Get me out of this traffic jam

(2) P1000083

If you have tried to drive within or towards Beirut and ended up spending double or triple the amount of time it should take, this text is for you. The excuses are endless and include “well it’s raining”, “there is an accident”, and “a car stopped”. But the reality is that the massive generated traffic is enough evidence to question the whole transport system, and to propose an alternative which recognises the problems brought by the mass use of privately-owned cars.

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s transport culture has become exclusively American: favouring automobile transportation and disregarding the establishment of a public transport system. This result is an unsustainable economic, social, and environmental situation in addition to health problems, accidents and excessive construction and maintenance on land resources which are rare and limited. Most importantly, labour and productivity are diminished due to traffic jams and higher costs of living.

If we don’t stop and think, Lebanon’s future is grim.

Expanding the road network might seem like a solution, but studies have shown that building more highways might result in even more congestion. So campaigning for bigger roads might not be the best solution. A more sustainable alternative is light rail. Several Mediterranean cities: Casablanca, Rabat, and most notably, Cairo, have proposed or established rail transport. The advantages of these systems surpass other forms of mass ground transport in dependability, speed, comfort and safety. They reduce land consumption and congestion, as well as air and noise pollution. Electric train systems also reduce the dependence on oil. But, with the continuous power outages we have in Lebanon, I can already see your smirks.

Due to the limited opportunities for government funding, this text will not propose a light railway system as the solution to our problems. Instead, it puts forth a simpler proposal in the hope that one day, I will reach my destination in Beirut during this lifetime and without driving like a maniac, cursing my way through and paying a ridiculous amount of money for gas and parking fees.

If we do not stop and think, Lebanon’s future is grim. A study estimated that in 1970, motorised person trips in Beirut were split as follows: 52 % travelled by private car, 9 % by bus, and 39 % by shared (‘service’) and unshared taxis. During the war, there were no other forms of public transportation than shared and private taxis, both of which are automobiles for four passengers. In 1994, buses, vans and similar vehicles – both public and private – transported maximum 1.3 % of all people making trips in the Beirut metropolitan area. In 24 years, a drop from 39% to 1.3%. And, from 1974 to 1998, cars have increased by 538%.

It is deceiving to look at Beirut’s map with its streets empty. Therefore, this map depicts the reality of the mass versus the void of the city.

(1) mass versus street footprint

(3) reality of beirut

Looking at Beirut’s urban fabric on a map is deceiving, because its streets are not empty. Instead, they are always full and congested; they produce tons of decibels of sounds and pollutants and there are hardly any pedestrian pathways. The second map highlights this and depicts the reality of the city’s street-scape: a large congested city with hardly any breathing space.

Then, the No Cars In The City proposal:

Yellow indicates possible parking lots. Streets are turned into bus lanes. Road side parking space is reclaimed as green space

To improve the bus system is the quickest and most effective way to increase public transport capacity in the short term. These transportation lines may later be replaced by other systems of transport for environmental reasons. In order to improve the bus network, the Ministry of Transport needs to concentrate its efforts on constructing a bus system that is efficient and utilises the existing infrastructure.

The first step would be preventing cars from entering the city. This would provide the bus system with a free and large road infrastructure without traffic jams. Large multilevel parking spaces also need to be provided next to all major entrances to the city. From here, several buses would depart at regular intervals. All road networks would be used by buses only, and the parking space on the sides of the roads would all be transformed into urban green spaces with bike lanes.

Today, every two people in Beirut, including minors, have a registered car.

Today, every two people in Beirut, including minors, have a registered car. This means 500 private passenger cars per 1000 people. If this continues, we soon will have to destroy residences to make way for the cars of the city’s higher income groups. Or, we can stop and redesign our failing life-style.

If the possibility of a Beirut without cars has not enticed you yet, and if you do not understand or see the spatial, social, and natural capital sacrificed in order to feed the car culture habit, then let me add something. In 2010, the official traffic accidents registered by the Red Cross were 10,965.

Looking at a few other parameters might convince us further. Numbers comparing the land needed for private cars and that for other modes of transportation are shocking. A pedestrian uses 1.5 square meters standing still and 3 square meters walking, while a car requires on average 91 square meters standing still and 914 square meters while moving at 48 kph.

Road congestion costs Lebanon $2 billion per year, which is approximately 15 % of the national GDP.

The average Lebanese household spends 13.85 per cent of its income on cars. Numbers from 1997 suggest that road congestion costs Lebanon $2 billion per year, which is approximately 15 % of the national GDP. Health problems are expensive as well. Each year, problems related to high levels of lead in the blood alone cost society an estimated $118 million.

So, the next time a government official tells you that they cannot invest in better infrastructure and transportation systems, you may want to reconsider voting for someone who is clueless about the cost of the status quo.


The article was first published on Sandra Rishani’s blog Beirut the Fantastic.

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5 thoughts on “Get me out of this traffic jam

  1. This article reminds me of my trip to Beirut! It took me a few days to get used to the Lebanese way of driving, the honks, the noise…let me know when they build a tram, I’ll come back :-)

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