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Buses bought to die

Why Lebanon’s 250 new buses will not solve traffic crisis

by Zak Brophy

Transportation within Lebanon, especially within the greater Beirut area, has become synonymous with congestion and chaos. The system is built, almost entirely, around the personal car with a road network that is severely wanting in both quality and structure. Tragically, public transport has become little more than a scarce afterthought. “If we carry on along this path then we are just building one giant car park,” warns Elie Helou, transport engineer at the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).

See also: Photos: Lebanon's historic train route

Public policy missed the train

The Minister of Public Works and Transportation, Ghazi Aridi, has been grabbing headlines for months with promises to deliver on a signature policy of his to purchase a fleet of 250 buses. In mid-January the ministry proceeded with the tender for the fleet and the delivery of the buses is expected by late summer. Could it be that Lebanon is finally moving towards integrating public transport initiatives into the mix? History gives reason for caution and the fact that past mistakes have compelled negligible reform gives reason to be outright cynical.

Crash and Burn in ‘75

Lebanon used to have the most advanced transport system in the Middle East, with trams, buses and trains accompanying the rise of the personal automobile. However, the fraternal infighting that ripped through the material and social fabric of Lebanon during the civil war from 1975 to 1991 laid waste to this sophisticated transport network. 

In the postwar period the emphasis has been almost entirely on more cars and more roads, and there is now almost one car for every two people in the country. It is no small irony that the Lebanese addiction to the motorcar is one of the most immobilizing ailments within this society.

“We missed a great opportunity in the 1990s… to rebuild the system in a modern and sustainable manner,” says Youssef Fawaz, executive director at Al Majmoua Lebanese Association for Development. As the tarmac capillaries of the nation were restored and built upon, insignificant consideration and calculation was given to the design of this system. Instead, outdated plans from the pre-war period were dusted off, superficially tweaked and put into action. And so it was that the foundations for gridlock were laid. 

The organs of government were even more battered and incapacitated by the war than the nation’s infrastructure. To overcome this hindrance, the reconstruction program, led by former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, encompassed the creation of the CDR, which is essentially a contracting agency for the government whose projects are primarily financed by external donors. 

The theory back in the day was that the ministries would eventually be developed and staffed to a level where they could implement their own infrastructure programs. That never transpired, and it is still the CDR that designs, raises the funds for and implements the country’s major transport infrastructure projects.

In 1995, the government sanctioned the CDR to carry out a greater Beirut transport plan, which included detailed road building projects, traffic management schemes and public transport proposals. Almost 20 years later and projects, such as parking meters and a centralized traffic control center, are only now coming into effect. 

A number of the road developments have been constructed, although often piecemeal and delayed. One of the major mistakes of postwar transport regeneration was to postpone the building of the Greater Beirut ring road, which was to be the “backbone to all the other roads,” according to the CDR’s Helou. If this vital artery were to be built now, the government would have to stump up around $1.2 billion for expropriation due to highly inflated land costs — international donors will not fund these expenses.    

Most of all, there is a glaring gap between the CDR study’s public transport recommendations and the reality. The mass transit network was meant to include bus, rail and metro systems and was slated to capture about 15 percent of all trips in the greater Beirut area. What has actually come to transpire is a handful of bus lines running ad hoc, unreliable and slow services on outdated and dirty buses. There has quite simply been no political will to advance the proposals regarding public transport, write them into policy and mandate the CDR to turn them into reality. 

Aside from the bus service, one of the main components of what could, at a stretch, be called public transport is the service system of shared taxis. This however, is also highly inefficient and ill conceived, and any kind of reform is likely to be highly costly. The red plates that all services and buses hold are the private property of their owner and are almost completely unregulated. “The red plate services have an occupancy of around 1.2 people, which is very low. It is a hugely polluting and congesting system, and the drivers only scrape by a living,” explains Fawaz. 

As far back as 1994 Nakkash and planners within the CDR proposed that the government buyout a significant share of the plates as they were relatively cheap and it could have helped lay the groundwork for other transport reforms. But it was not to be, as the lawmakers, inspired by little more than political expediency, decided to issue thousands more red plates. The consequence today is that any efforts to reduce and regulate the red plate system is likely to be highly politically contentious and involve significant payouts.


Bad policy piles up

With this rather ignominious track record on public transport during the postwar era, the minister’s plans to buy a fleet of buses clearly requires some inspection. Buying things is easy for politicians — in fact, it serves their cause with vote-winning headlines and budget boosting funds for their ministries — but sustaining those purchases is much more taxing. “Buying buses is the first and simplest process in a long cycle,” says Nakkash. “It needs management and organization behind it, and frankly this is not present.” 

Ingloriously dumped in the old train yard in the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut, lie dozens of rusting, deflated and broken bus carcasses, testaments to public transportation policies tried and failed. Many are the remnants of 200 buses that were purchased in 1998. Due to bad policies and half-hearted implementation, however, only a dozen or so remain on the roads. Those that were scrapped to Mar Mikhael are a sad reminder of how ill conceived policies only add to the detritus of Lebanon’s neglected public transport sector. “Public transport is beyond being sidelined. There is no real debate,” laments Fawaz.

