#HerBus: “The buses do exist; the map simply tracked them down”—Youmna’s story

We are always happy to receive stories of riding the bus, particularly when they highlight the diversity of gendered experiences on Lebanon’s transit, as part of our occasional but still ongoing #HerBus series. And these stories are even more special when they intersect with our own!

Youmna got in touch and told us how Bus Map Project co-founder Chadi Faraj’s app had a significant impact on her mobility in and around Beirut.

Fun fact: googling how to get to Fanar by bus was the exact same way our team first got together!

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Being a Beiruty girl, who loves to go out, but is living outside of Beirut without a car, has never been easy.

Needing a family member or a friend to drive me, or paying a minimum of $10 to go anywhere, drove me to buy a car in my early twenties; lack of parking spaces and nervousness while driving from Bshemoun to work in Hamra drove me to give my car away and miss out on most events in my late twenties.

I created a car-less pattern that suited me: I go in the morning with dad go to work in Hamra; I stay after work in Hamra to feel alive, then make dad come and take me home.

I was once asked by a foreign friend while nagging about my problem why I didn’t take public transport? And at that time, I remember feeling ashamed while saying to him that we don’t have any.

The pattern I created went great until my dad needed to travel for two weeks and I left my job and needed a more economical method to go to Fanar to conduct a study, so I started googling, and by coincidence, I found the Lebanon Buses app.

Using the app, I learned how I could take the Number 15 from Corniche then jump into the Number 5. On the way back, I could take a service to Dawra and then the Number 2 to Hamra.

After using the app, I paid 3000LL instead of 30,000LL per day, and I became curious about how I could use more buses.

When I shared the app and map with my friends, half of them said: “you wish!” And I was so pleased to tell them that the app is correct; that the buses do exist and the map simply tracked them down.

With every bus ride, there is a story. They’re safer and funnier than taxies, so hopefully I will be sharing these stories with you as they come along.

From City to Studio and Back: Design as Civic Action

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

By Mira Tfaily and Jad Baaklini


June 23, 2018. Photo by Moussa Shabandar


Slow-Hacking Beirut’s Bus Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Chadi Faraj

Whose Streets? Our Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Map to the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Informal Transport–a Pioneer of Mobility-as-a-Service?

by Mira Tfaily and Jad Baaklini

 

From April 23rd to 25th, Bus Map Project attended UITP’s MENA Transport Congress in Dubai as part of the regional Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung civil society delegation. Walking around the expo and listening to discussions of futuristic machines and ambitious infrastructural plans left us feeling a bit disconnected from the lived realities and conditions of most people around the MENA region. And yet, we were very happy that, within this dizzying spectacle, the Transport Congress opened up a window to a world that we are very attached to and familiar with.

The Future of Transport?

As we briefly mentioned in a previous post, this year, and to our great enthusiasm, the UITP launched its first Informal Transport Working Group meeting, ever. As the inauguration of what is sure to be a very long discussion, this meeting featured much heated debate, from which we draw some preliminary conclusions: for the most part, the debate around informality in our region is framed within a push for more formality, such that the desire to better understand the informal is almost indistinguishable from the desire to change or “formalize” it. While we welcome any acknowledgement of the realities of transit systems as they actually exist in our societies today, we believe that the stakes are too high to rush too quickly into a “blind” consensus on formalization.

This debate, which left no disagreement untouched, including what to name these unregulated transit systems — informal? hybrid? paratransit? individually-operated? — was a crucial milestone that we are very honored to have contributed to in our small way. It is the beginning of a much-needed conversation in our region, after the informal has demanded a place at the table throughout the world –- and in this spirit, we ask, without presuming to know all the answers: to what extent is the formalization of these networks socially desirable, and to whom? Who is bound to benefit from it, and who is bound to lose? How can we ensure that the most vulnerable populations are not priced out or excluded in the process? And when will it be second nature to have the targets of our policies take part in our discussions from day one?

