The Traffic Crisis

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.

Stigma & Fear

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.

What Buses?

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.

Packed Bus (Nov 2015)

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?

What 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.

Bus Map Project at #CitizenDesigner

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.

Bus Map Project at Green Line’s Transport Conference

bmp-greenline-sept2015

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.

FYI : The Number 5 … Dawleh aw Khass?

This is the OCFTC Number 5, from Nahr El Mott to Bhaness.

OCFTC Number 5

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‘.

Statement of Solidarity with Ongoing Protests in Beirut | #Aug29

On August 22, a campaign based around the ongoing waste (mis)management crisis in Lebanon became much much more. The movement called طلعت ريحتكم struck a chord with people across Lebanon, and brought thousands into Riad al-Solh Square to voice their anger over a wide range of policy failures and socioeconomic issues. At the center of this discontent is the generalized syndrome of deadlock in governance in the country, but others have gone further in their diagnoses. Many have focused on the endemic culture of nepotism and corruption among the semi-feudal political class ruling the country. Others have struck at the root, focusing on the confessional system itself as the perpetual engine of division, unaccountability and immobilism. Others have dug even deeper into the capitalist system as the context of contexts for our problems.

In the days that followed that fateful Saturday, several factors have pushed and pulled the movement in different directions. First, there was the inexplicable and inexcusable state violence against protesters, which fueled anger and encouraged more people to join. Second, there were the fears of party-orchestrated infiltration and sabotage, and the resulting controversy among movement supporters over the classist and sectarian overtones of these fears, and the ways that protest organizers chose to respond to them. Finally, there was the plurality of proposals and counterproposals for the way forward with movement demands, stemming from the various criss-crossing analyses described above. By August 29, the movement grew far beyond its initial scope and framing as #YouStink, and became a true platform for mass political action.

Today, a host of inspiring groups, new and established, are active “in the square” — community-based campaigns like عكار_مش_مزبلة, citizen journalism projects like أخبار الساحة, recycling initiatives like Sar Lezem Rassak Yifroz, anti-capitalist fora like المنشور, student organizations like AUB Secular Club, and advocacy networks like National Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, etc.

This means that the visions, missions and approaches are now many. Where do we go from here?

Bus Map Project was conceived as a modest, small-scale intervention in the gaps between state neglect and policy-oriented advocacy. We chose a pragmatic approach that strategically set aside the twin issues of rights and demands. We stubbornly focused on the present — on the bus system as it exists today, without quick judgement or dismissal — because we felt that other pro-transit campaigns have either focused too much on the past (e.g. the state’s neglect of public transport) or too much on the future (e.g. a desired public transport system). More fundamentally, we chose an approach that would bypass the state altogether — with or without a president, with or without a parliament, with or without a responsive Ministry of Public Works & Transport, we want to begin collectively building our own tools that help us make sense of and navigate our cities.

We support the current climate of protest. We believe that more awareness of the systemic problems that produce so many failures across so many sectors — from housing to transport to the environment — is important. Our project has only just started, but we wish to contribute to this ongoing conversation sparked by #YouStink by calling for more small-scale, closely-allied, locally-based, and non-state reliant projects focused on the tail-end of the crises created by Lebanon’s broken system of governance. The movement’s broader slogans — anti-corruption, secularism, electoral reform, parliamentary renewal — are of vital importance, but we believe that Lebanon also needs solutions in the here-and-now. We need better representation, better institutions, etc, but we also need less dependence, less centralization, less delegation of our power to connect and work together as civic actors.

This is not a call to “de-politicize” the movement — that is impossible. It is, however, a plea for more fidelity to the immediate, to the concrete, and to ourselves. There is strength in numbers — a single-issue campaign acting alone will struggle to accomplish anything, but a sustained and focused project acting within a broad network of supportive campaigns is more likely to succeed, for the benefit of all. Yalla.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can help Bus Map Project, please do not hesitate to contact us.


#مستمرون

The Bus as Social Diagnostic

“My bus ride to work each day thus provides a glimpse into the simmering sectarian divisions of the city.”

We often see our city’s fragments and divisions, but what about the networks and connections that stitch them together?

This bus ride is also a glimpse into what endures despite division.

FYI : How Do I Transfer Between Buses..? Looking For Intersections

One of the trickiest aspects of bus travel in Lebanon is figuring out the best and most efficient spots to transfer between different bus routes with little or no walking.

intersections1

For example, the corner of Armenia Street and Cornich El Naher is a good place to hop off the Number 5 and catch the Number 6 or Number 15 to Cola Roundabout. For the return trip, getting off the Number 15 on Boulevard Sin el-Fil, near Gallery Al-Ittihad, is the best way to catch the Number 2, or get back on the Number 5.

intersections2

What are your favorite tips and tricks for multi-stage bus travel?