Hello! I am Arianna, a 23-year-old Italian student. I study political science with a focus on the MENA region, currently I’m spending five months in Lebanon doing an Erasmus exchange and I also volunteer with Riders’ Rights.
I always believed in the great power of civil society and people getting together to make things work or work better. Because of this, since I arrived in Lebanon, I was interested in learning more about the status of civil society here and in knowing some local organizations. By chance I found out about Riders’ Rights and I immediately loved their work and commitment. Due to that, I started volunteering for them. First of all, we agreed that it would be interesting to highlight my experience with public transportation in Lebanon as a foreign girl.
So in the following space I will talk about my relationship with public transportation in general and in Lebanon more in detail.
Growing up in a small Italian city and loving to walk, I never really got used to using public means of transport in my daily life. It was only when I moved for university to Turin, a bigger city, that my use of buses increased. However, I never managed to appreciate it: high ticket prices, often having to wait a long time before one bus arrives, no places to seat, having to stand in a small and crowded space, and other negative aspects made my feelings toward public transportation more of hate than of love, preferring to walk 40 minutes than to take a bus. But since I’m in Lebanon something has changed.
When I arrived in this country, almost two months ago now, my desire to visit and see everything I could was striking. I started walking around all of Beirut but soon I understood the limits of my feet, especially Beirut being a non-very-friendly city for walking, as the pavements are very small or damaged and because of the intense traffic and smog. So, I started using taxis, but I didn’t feel it as a solution: they are a bit expensive (cheaper compared to Italy but expensive compared to what you can do with the same amount of money in Lebanon) and also promote a kind of individualistic and high-polluting kind of mobility which I would like to avoid. Also, the same problem appeared thinking about doing trips outside of Beirut: renting a car seemed like the only available possibility.
In this environment public transportation paved its way as an eligible option. During the welcome day in university, they gave us some brochures and, among others, there was the Bus Map of Riders’ Rights. It immediately seemed very interesting to me, since as a foreign and outsider of the Lebanese environment I never found any information about the public transportation system. I had noticed that Beirut’s streets were full of buses going on and forth, but they seemed totally inaccessible for me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t know where to find routes, timetables, stop-spots, prices, or any basic information. Secondly, not being fluent in Arabic I was afraid of not understanding or not being understood, and eventually finding myself lost in some remote areas. And lastly, I noticed that buses were crowded with middle-aged men which clearly doesn’t help to feel safe for a young woman.
So due to all these concerns, it seemed amazing to have this map showing routes and explaining how everything works. The apparently so chaotic system revealed itself to be instead pretty accurate, if you have the right tools to understand it. Finally, the only thing I had to do was to try it.
So one day two friends and I decided to go to Hamra. We looked on the map: from Achrafieh, where we live, to Hamra is either bus n.2 or n.5. We all met in Independence Street and waited for one of the two buses: some minutes passed, and a number 5 bus arrived. I stopped it and asked “Hamra?” to the driver, he nodded and we all jumped in. It was almost empty and we easily found a place to sit. I didn’t have any idea of the price (only later I realized that there are signs with the price in each bus) so I watched the other passengers to understand how much they were paying, while they handed out the money while hopping off the bus. It turned out to be 25.000 lira, extraordinarily cheap if you think that the same journey with a taxi would have been at least 250.000 lira. I kept watching google maps to be sure not to get lost and get off in the right place. So still now, one month later, I never got lost.
That first trip made me understand many important things. Firstly, informality doesn’t mean chaos. There are things that are quite fixed, such as routes and prices (on a daily basis), and things that are not, such as where to get up and where to get off. Moreover, this informality can be beneficial. Absence of specific stops makes it easier to take the bus from wherever you are and leave it wherever it’s more convenient for you. Of course, there are some negative aspects such as buses’ bad conditions, people smoking inside, inaccessibility for people with disabilities and risk of harassment due to the lack of personal space. However, during my rides I always felt very safe and in a good environment, something which I can’t say about my experience in Italy.
For all these reasons, I think that the Lebanese public transportation system works very well, and its use should be promoted, in order to decrease traffic, pollution and improve the service itself. Public transportation is an extraordinary tool that can ease the daily life of many people, especially since not everyone can afford to have a private car or to use taxis. It’s also important for us as foreigners to recognize the existing system, use it and spread awareness among other people. Here in Riders’ Rights, we work exactly to reach all of this and much more!