In order to begin thinking through this batch of questions, it’s important to keep in mind the broader context, and to raise a few more. The theme of the three-day Congress was “Pioneering for Customer Happiness,” which encompassed the two main emerging trends within the MENA transit conversation:

  1. a shift in emphasis towards thinking about public transport within the paradigm of MaaS (Mobility as a Service), thanks in part to the rise of more flexible and connected (or app-enabled) mobility options, like Uber and Careem;

  2. a shift in emphasis towards putting the satisfaction of the customer at the center of transit provision, with the rubric for achieving this happiness understood through the lens of “innovation.”

In other words, the customer is presented as being generally dissatisfied unless public transport providers start coming up with something new. It’s safe to say that this idea also takes its inspiration from the ‘positive disruption’ that services like Uber and Careem are seen to be providing.

These themes raise a few questions: is innovative infrastructure the solution to what’s at stake for MENA transit? Which customers and whose satisfaction are we talking about, exactly? Can we assume that we all have the same expectations? Can we achieve a socially-just happiness that would benefit all customers, when we are very likely to have diverging interests? And what are the implications of considering people who are mobile in our cities primarily as customers, in the first place?

We believe that answering this second batch of questions goes hand in hand with answering the first batch we raised, on the politics of (in)formality. We will expand on this idea in three moves:

I. Pioneering for Customer Happiness: Innovative Infrastructure or Creative Ways of Thinking?

“Customers are the core business of urban mobility.” The opening speech by Pere Calvet Tordera, president of UITP, set the tone for the next three days: a market-oriented vision of mobility that places the notion of customer happiness at the core of planning. To achieve this happiness, innovative projects in the MENA region were showcased throughout the Congress, including Dubai’s futuristic third metro line being built in preparation for Expo2020. It is projects like these that make us wonder what is motivating the push for transit innovation; to what extent do these impressive infrastructural developments meet the actual accessibility and mobility needs of the everyday practitioners of our MENA cities, and how much are their investments driven by a desire to increase a (global) city’s attractiveness, as a travel destination or as part of an international mega-event? The latter may (or may not) be fine in cities like Dubai, but what are cities like Cairo or Beirut supposed to learn from such projects? MENA cities facing multiple challenges have to make wise decisions about where and how to invest.

In the end, building fancier and shinier infrastructure will not bring us closer to the sustainable future we want if this infrastructure does not leave some room for daily usage and affordability within its core calculations, making sure that the most vulnerable populations — who are the bread and butter of mass transit — are not driven out by the gold rush. If we’d rather not call this social justice, then at least let us consider it common sense: why build something that ends up limiting the ranks of your target consumer? Relying on the changing tastes of those with the most purchasing power is not wise policy for systems that are supposedly challenging the king of convenience, the personal car. True innovation requires new ways of thinking.

II. Informal Transportation: a Precursor of Mobility as a Service?

Another key concept deployed throughout the congress was Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS). As a market-based vision of mobility, it has the advantage of focusing on the user-perspective, and in so doing, offering more flexible or “adequate” services to the general public. With the arrival of ride-hailing apps like Uber or Careem, some public authorities have scrambled to make love not war by opening up channels of communication and partnership that rethink their very role as transit regulators. This is because these services are increasingly being seen as complementary — or, at least, not inherently antagonistic — to the work of the authorities, particularly when it comes to meeting the “Last Mile Trip” often left out by traditional transit. The logic goes as follows: Fixed-route services like buses typically provide low cost services that move high volumes and are always shared, but they tend to be slower and not always in line with (car-accustomed) customer expectations. Hence, “demand-responsive services” like the new disruptors are increasingly understood as friends of formality.

And yet, listening to MaaS being presented as a revolutionary concept sounded slightly odd to our ears. Indeed, the characteristics of these demand-responsive services are not that dissimilar to what characterizes informal transportation in our countries. Isn’t a service-taxi in Beirut “demand-responsive”? And what about the “flexibility” of Van Number 4 or Bus Number 5, intelligently adapting to traffic conditions without a GPS or traffic management control center to guide them. Learning to recognize these parallels and seeing the value of these services as flexible, demand-driven and resilient not only opens our eyes to untapped assets in our cities; it also forces us to wonder why some forms of “entrepreneurship” and “creativity” are framed as such, while others are not.

