Cross-continental solidarity on transit issues : Recap of the webinar featuring Riders Rights project (Beirut) and Transit Riders Union (Seattle)

A webinar was held on March 29th featuring members of the Riders Rights project and the Transit Riders Union (TRU). Both organizations shared insights into their inception, challenges faced, and strategies employed to advocate for transit rights. The webinar aimed to facilitate knowledge exchange and mutual learning between the two cities and countries, highlighting similarities in issues and strategies despite differences in geographical locations. 

Ridership Advocacy : Between Beirut & Seattle - Webinar 29/03/2024
Watch this video on YouTube.

Transit Riders Union (Seattle, USA)

TRU, represented by guest Katie Wilson, outlined their initiative founded in 2011 with the objective of advocating for affordable, accessible and reliable public transit in Seattle. Within the United States context, Katie presented the transit system, primarily financed by public funds sourced from taxes, which constitutes the main difference with the Lebanese context. However, this system faces challenges stemming from a predominant car culture, meaning greater investment in car infrastructure. However, the cost of fares (between 2 to 3 dollars) remains a barrier for individuals with very low incomes and those with disabilities, who are the demographics relying on public transportation the most. The TRU initiative started during a time when the bus system was under threat and fare prices were increasing, due to a decline in the funding after the 2008 recession. In this context, TRU’s advocacy efforts focused on campaigning for reduced fares for low-income riders and fostering alliances with various groups including homeless shelters, students, and workers unions. Katie pointed out how having a public system makes it easier to push for improvements and approach government officials as part of their advocacy strategy. Moreover, TRU’s campaigns have encompassed diverse strategies such as petitions, marches, and direct actions, aimed at influencing policy changes and securing tangible benefits for transit riders. Successes include the establishment of reduced fare programs for low-income riders, partnerships securing free transit passes for students in Seattle, and advocacy for fully funded transit passes for university workers. As a conclusion, Katie emphasized the importance of public pressure, coalition-building, and direct action to effect meaningful change in transit policy and accessibility.

Riders Rights (Beirut, Lebanon)

Chadi Faraj, co-founder of the Riders Rights project, presented the Lebanese context, which has one of the highest rates of car ownership globally, with only 20% of trips conducted via shared transportation and where traffic law enforcement is absent. Furthermore, challenges in the country abound, including the aftermath of the October 17 2019 revolution, inflation, economic turmoil, and fuel price hikes within the last two years. In fact, since 2019, many individuals have lost access to their modes of transportation. With these changes, there was also a rise in road casualties, with over 1000 casualties per year. Despite this, the government makes minimal investments in transportation infrastructure and the political sphere leans towards private car usage, neglecting the need for significant investments in transportation. In this uncertain and changing environment, a remarkable semi-informal transportation network exists, notably through the red plate license system, which permits individuals to offer transportation services. However, the politics surrounding mobility have rendered the informal transit system largely inaccessible, unsafe, and unpredictable for both passengers and operators, lacking transparency for those not familiar with it. In the face of these challenges, the Bus Map Project (which later became the Riders Rights NGO) emerged as a collaborative grassroots mapping initiative to address the absence of crucial data such as maps, timetables, and stops. This project was initiated by riders for riders, leading to the creation of the country’s first transportation map in 2016. This initiative promotes the rights of both riders and drivers, advocating for accessibility of transportation and mobility justice. Moreover, it aims to protect the informal transit system, that is often stigmatized or seen negatively, and to make it more safe and accessible. The Riders Rights project employs various strategies, including awareness campaigns, workshops, webinars, information sharing about transportation and community engagement through social media platforms. The aim is to shed light on the realities of Lebanon’s transport sector, reaching various stakeholders and challenging the existing ideological resistance from certain segments of society regarding informal public transportation.

A participant raised a question regarding links between transportation and sectarian divisions in Lebanon. In his response, Jad Baaklini, co-founder of the Riders Rights, acknowledged the impact of sectarian divisions on the country’s geography, with different neighborhoods influenced by various political factions, which in turn influences decisions about routes. However, Jad insisted that this situation should not be viewed as insurmountable or a barrier to negotiation, as it is often perceived from the outside.  In fact, the transportation system serves as an illustration of inter-community connections, as buses traverse areas with diverse religious and political affiliations. Indeed, power dynamics manifest in economic interests rather than sectarian affiliations. Although policy changes could help, inclusivity already exists within the riders community.

Despite challenges, the Riders Rights project sees opportunities like a donation of buses from France. Because the government can’t operate these buses due to high costs and insufficient funds for salaries, private companies are invited to manage them. After three tries, the tender succeeded, and operations should start soon. While it’s a significant step that the buses will be accessible to people with disabilities, Chadi stressed the need for accessible bus stops and pathways as well. Another perspective for progress lies at the municipality level. In fact, municipalities possess the authority to establish and operate transportation systems within their jurisdictions. Therefore, advocating for the decentralization of the transportation system through municipal units is crucial. Although municipalities encounter a major challenge due to financial limitations municipalities could attract grants from international financial institutions to undertake transportation projects at the local level. This approach is similar to what is already done in other areas in Lebanon, but it needs policymakers to change their mindset and start planning and carrying out projects for each municipality. This way, they can help make up for what the government isn’t doing.

Concluding thoughts

The two presentations and the discussion around it brought up interesting ideas about global solidarity and knowledge sharing regarding mobility rights. The example from the United States shows that even with State funding, riders still encounter numerous challenges. Thus, the importance of the North-South relationship was emphasized by the speakers, which reinforces organizational capacities and perspectives. Specifically, Jad noted similarities in both countries’ transportations practices, such as conviviality and support within mobility, challenging the distinction between modern and informal systems.

Written by : Joëlle Mayoraz