“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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LRT in Saida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“They Call It Fawda, We Call It Familiar”

Often seen as a source of chaos, the informality that defines transport in Lebanon is for many users an added source of dynamism. A report released this summer by the Issam Fares Institute (IFI) of the American University of Beirut (AUB) demonstrated how resilience is built into informal systems, making them more responsive to the demands of the market and more flexible. At peak hour, the estimated waiting time for Van #4 in Beirut is two minutes, making it as dynamic as the Line 1 metro in Paris.

In the end, when it comes to mobility stakes in Lebanon, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Getting over our stigmatizing notions of informality will unlock the assets and capacities already available to us in Beirut. Anything less than a commitment to working with the existing system will leave us trapped in unethical and/or impractical imaginaries, like violently displacing the unruly system, or excessively longing for the Beirut of the past, or simply romanticizing the chaos.

Informality is not tantamount to anarchy. They call the system disorganized, we call it flexible. They call it fawda, we call it familiar. They call it inadequate, we call it real.

Since our time in Cairo, we have been greatly encouraged to see our ‘joud bel mawjoud’ approach resonating with people from very different urban settings. This has energized us to re-engage with “the mentality” back in Beirut, using any opportunity to drive home our message — a message perfectly summarized by Mira in this beautiful takedown published by Beirut Today.

And now, we’re beginning to see that message resonating here too! A key turning point in this journey was being invited to take part in a symposium at the Order of Engineers and Architects, where we were pleasantly surprised to hear openness to working with the existing transit system in a way that we had not been used to hearing before — especially coming out of the mouths of planners!

We will be sharing a summary of the OEA symposium soon, but here’s a sneak preview — a video of Mira’s contribution to final panel.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us make a dent in the seemingly-impenetrable armor of the dominant discourse!

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 in Focus: The Riders’ Perspective (Matn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRT & Integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: this is a political process.

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

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

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

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

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

BRT & Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Education: A Question of Mobility?

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

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

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

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

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

Stubbornly Modest

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

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

Number 5/8 Bus Notice (Dec 2016)

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

An earlier notice on the Number 5/8 bus

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

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

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