“But these informal services are not adequate!” we hear you scream. Yes, they do not meet all expectations, but just like informal transportation, MaaS is not a perfectly tailored, one-size-fits-all solution either — no, it drags with it an array of negative “externalities.” For one, MaaS services are not adequate for the customer who does not have a smart phone, let alone a credit card to load on their smart app. And, being market-based and demand-driven, they are more likely to leave out geographic areas that are not profitable, widening the economic and social gaps already striated by available (formal and informal) infrastructure. These issues will plague any unregulated service provision, but only some of these unruly operators are treated as worthy of reaching out to and bringing together, for the good of all. As the proverb goes (ناس بسمنة وناس بزيت), this is a very obvious ghee (samna) versus oil situation.

It should also be noted that in many cities across the world, there is a huge debate around the dismal working conditions of ride-hailing app “employees” — and even this word is contested — coining a new expression to describe a huge aspect of this innovation: the “uberization of work.” This problem is somewhat similar to the poor living conditions of bus and van drivers who run informal routes, who often work off the clock and in too many cases, are exploited by route- or fleet-owners. These parallels are not perfectly isomorphic, but the similarities should open our eyes to the way our public authorities can overlook the negative externalities of some operators when they’re backed by venture capital, but will not extend support to operators who may more directly benefit from partnerships. In any case, formalization must contend with these inequalities if we are to take our first crucial steps towards more cohesive, integrated, sustainable and just mobilities in our cities.

III. The Trap of Blind Formalization

As we wrote above, the true milestone set by this year’s UITP MENA Transport Congress was how informality was ‘invited in’ as a matter of thoughtful concern. This happened through two sessions: one on “Mapping and Understanding Paratransit/Hybrid/Informal Transport in MENA cities” featuring our friends from Transport for Cairo (Egypt), Ma’an Nasel (Jordan) and WhereIsMyTransport (South Africa), whom we’ve known for a long time but first met in person last October. These initiatives are doing a lot to make informal transport more legible in their respective cities, with a big focus on “big data.” We then participated with them in the inaugural UITP Working Group on Informal Transportation meeting, which took place after the official end of the Congress.

During the second session, there was a strong push from some friends in favor of dropping the term “informal” and replacing it with “paratransit,” as a less pejorative expression. While we welcome any language that shifts us away from stigmatizing views of informality, we do wonder if the “para-” in the neologism ends up re-inscribing the moral centrality of the formal in a different, though less aggressive way. Indeed, in countries like Lebanon or Turkey, where informal transportation accounts for 93.8% of transit, the word “paratransit” just sounds disingenuous. Para- to what, exactly? How can the majority sector be the marginal population?

This is a healthy debate. That engineers are open to debating semantics is an ironic surprise for us, as we have heard some in similar positions dismiss civil society campaigns on the topic of the urban as “all talk.” So we can argue for and against each term, and have since submitted some feedback on the vision and aims of the Working Group upon the organizer’s request. Yet, we want to end this post by cutting to the chase. Do we want to cosmetically re-brand the informal sector, or do we dare strike at the root of this whole debate: that informality is only a problem needing a top-down fix if we insist that cities are purely managerial objects most perfectly understood by technocrats; that people who live and make a living in cities are merely prisoners among shadows, limited by their simple lives and only ever apprehending approximations of the urban systems that engulf them; that planners and regulators and engineers have the absolute and final say over what goes on in our cities; that their expertise shields them from the democratic requirements that all other social actors are expected to submit to in plural societies–persuading the public, working with others, accepting compromise and actually innovating (generating the new in the here and now), as opposed to copy-pasting boilerplate solutions proven to turn a profit elsewhere?

