We’re excited to share this documentary by our friend Nora Niasari, now available to view online! Production of this short film on Beirut’s public transport began in 2010. In 2011, “Beirut, Under the Bridge” was awarded ‘Best Director Documentary’ and ‘Special Jury Prize Documentary’ at the 11th Beirut International Film Festival, and was broadcast on CNN and MTV Lebanon.
We asked Nora to reflect on her project, nearly six years on: “For me, Beirut is a city of unspoken potential. In 2010, our film stirred up a mostly dormant debate about public transport, asking why the sector was effectively buried alive after the civil war. We learned many things, but today, transport workers and transport users alike are still asking, “Where are we headed?”
Read more about Nora’s experience here.
Citizen Consultation Lebanon is an interesting initiative addressing civic rights and needs from a grassroots perspective, including the right to public transport, as seen in this legal briefing. Have a look to learn more about the root causes of the traffic crisis we are facing today, and make sure you also check out Legal Agenda’s earlier briefing (in Arabic).
At the same time, we would like to point out how little attention the existing transit network is given in such documents. This is a common issue; most people working on transport/transit in Lebanon have a very good idea about everything the state has failed to do, or has done badly, but the elephant in the room — the complex networks of people and places filling the gap left open by state neglect and mismanagement — is consistently ignored, downplayed, or put to one side.
We believe that the existing transit system is more than just a lack (“UNregulated,” “UNorganised,” “INefficient,” etc), a mistake, or an empty placeholder for something yet to come. It’s also more than a de facto reality we must contend with in order to promote change — it is a network of citizens just like us. Time to start talking.
As 2015 starts making its exit, and the various ‘Year in Review’ posts begin to proliferate, we are excited about what’s in the Bus Map Project pipeline in the coming months. We are buzzing with ideas and have several threads to follow up on after the holiday season, so this is a great time to reflect on the project so far.
Our modest proposal emerged during one hot summer of great anger and great hope in Lebanon. We have been insisting on doing things a little differently from what we’re used to, and it has been very encouraging to see positive and enthusiastic responses from the people we’ve met and interacted with along the way. It appears that the need for new approaches to incremental urban change is something that others can easily recognize—so, thank you! Thank you for coming along for the ride.
Since our ‘soft launch,’ we have enjoyed letting the project morph and adapt according to the connections we’ve made. In the coming weeks, we will be drawing on what we’ve learned to develop an action plan for 2016: to widen the circle of participation in the mapping process, and develop specific areas of focus based on the partnerships we’ve formed. We invite you to get in touch with us if you have any thoughts or concerns, want to work directly with us, or simply feel like a chat.
And of course, we will be updating you about our recent activities: what’s up with that bus route in Ghosta? What was the most popular route mapped by participating student-designers? How can you join our emerging ‘citizen design’ team? Answers to these questions and more will be coming soon.
For now, we wish you happy holidays!
Our thanks to SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon for featuring the project in their latest newsletter! Check out the full issue here:
And if you want to learn more about SOILS, why not make the leap and pay them a visit in Saidoun?
The ‘last mile logistics’ will be a little tricky, but you can get most of the way there from Beirut by bus. From Cola Intersection, take one of the many buses or vans that go to Nejmeh Square in Saida. We recommend the comfy LTC (‘Sawi Zantout’) express route. In Saida, take another LTC down to Jezzine. You’ll need to tell the bus driver that you’re getting off at “Homsiyeh,” after “Roum”. Saidoun is 15-20 minutes away by car, so you’ll need to hitchhike, or arrange for someone to pick you up.
It’s definitely a trek, but no one ever said that sustainable living would be boring ✌️ ?
Stigma is a major hurdle to overcome when promoting public transport in Lebanon. When we spoke to Tarek Chemaly of Beirut/NTSC, he urged us to make this a priority in our future campaigns.
Sometimes, the effort to overcome negative images of the bus end up reinforcing those images. When activists say that “the bus can be modern, not like what we have,” they justify their advocacy by stigmatizing existing populations.
When we say a bus is ‘dirty.’ what are we saying about those who use it?
Fear is another hurdle. In fact, it might be the bigger challenge, and hence, more of a priority for us. There’s the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible, which is what mapping would help alleviate, but there is also the fear of strangers, and the related and highly-gendered fear of harassment or violence. Sometimes, in our zeal for fighting stigma, we forget to take fear into account.