So what of the 250 buses that the incumbent ministry is purchasing? The intention is that they will form part of a fully integrated network with 910 bus stops throughout greater Beirut, for which the government has already allocated $33 million. With a World Bank grant, American IBI Group and Lebanon’s Team International were selected to carry out initial studies for the                  bus network.

“Buses will have Global Positioning System (GPS) with a control center in the ministry [of transport] to overview all the lines; the bus stops will have message signs which show the number of lines, the destination, the expected arrival time, etcetera, and the ticketing system will also be of international standards,” explains Abdel Hafeez Kayssi, director general of Land and Maritime Transport since 2000. 

While beginning with greater Beirut, Kayssi expects the network to eventually cover all of Lebanon within five years, at an estimated cost of $75 million. As for funding, he says that the goal now is to have success with the pilot project in greater Beirut, “then international funds can be encouraged [to finance the network] for outside greater Beirut.” 

Sounds good, right? The problem is that the same administrative and organizational inadequacies that ultimately resulted in the scrapping of the bus fleet in Mar Mikhael have not been addressed. As things currently stand in the sector, there are a number of overlapping bodies with unclear jurisdictions that are oftentimes understaffed and under-resourced to fulfill their mandate.

At the top of the pile is the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, a feeble public body with scant resources subject to the same obstructionism and political tomfoolery present throughout most government departments. There are a number of skilled and concerned individuals within the ministry, as Kayssi seems to exemplify, but in its entirety the ministry does not have the institutional wherewithal or talented workforce to lead such large-scale projects. “How can you run a ministry with just a handful of good people? It’s not possible,” frets Nikkash.

One of the largest obstacles to the implementation of this bus network is the fact that the ministry has put the cart before the horse by pushing ahead with the procurement of the buses before defining its relationship with the local municipalities. In almost every city in the world, public transport is managed at a municipal level, but in Lebanon successive ministers of transport have ensured that it remains under their purview. 

Public transport is rarely financially self-sustainable, so municipalities have to subsidize it — normally around 10 to 22 percent of ticket prices. The alleviation of  congestion justifies the cost. “How can you have public transport managed by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and financed by the municipalities? It is not possible,” reasons Rachid Achkar, council member and transport specialist within the Municipal Council of Beirut. 

Even if the ministry had been engaging in meaningful cooperation with the Municipality of Beirut — which it has not — there would still be a major problem in that the greater Beirut area is actually a conglomeration of around 50 municipal councils. The folks at the Municipal Council of Beirut are pushing for both a high authority for transportation within government and a federation of municipalities of the greater Beirut area. The Minister of Interior at least has given a verbal agreement to the creation of the federation of municipalities. “We are ready to cooperate and share in the costs of operating this system,” says Achkar, “the Ministry [of Public Works and Transport] is perhaps starting to be ready.”

The other gray zone that should be of concern to any observer is the role of the private sector in the operation and maintenance of the bus network. The government’s track record of private sector engagement could be called shoddy at best and few measures are in place to suggest the case would be any different in the case of public transport. 

It is common international practice for transportation regulatory agencies to plan the system, set routes to be tendered to the private sector and to ensure the safe, efficient application of these agreements. However, “the regulatory capabilities are very, very, very weak and there is currently no organization which has this function,’ warns Nakkash. 

Decongestion derailed

The regeneration of the old coastal train line is an idea that has been regularly aired over the years as another area of Lebanon’s looming public transport revival, and sure enough it is part of the transport reform Kayssi states the ministry is pursuing. With the coastal line of Abboudieh to Beirut as a first priority, its upgrade has been divided in three parts: first, the 35.5 kilometer northern coastal line from Tripoli’s port to Abboudieh; the second part goes from Tripoli’s port to Tabarja and runs 70 kilometers; and the final part covers the 20 kilometers from Tabarja to Beirut.

These, however, are old plans and there is little reason to suspect that their implementation will be realized any time soon. Not because it is impossible but because there has been little demonstrable political will.

Although there has been some encroachment on the route, it could easily be restored and put to use. A wise use of this throughway could substantially alleviate the traffic load on the corridor running north of Beirut, which is perhaps the most chronic bottleneck in the whole of Lebanon. Peak time traffic is reduced to a crawling, smoggy column of cars and trucks and there is virtually no scope for extra road capacity. An alternative solution is clearly a necessity.  

Numerous studies have analyzed the different potential uses of this unused causeway including heavy rail, light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) – a route that is only used by buses but functions like a light railway with fixed passenger platforms. All offer different benefits but the BRT is the least capital intensive and perhaps the easiest to implement. But alas, “You need to have a clear policy and someone to champion this policy, but sadly neither of these exist,” laments Nakkash.

A badly needed tune-up

The lack of any serious public transport program within Lebanon means the country is riding on a crumbling chassis. The economic, social and health costs of traffic congestion are only going to get worse until there is a serious political will to cede some authority to those specialists who actually have the ability and vision to advance a meaningful public transport policy. 

It will take a lot more than a bunch of buses to solve the problem. There are achievable solutions and there are talented and experienced people to implement them, but reform and rejuvenation of the administration need to precede headline grabbing shopping sprees. Until that happens, the slow choke toward gridlock will persevere.      

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Zak Brophy

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.

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