These are the unspoken fantasies that underlie the politics of urban (in)formality. The basic human right of free and unencumbered movement from Point A to Point B is championed by all, and then squashed by the assumption that such freedoms are ultimately in service of the much larger and more important processes of governance, accumulation, and circulation. These are ingrained as ends in themselves, the only ends, perhaps. We denizens of cities are permitted to be mobile because we are the grease in these socioeconomic wheels. Our very existence in cities, it turns out, is a benevolent concession…

We are putting things very provocatively on purpose and for a reason, because it’s time for civil society actors involved in urban innovation and advocacy to decide on the point of their initiatives: is it to simply lubricate the policy machine? Or is it to challenge it, influence it, and maybe even disrupt it?

We are perfectly capable of being reasonable. We recognize that informal systems have dramatic shortcomings and externalities that need to be addressed, as pointed out by Kaan Yildizgoz, training director at UITP: problems such as the deterioration of networks, with routes emerging to pick up the most passengers, creating highly inefficient trips and poor working conditions of transit drivers, who are often under immense pressures from their higher-ups, etc.

And yet, formalizing the system without challenging our assumptions about the role of the state and the planner and the engineer would be an even more destructive move. It is also very likely to fail, because informality stems from endogenous characteristics of the state itself, such as unfair legislation, lack of enforcement and high rates of unemployment. To solve these “externalities,” we must first put them at the center. They are rather the “internalities” at the root of the processes that generate our discomforts about service adequacy. Formalizing the informal must be inclusive and fair. This can only be done through a comprehensive framework of social and modal integration that is rights-based, not concessions-based, and led by a genuine desire to leverage the skills and expert knowledges of planners and engineers for the good of all. Let’s lead the transition.




Banner image taken from UITP Facebook Page. All rights reserved.

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

by Jad Baaklini and Mira Tfaily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LRT in Saida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



 

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

20 Kinds of People You’ll Find on the Bus in Lebanon

As integral but somewhat underappreciated public spaces, Lebanese buses offer the city lover a rich and multi-layered slice of urban life. The bus is not only a mean of transportation: it is a place of social mixity and multi-culture that sparks conversations across class, gender and national background. Commuting in a Lebanese bus is a window to a gallery of unique and yet relatable personalities. Scroll down and let’s see how many of them you’ve already spotted! And let us know if there are any we’ve missed.

 

 

20 kinds of People You’ll Find on the Bus in Lebanon

by Mira Tfaily

 

1. The Old Habitué

giphy (3)

He knows every driver by name, remembers the time Beirut had a tram (riz’allah), and feels entrusted with a mission to convince the driver to take every shortcut possible while complaining about traffic.

 

2. The One That Sits Up Front –

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Often mistaken for the Habitué, this guy may or may not be a regular rider. In fact, he may only get on board if that front seat next to the driver is available. An aspiring DJ, he ensures Shiraz is playing on the stereo at least 5 times every hour. A brilliant multi-tasker, he manages the money handed to the driver and turns the AC on and off every half an hour, whether the windows are still open or not.

 

3. The One That Sits at the Back –

giphy (5)

He is alone, he is manspreading so wide that my teta could sit between his thighs, and he does not want to be bothered. Not to be confused with #6 (see below).

 

4. The One That Does Not Sit –

giphy (7)

Usually a man, he takes pride in his chivalry and amazing balancing abilities, and will end up crushing your feet. Some day, he will convince the whole bus to start a dabke to “Jenno Notto” while going full speed through Hazmieh.

 

5. The AUBites – 

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Once difficult to spot in the wild, now often found in the legendary Van Number 4 (“it’s so in right now”), they blast their own music regardless of the dabke already playing in the bus. The driver will usually give up after ten minutes and the whole van will be bouncing over Kendrick Lamar’s new album (“Sit down. Be Humble”).

 

6. The Beach-Bound Teenyboppers Between Dora & Jbeil – 

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They sit at the back, Instagram-ing every time the bus stops, and have started drinking from their Jagger flasks at 11 am. Think that #12 and #13 are yiiiiiii, 7araaaaaam.

