The road to more traffic

20 years later, policymakers still ignore public transport solutions

|Greg Demarque|

Road transportation in Lebanon is getting steadily worse. Traffic is congested, law enforcement is sporadic, half of the country’s cars skip the annual inspection, and public transport is almost nonexistent.

The good news should be that a new traffic law has been passed by Parliament, 20 vehicles to be equipped with speed radar have been ordered, and there are plans to acquire 250 public buses. There is even talk of introducing points for speeding offenses on driving licenses.

The reality is that there have been negligible improvements to transportation since the Road Transport Master Plan was drawn up in 1994. “There have been some physical achievements, there are traffic lights, CCTV camera, a traffic control system, and paid parking, but real change didn’t happen, implementing a well organized public transport system that is not only buses but something additional, a light rail or metro,” says Tammam Nakkash, managing partner at TEAM International, a Beirut based engineering and management consultancy that drew up the plan.

As for the new traffic law, it has yet to be enacted. “Who has told the police about it? I don’t think they even know about it, and the public doesn’t know about it. What’s the point of a new law if it’s not enforced?” adds Nakkash.

The police, meanwhile, go off on international field trips to assess traffic solutions in other countries — most recently to Sweden — and while the upper echelons of the force are reportedly keen on improving policing, this has not translated into any change on the roads. You can still drive through a red light without a buckled seatbelt, with one hand using a mobile phone and the other clutching a bottle of booze and the steering wheel, with near impunity. The police rarely carry out spot checks on vehicles — that is left to the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and the army, but they have a remit for security checks rather than to see if the car has passed its annual road maintenance check, or to fine someone for speeding away from a check point.

“We’ve reached a stage where the law is a point of view. Today at a junction you need three policemen just for people to stop at a red light. This is dramatic. It is all justified by the political and economic situation,” says Marwan Naffi, general manager at Gabriel Abou Adal & Partners, distributor of Volvo. “If a policeman stops someone speeding, the offender says ‘Why are you worried about this? Go worry about the border or [ISIS].’ If you talk to the government about the bus tender, they say we need to equip the army instead.”

Meanwhile, the multi-million dollar traffic control center by Qarantina has state of the art systems with traffic signals and cameras connected via fiber optics, but is underutilized and has not alleviated any traffic flow problems. “We took a software engineer to the center and he said it was three times bigger than the one in Abu Dhabi; it’s as if you bought a Ferrari and just left it parked,” says Nabil Nakkash, a transport systems engineer at TEAM International.

Mobile and fixed speed cameras have also fallen out of use, despite initial successes and the generation of income from fines, with the two months during which the system was operational in late 2010 seeing accidents drop 10 percent, the death rate by 43 percent and injuries by 12.5 percent. To get the system up and snapping license plates again, 20 vehicles were ordered by the government to be equipped with speed radar detection equipment but, while in the country, have not yet been put out on the roads. As for the new law, it brings traffic legislation up to international standards, but does not mention carbon emission standards. “The new traffic law is very comprehensive but in my opinion it needs in parallel side resolutions to make it effective,” says Cesar Aoun, general manager of Mercedes at T. Gargour & Fils. “And there is no clear direction about the future of energy consumption — diesel, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), hybrids or gas fuel.”

“We should talk about fuel consumption of a car compared to the time, not the mileage per minute when you are caught in traffic”

Mileage per minute

As the government focuses on security issues and finding a presidential candidate, the traffic and the pollution worsen, with the number of cars growing by 5 percent a year, adding to the 1.42 million vehicles on the roads, of which 75 percent are over 10 years old, and 50 percent over 20 years old. With 60 to 80 percent of air pollution generated by cars, this has led to dangerously high fine air particles in the capital that are three to four times higher than World Health Organization standards, according to a study by the American University of Beirut’s Air Quality Research Unit.

Congestion within the city and at the inroads to the capital has resulted in an average speed of 10 to 30 kilometers an hour, making journeys 50 to 70 percent longer than necessary, and causing estimated economic losses, as of 2010, of $2 billion per year — about 5 percent of gross domestic product — according to figures from Nakkash.

It is clearly a lose–lose situation for everyone, with even those involved in selling vehicles crying out for a solution, with some dealers admitting that they no longer enjoy driving due to the traffic, and a motorbike dealer saying he no longer rides his bike because of the anarchy on the roads.

“We should talk about fuel consumption of a car compared to the time, not the mileage — the mileage per minute when you are caught in traffic,” quips Nabil Bazerji, dealer for Suzuki and Maserati.

New, shiny buses?

In January 2013, a tender was launched by the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation for 250 public buses to be delivered and on the road later in the year. But no tenders were awarded, and 21 months later, there are still no public buses.

“The tender keeps being postponed and with the current government it doesn’t look like it will happen. I don’t think car companies are against it as they want to sell cars, and [they] get stuck in traffic too,” says Rachid Rasamny, general manager of Century Motor Company, distributor of Hyundai. New buses are certainly needed, with the 288 buses acquired in 1998 by the official public transit authority OCFTC having been gutted for spare parts to the point that less than a dozen remain on the roads. Correspondingly, the use of public transport has steadily dropped, with only 19 percent of all trips in Beirut made by public transport, of which only 1.7 percent are catered to by public buses.