Many women are afraid to ride the bus because they are told to be afraid. Many are afraid because they’ve had bad experiences. This is a touchy subject, because these dangers are often inflated and mixed up with racist, classist and patriarchal ideas. Indeed, warning women about taking the bus is often just another way to control them. But this does not mean that public space in general does not tend to be hostile to the free movement of women. This is a Lebanese problem and a global one as well.
For all these reasons, we would like to invite you to share your experiences, both good and bad. The bus can be a joy to ride, but this is not always the case for everyone. We should tackle this issue head on. Comment, share, link us to your own posts, in any language you’re comfortable with.
It’s interesting to think about the gap between how little information about the bus system is known in certain circles in Lebanon, and how popular it actually is. In fact, some routes are currently “too popular,” with ridership surpassing capacity, leading to overcrowding as seen in this photo below.
This raises questions of safety, passenger rights, and operator responsibilities. It also points to a very basic paradox: why is this system so invisible to so many people in Beirut? We constantly hear surprise when we discuss our project; too many people simply have no clue that any system of mass transit exists. Why is that?
And what would it mean for the communities who rely of these networks if those of us who dream of more sustainable urbanisms engaged more directly with this actually-existing bus system?
At times, when people hear our call for ‘taking the existing system seriously,’ they rush to insist that “it is not a ‘proper’ system.” This sort of response seems to imply that we are somehow ‘letting down the cause’ of urban improvement by even referring to it as ‘a system.’
When we say “let’s work with what we have,” some may think that we celebrate the bus system without any criticism, qualification or complaint. When we say “let’s make the system more legible and accessible,” some may worry that we are abandoning any demand or vision of change. We hope that, in time, we can demonstrate that this is not the case.
We believe that no analysis of the transit system can be adequate when made from outside the system. Impressions gathered from the sidewalk, or from being stuck in a car behind a bus, or from second-hand stories and public lore, can be useful to a certain extent. Yet only the lived experience of regular ridership can truly form reliable ideas about the system, and the people and places that constitute it. Sometimes, positive ideas are formed that challenge our prejudices, as car drivers, or as people who only ride ‘proper’ buses in other countries. Other times, we are faced with the full truth of the inequalities that keep the bus system running, like in this article from المنشور
Mapping is a tool for making this system more visible, and hence, more inviting for diverse groups to take part in its formation. It’s a modest proposal, but it is also one small but necessary step towards collective change.
This week, we took part in #CitizenDesigner, a three-day event hosted by Graphicism at the Lebanese University in Hadath. Here’s a quick summary of what we presented:
It’s important to emphasize that we’re not proposing anything radically new. We draw inspiration from nearby experiences like the Nairobi Digital Matatus initiative, and the World Bank’s mapping project in Egypt. We can learn from these examples, and adapt them to our own context.
While the idea and technology might not be new, our approach to public transport advocacy in Beirut is a little bit different. Bus Map Project aims to be collaborative, open source, gradual and modular. All these buzzwords simply mean that we are a platform for your input and concerns. They also mean that we believe in treating the existing bus system the same way. Ya3ne, for us, “Citizen Design” means taking existing systems seriously.
Thank you Green Line for inviting us to discuss our tiny project at yesterday’s “Local Governance of the Transport Sector: Roles & Responsibilities” event. It was great having such a wide range of actors and stakeholders in the same room, and we hope to see this pluralism strengthened and expanded in the future.
As was clear from the rich debates we heard throughout the day, different perspectives will not always see eye to eye. What we think about transportation is determined by what we believe about government, economy, society, etc. We all know that. But even if we agree on the broad slogans, the difficult questions of strategy, method and approach will remain.
As Bus Map Project, we spoke from the perspective of bus riders. While we do not claim to represent anyone other than ourselves, our thinking — as summarized in this slide — is founded on a simple belief: public transport can improve when the riding public begins to speak as riders. This can happen in so many ways: when ridership expands, or when the sector enters the public eye like electricity or waste management has done, or through the relationships we form in the process of collective mapping, etc. But at its most basic level, this begins in the simple act of insisting that *we exist* . . .
That is the core message of our project. The map is a tool we put to use.
This is the OCFTC Number 5, from Nahr El Mott to Bhaness.
Don’t confuse it with the other Number 5, that goes from Hamra to Ain Saadeh.
Both 5s go to Ain Saadeh via Fanar, but each takes a different route through town: the OCFCT Number 5 via the Lebanese University (Fanar Campus) road, and the private Number 5 via ‘7ay al-Arman‘.