 

7. Those Two or Three European Backpackers – 

giphy (2)

They are more at ease with Lebanese public transportation that you will ever be. They have a Zawarib Guidebook in hand, comfy Birkenstocks and overstuffed backpacks that take up a whole seat, and their faces are liberally caked with sunscreen. #1 and #2 will compete over who has the best directions from the mafra2 closest to their destination.

 

8. The Regular 9-to-5ers (a.k.a. The “Zboun”) – 

giphy (9)

You don’t know what kind of mysterious agreement they have with the driver, but he will wait for them if they are not at their usual spot at the usual time. An elite subset of this group is the Hyper-Zboun: they are so in tune with Standard Bus Time, the whole system is thrown in disarray if they are not present at that exact spot, at that exact time.

 

9. The Hipster Who Carries his Skateboard in the Bus – 

giphy (8)

He does not look or talk to anyone, acts as emotionally detached as possible, but when Fares Karam comes up, he can’t help but follow the rhythm with his fingertips on the window. He’s thinking of starting a blog about bus stories.

 

10. The Journalist on Bus Number 16 –

giphy (10)

Usually headed to L’Orient-le Jour and always late, she carries an unread book and speaks in French on the phone during her whole trip complaining about the noise on board. Likes self-referential narratives.

 

11. The One Who Doesn’t Pay –

giphy (19)

Often a cop or a soldier, sometimes bolees baladiye, sitting alone. He is side-eyed with a mixture of admiration and curiosity by the driver and other passengers.

 

12. The Beauty Queen – 

giphy (13)

AKA “ghanoujet el bus,” she is wearing stilettos, she knows every driver, and she is allowed to sit wherever she wants. You do not know where she is headed, but she makes a point at approaching every woman on the bus to ask her about the reference of her lipstick or the address of her hairdresser.

 

13. The Beiruti Casanova – 

giphy (22)

AKA “jagal zameno,” this man is a local, and a harmless romantic that sees public transportation as a real life Tinder experiment. He will be frightened by your annoyed look and will sit alone for the rest of the ride, probably pondering about Plato’s theory of soulmates in The Symposium and other existential questions.

 

14. The Posh Tante – 

giphy (17)

She climbs in at Ashrafieh, wraps herself in her fur and mumbles to her massive dog Stella in French during her whole trip. Complains loudly about how slow the bus is whenever she gets a phone call.

 

15. The Sunday Communion of Saints – 

giphy (14)

They are all migrant domestic workers on their one day off, on their way to their diverse denominational churches, like St Francis Catholic Church in Hamra, or the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ain Aar. Despite their linguistic and religious backgrounds, they are united by their common experiences with the “misters” and “madams” of Lebanon, and their shared love of Dora weekend shopping. They play musical chairs and change seats at every stop, never missing a beat in their passionate conversations.

 

16. The Sleeper Agent – 

giphy (16)

Party-goer or work commuter, you do not know how long he has been asleep and whether you should wake him before he misses his stop. He usually emerges from his half-coma at Cola and leaves the bus swearing, before immediately taking another bus in the opposite direction.

 

17. The Marlboro Man – 

giphy (18)

Fidgets at every stop and thinks that sticking his cigarette outside the window is just the right amount of consideration he can offer his fellow passengers. Locked in a glaring war with the Syrian driver while pretending to not see the sixty No Smoking signs throughout the Lebanese-owned bus.

 

18. The Sweaty Banker – 

giphy (20)

Some say this man is a myth, but one or two bank employees have been spotted in the wild. He is wearing a suit and tie, instantly elevating the sophistication of the whole journey. Often seen sipping a tiny plastic cup of muddy coffee.

 

19. The Undercover Driver – 

giphy (21)

A friend of the actual driver, they exchange seats when one is tired or feels like handling the music, or when one of them doesn’t have the right paperwork.

 

20. The One that Pays for the Group – 

giphy (12)

He drops money likes a 90’s R&B music video and leaves the change to the driver. Dolla dolla bill y’all!

 

 

Main photo by Johnny Hchaime

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?