While buses would be a plus, with one bus able to take 100 people on board, they are far from being a panacea to the congestion. People have to be encouraged to take the bus, and that begins with access and good routes. “Before the bus service, you start with walking. Without the ability to walk to a bus stop, public transport will not work, and we’ve a problem regarding walking,” says Nakkash.

He is also concerned that the new tender will be a repeat of the past initiative, which had trained up 400 drivers before the service went on a slippery downwards slope as buses were decommissioned and private vans took over the OCFTC routes. “If we buy 250 buses, the exact same thing will happen again. The background structure of regulations and enforcement was not put in place,” adds Nakkash.

On top of these issues, the public is not likely to opt for taking the bus if the traffic is still congested. “The problem in the city is not about what has been talked about for the past 20 years. It is not about moving the flow of cars, but people. Even if you have the best traffic controls, lights and enforcement, if there’s no mass transit public transport system that can be relied on, nothing can change. If the buses get stuck in traffic, will people prefer to be in a bus stuck in traffic or in their own car?” says Nabil Nakkash.

20 years on

The problems Tammam Nakkash highlighted in reports 20 years ago are still the same. In 1995, he wrote that “enforcement is sporadic … and not uniformly applied,” while no action has been taken on his plans for a mass transport system. Nakkash is now using Beirut as a case study of how public transportation goes wrong in order for others to learn from the experience.

“Our computer simulations for the transport model in 1995 showed that even if everything was done related to infrastructure, without a mass transport system by 2015, things would be worse than in 1994, and now I am seeing that happen, although the growth in population didn’t match forecasts,” he says.

Given the lack of improvement in public transport, Nakkash believes that campaigners should move beyond just opposing government transport measures, such as the planned Fouad Boutros highway between Achrafieh and Mar Mikhael that has met major resistance, to proposing solutions. It is a concept that Karim Attoui, a facilitator at Public Interest Design (PID), has picked up on.

“I ask people to look at things differently. We are in anarchy, and our approach to problem solving needs to change. The problem with activists is that they make demands, and when they offer solutions, they don’t take into consideration a highly corrupt government and country, so we use the ‘WWC’ slogan — work with corruption,” says Attoui. “You have to propose something to the government that people can make money out of.”

The PID advocates using stakeholder analysis to offer specific solutions to areas such as Gemmayze. With shared values taken into consideration, you see who benefits and who loses, and adapt the model accordingly. Based on research into inhabitants and businesses in Gemmayze, and how the traffic is handled, Attoui is suggesting altering traffic flows, pedestrianizing areas, and introducing shuttle buses to take people from car parks to stores, restaurants and bars.

“It’s about giving people multiple micro-scale options and not offering a Rapid Transit System, which is expensive. You will have traffic elsewhere, but that is not our issue, it is about micro spaces in the city that are teeming and booming,” he says.

Looking at the problem realistically, Attoui is also suggesting keeping valet parking as part of the shared values theme, whereby those that want to pay for valet can, at a price. “In a pedestrianized Gemmayze for instance you need to think about the valets, which are a mafia, to develop a compromise solution. The valet would still be business, although not as big as before, but you’d have former valets driving microbuses in conjunction with the valet system.”

Improve car sector

With no public transport, the country has to work with what is in place, which is private transport. The most direct way to improve air quality and reduce pollution would be to impose tougher carbon emission requirements on vehicles and to encourage the use of electric or hybrid cars. Instead the government is resisting such moves.

“Nothing has changed in the automotive sector for years, no legislation, nothing. Imagine today that you are not allowed to register and import an electric car with zero emissions. Elsewhere you get subsidies to buy electric, whereas here you pay up to 50 percent in customs, plus VAT, and you are not allowed to even register it,” says Pierre Heneine, financial manager at Bassoul-Heneine, dealer for BMW and Renault.

Increasing awareness about carbon emissions would be a start, argues Anthony Boukather, CEO Manager of ANB Holding, dealer for Mazda. “If the media starts talking more about emissions it would help, but the primary attention of the Lebanese is on politics. Few understand what carbon emissions mean. If you go to Europe, anyone aged over 10 can talk about CO2,” he says.

While a vested interest, car dealers want to push for old cars to be taken off the roads and replaced with more fuel efficient and ‘cleaner’ cars. Over the past decade, through offering low interest loans, the share of sales of old to new cars in the market has gradually shifted, with an estimated 30 percent of cars bought being new. However, as of October, Banque du Liban issued a requirement that customers have to now pay a 25 percent down payment on cars. This is likely to result in a drop in sales of cheaper cars, leaving people with the choice of buying a secondhand car or resorting to the lackluster public transport.

“It is the lack of public transport which is keeping sales of cars up. When you have good public transport then this BDL law makes sense, but people are not being given an option, of public transport or a down payment,” adds Boukather.

In the meantime, until the security situation improves and the government gets its act together, it might be worth buying an orthopedic car seat to more comfortably endure the inevitable congestion.

Corrections: A previous version of this article erroneously claimed there are 1.6 million vehicles on Lebanese roads; the correct estimate, by the Automobile Importers Association, is 1.42 million as of 2013. Also, Rachid Rasamny, general manager of Century Motor Company, was mistakenly identified as a sales and marketing manager. We regret the errors.

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

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