger and great hope in Lebanon. We have been insisting on doing things a little differently from what we’re used to, and it has been very encouraging to see positive and enthusiastic responses from the people we’ve met and interacted with along the way. It appears that the need for new approaches to incremental urban change is something that others can easily recognize—so, thank you! Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Since our ‘soft launch,’ we have enjoyed letting the project morph and adapt according to the connections we’ve made. In the coming weeks, we will be drawing on what we’ve learned to develop an action plan for 2016: to widen the circle of participation in the mapping process, and develop specific areas of focus based on the partnerships we’ve formed. We invite you to get in touch with us if you have any thoughts or concerns, want to work directly with us, or simply feel like a chat.

And of course, we will be updating you about our recent activities: what’s up with that bus route in Ghosta? What was the most popular route mapped by participating student-designers? How can you join our emerging ‘citizen design’ team? Answers to these questions and more will be coming soon.

For now, we wish you happy holidays!

OpenStreetMap as Model & Ethos

Did you know that OpenStreetMap has a “Transport” layer for Lebanon? And that people have been adding bus routes to it by hand?
One prolific mapper told us about his motivations and experience:

“I moved to Lebanon in 2012. We did not intially have a car so we relied on public transportation. It was a bit frustrating at first because we did not know where the buses went etc. We eventually found the Zawarib book which has a Bus Map in the back. Unfortunately, the bus map only shows “areas” the buses goes to, which made it very difficult to know what street to go to catch a bus. Many times we waited on a street for a bus only to find out the bus actually goes down a parallel street. Or the apparent crossing of 3 routes in one place, but in reality 2 busses cross in one spot, and 2 others cross elsewhere.

OSM-Transport-Layer

When I first discovered OSM in February 2014, I saw the transport layer had a good portion of routes tagged, but mostly on the West side of Beirut down to the airport and only LCC routes. I had become familiar with more of the east side routes, so I added them. Mostly 2, 7, 8, some OCFTC, Sakr. I can’t remember if I’ve tagged any of 9 or 15. I was quite glad to find OSM and added the routes (or partial routes) I knew. I joined OSM primarily so that I could have a good bus route map to reference that showed routes on actual streets. I am not using GPS, but just my memory from when I rode the bus routes.

In mapping the bus routes I discovered that several roads were incorrectly labeled, routed, etc. So in order to put in the bus routes I had to add roads, correct one-way roads, even put in new intersections and roundabouts that were incorrect.”

Initiatives like OSM, Zawarib and onlinelebanonbuses.com need constant maintenance to keep routes updated. Any grassroots mappers out there who can help?