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.

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

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.

#HerBus: “Fais-moi découvrir Beyrouth!”―Garine’s Story

Today’s #HerBus story is a special one! We first met Garine when she took part in our Bus Map Photo Action last summer and captured way more photos than our modest CFP required. We chatted and picked her brain about cities and culture and identity, and before we knew it, she left to pursue her graduate studies abroad, where she developed her “Al Bosta” design project — a branding concept that brings to life a vision that we at Bus Map Project have been calling ‘joud bel mawjoud’, or excel through what exists. We’ve enjoyed following Garine’s work over the past months, and are happy that she took the time to share her thoughts and reflections on this bus adventure.

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How to take the bus in Beirut? from Garine Gokceyan on Vimeo.


J’utilise souvent les transports publics, que ce soit les bus ou les services. Pourquoi je les utilise? Parce qu’ils t’emmènent partout où tu veux, tu n’as qu’à t’asseoir et profiter du moment. Ah oui, j’ai oublié! C’est aussi parce qu’ils sont presque gratuits!

I often use public transport, whether it’s buses or shared taxis. Why do I use them? Because they take you wherever you want; you just have to sit down and enjoy the moment. Oh yes, I forgot! It’s also because they cost almost nothing!


"The Bank" by Garine Gokceyan
“The Bank” by Garine Gokceyan


Souvent je prenais le bus pour aller d’un point A à un point B, mais pour les jours de Bus Map Photo Action, c’était comme si je disais au chauffeur “amène moi quelque part, n’importe où! Fais-moi découvrir Beyrouth!” — je n’avais pas de destination exacte.

I’ve often taken the bus to go from point A to point B, but during the Bus Map Photo Action, it was as if I were telling the driver “take me somewhere, anywhere! Let me discover Beirut!” — I did not have an exact destination.


"Optical Illusion" by Garine Gokceyan
“Optical Illusion” by Garine Gokceyan


D’ailleurs ce n’est pas une légende quand on dit que les libanais sont des gens chaleureux, curieux et qui adorent être pris en photo. C’était vraiment marrant comme expérience!

Moreover, it’s not a myth when we say that the Lebanese are warm and curious, and love to be photographed. It really was a funny experience!


"The Romantic" by Garine Gokceyan
“The Romantic” by Garine Gokceyan


À force de prendre plusieurs bus dans une même journée, j’avais remarqué que chaque conducteur avait son univers personnel. Chaque bus avait sa propre décoration, sa propre musique, son propre esprit, ses propres peluches… On sentait la touche originale de l’artiste-conducteur qui nous invitait à voir Beyrouth dans un cadre particulier.

En fait, tu rentres dans le bus et tu en sors avec pleins d’histoires à raconter!

Since I was taking several buses in one day, I noticed that each driver had his own personal universe. Each bus had its own decoration, its own music, its own spirit, its own stuffed animals… One could feel the original touch of the artist-driver who invited us to see Beirut in a particular setting.

In fact, when you get on the bus, you get out with plenty of stories to tell!


"Fetish" by Garine Gokceyan
“Fetish” by Garine Gokceyan


J’imagine ce jour où la circulation serait figée à Beyrouth, pleins de voitures dans les rues l’une derrière l’autre, toutes bloquées. Et le seul moyen qu’ils auront, pour enfin avancer, serait de faire bouger les voitures une par une depuis Saida.

I imagine the day when all circulation in Beirut is frozen, the streets full of cars, one after the other, everything blocked. And the only way that they can move forward, would be to budge the cars one by one from Saida.


"Al Bosta" designed by Garine Gokceyan

En quelques mots, je voudrais avoir le choix de mes transports à Beyrouth et non pas être imposé à choisir le transport en voiture.

In short, I would like the choice of how I get to Beirut, and not be forced to choose the car.

"Al Bosta" designed by Garine G.


J’espère que les gens verrons dans mon projet l’idée de l’initiative.
Une initiative individuelle pourrait peut-être inciter une collectivité à agir, à penser à améliorer leur condition de vie.

