Beating the hordes

With much of the country stuck in a jam motorbikes are looking more attractive

With 434 cars per 1,000 people, Lebanon has one of the highest vehicle-per-capita ratios in the world, in large part due to an almost non-existent public transport system. The 1.6 million vehicles in the country are the primary contributor to air pollution in Beirut, with more than three quarters of the capital having nitrogen dioxide levels 95 percent above the World Heath Organization’s threshold limit, according to research by the American University of Beirut.

To improve congestion and pollution levels, motorbikes can provide the solution, believes Anthony Boukhater, General Manager of AN Boukhater, dealer for the Piaggio Group.

The fast lane

“The only solution for traffic today is for more motorbikes, as there’s no metro, and taxis and service taxis are expensive and unpredictable,” said Boukhater. “Many factors are making it more interesting to buy a bike, especially traffic, taking 1.5 hours in a car to drive 15 kilometers. The second factor is the price of gasoline is going up, and the third is the lack of parking space in town. All of this is pushing people to go for a two or three wheeler.”

AN Boukhater have witnessed a 25 percent spike in sales this year. Negib Debs, brand manager of Kawasaki at Rymco, said that while there are no statistics due to the lack of an import association, demand is on the rise. “Two years ago we sold 70 motorbikes per year, but this year we’ll go above 100 bikes,” he said. Anticipating increasing demand, Rymco is upping its range, adding four more models next year to its current 14.

Holding back sales, however, particularly of motorbikes with engines above 250cc, is the lack of bank loans, a primary factor in boosting car sales over the past five years. “Banks won’t lend as they think the risks are higher with a motorbike, so we are doing in-house loans and will work to promote safety,” said Debs.

Dealerships have worked with Kunhadi, an organization to promote safety on two-wheels, by giving away free helmets, for example, and have set up motorbike clubs for weekend rides, with bikers required to abide by traffic laws. Meanwhile, Boukhater has established a motorbike school to train prospective riders for Lebanese roads.

“We are trying to change the image of the motorcyclist in Lebanon. When you talk to old people they only see mopeds swerving through traffic or bikers doing wheelies on the highway. This is not motorbike riding but suicidal riding,” said Debs. “We all want to change this image. In discussions with the police they know it is a problem but say its something they cannot change.”

Changing perceptions

One problem are used scooters, with an estimated 5,000 entering the country every month that sell for between $50 to $100. “If the police stop such unregistered mopeds, they impound them. But to get the moped released is more expensive than it is worth, so the owners don’t care. Then the police sell it back to the market as the law forbids destroying them,” added Debs.

Boukhater thinks the mentality towards motorbikes is slowly changing, and within two or three years there will be a 100 percent increase in sales year-on-year. “Next year I think will be even better than 2011; we are moving in the right direction.”