Ne pas attendre le gouvernement à se bouger, mais faire nous même bouger le système, bouger la circulation.

Et un jour, on pourrait même se dire: fini les “zammour”, fini l’embouteillage, fini la pollution… un jour.

I hope that people will see the idea of the initiative in my project. An individual initiative could perhaps encourage a collective to act, to think about improving their living conditions.

Do not wait for the government to move, but rather, let us move the system ourselves, making traffic move.

And one day, we could even say: no more “zammour” [car horn], no more traffic jams, no more pollution… one day.


"Red is ready" by Garine Gokceyan
“Red is ready” by Garine Gokceyan


Un bus est un grand véhicule de transport en commun, ce n’est ni un monstre vert qui dévore les gens, ni un bateau mystérieux qui passe par le Triangle des Bermudes. C’est vrai que parfois ça peut ressembler à une boîte à sardine et j’avoue ça peut être gênant mais dans tous les cas on a la possibilité de réagir et mettre fin à tout circonstances inconfortables en demandant à la prochaine de s’éloigner.

Pour résumer, Il faut arrêter de croire à ces histoires d’horreur qu’on nous raconte sur les bus et les van. Il faut juste essayer! C’est jamais trop tard de prendre un bus, il y en a un qui passe tout les 6 minutes.

A bus is a large vehicle for shared transport, it is neither a green monster that devours people, nor a mysterious boat that passes through the Bermuda Triangle. It’s true that sometimes it can look like a can of sardines, and I confess that this can be annoying, but in any case, one has the ability to respond and stop any uncomfortable situations by asking the person next to them to move.

In sum, we must stop believing in these horror stories that we are told about the buses and the van. You just have to try! It’s never too late to catch a bus, there’s one that runs every 6 minutes.


"Al Bosta" by Garine Gokceyan

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All photos and graphics by Garine Gokceyan. Text translated into English by BMP.

BRT in Focus: The Unions’ Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points of Convergence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points of Divergence:

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

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








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

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

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.

Interview: BMP in Banapook

“Though it sounds trivial, one of the main reasons the middle-class has notoriously avoided using Lebanon’s bus system is simply a matter of labels and maps. Where does this one go? Where are the bus stops? [..] What’s admirable about Lebanon’s millennials is that they aren’t naive to expect too much from public bodies and tend to proactively find alternative solutions.”

Thanks for the feature, Bananapook! <3

It’s interesting to reflect on the pragmatism that motivates us at a time when there’s a real chance that the same can-do spirit might make public policy more welcoming of our generation. Our vote is with all of you hopeful people. Good luck to us all!

What System?

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

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

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

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

Bus Map Project at #CitizenDesigner

This week, we took part in #CitizenDesigner, a three-day event hosted by Graphicism at the Lebanese University in Hadath. Here’s a quick summary of what we presented:

It’s important to emphasize that we’re not proposing anything radically new. We draw inspiration from nearby experiences like the Nairobi Digital Matatus initiative, and the World Bank’s mapping project in Egypt. We can learn from these examples, and adapt them to our own context.

While the idea and technology might not be new, our approach to public transport advocacy in Beirut is a little bit different. Bus Map Project aims to be collaborative, open source, gradual and modular. All these buzzwords simply mean that we are a platform for your input and concerns. They also mean that we believe in treating the existing bus system the same way. Ya3ne, for us, “Citizen Design” means taking existing systems seriously.

FYI : How Do I Transfer Between Buses..? Looking For Intersections

One of the trickiest aspects of bus travel in Lebanon is figuring out the best and most efficient spots to transfer between different bus routes with little or no walking.

intersections1

For example, the corner of Armenia Street and Cornich El Naher is a good place to hop off the Number 5 and catch the Number 6 or Number 15 to Cola Roundabout. For the return trip, getting off the Number 15 on Boulevard Sin el-Fil, near Gallery Al-Ittihad, is the best way to catch the Number 2, or get back on the Number 5.

intersections2

What are your favorite tips and tricks for multi-stage bus travel?