Among the many aspects of our daily lives that were perceived in a new light following the four months since Lebanon introduced coronavirus-related safety and lockdown measures was the way we move from one place to another.
Not allowed to use their cars on Sundays and only on alternative weekdays from April 5 to June 15, Lebanese were forced to either walk, ride a bicycle, or take a bus, cab, or service (shared taxi). This was a novel experience for some and the hope for public transport proponents is that the mobility habits picked up in that period would be carried into the future, especially since they may be needed now that the economic crisis has made driving potentially costlier (the price of spare parts has increased and there have been proposals to remove government subsidies for fuel).
The economic crisis has also had an impact on the drivers within the informal public transport system, especially since they were prevented from working during parts of the COVID-19-related lockdown measures. With the rising cost of living, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport officially increased fares from LL2,000 per service to LL3,000 and from LL1,000 to LL 1,500 per van/bus when traveling within Beirut.
In an interview prior to this fare increase, Executive talked to Chadi Faraj, co-founder of the Bus Map Project (which developed a map for the informal bus system in Greater Beirut) and Riders’ Rights (an advocacy initiative that supports public transport in Lebanon), about the effect of COVID-19 and economic crises has on the Lebanese and on the drivers of services, buses, and vans.
How did the coronavirus lockdown measures impact public transport?
When the government announced lockdown on March 15, they took the decision to stop all forms of shared transport from operating during the first phase of the lockdown.
In many countries, such as Canada, China, or the UK, public transport is considered an essential service because a lot of citizens depend on it for their commute to work. Those include people who work in services that were deemed essential and allowed to continue operating, even in Lebanon, such as healthcare, grocery store employees, and delivery people.
So in these countries they allowed public transport to continue, with reduced operational hours and with restrictions on the number of people allowed on buses or metros.
How do you think the Lebanese government should have dealt with this instead?
It is true that there is a risk of transmission of the coronavirus in public transport, since it is essentially a public space, but this is not the way you deal with that risk.
We could have taken precautions, sanitized the buses frequently, reduced the number of riders per bus, relied on contactless payments instead of exchanging cash by hand …
But we don’t have the option of contactless payment for buses or services in Lebanon…
There is always a solution.
In some African countries, which also don’t have contactless payments for public transport, they had hand-washing stations at bus stops for riders to wash their hands before taking the bus.
In Lebanon, they did not try to find solutions but took the decision of halting these services temporarily.
How did the total halt on shared transport affect people in Lebanon?
This caused a problem for essential workers who were still allowed to go to their place of business.
A lot of those workers, such as bakers or nurses or darak (police), use shared transport and so had difficulty getting to their work when this service was halted. Even when services were allowed on the roads again (a month after the lockdown, I think), it was not easy to find one.
The government should have considered shared transport employees as essential employees and kept them operating under certain conditions.
It was a difficult period for shared transport operators and we tried to help as much as possible but, at the end of the day, we are not a charitable organization. We only managed to help five drivers with food supplies during the lockdown period. Once that was lifted, we launched a campaign called Bus Line Heroes through which we were able to support 34 drivers with a [one-off lira] cash amount [of LL221,500].
When the odd-even license plate measure was introduced by the ministry of interior, how did it impact shared transport?
At first, this bothered taxi drivers since they could not drive on certain days at a time when work was already slow. It was slow because people were scared to take shared transport at the beginning.
While keeping the odd-even measures, the ministry gradually allowed first the 14-riders minivans to operate and then the 24-riders buses, both at half the capacity. In my opinion, they should have started with the buses first since it has more space for distancing than a minivan but they considered the number of riders instead—so two in services, seven in vans and 12 in buses—and asked everyone to wear masks.
Some bus drivers appreciated the odd/even circulation because there was less competition in that period so they would have more riders than they would have had in two days.
What was the situation like after it was lifted?
When this measure was lifted, demand slowed down significantly [for buses and minivans] since there were more buses on the road. So this odd/even [restriction] organized shared transport somehow and allowed riders to be distributed more evenly among buses.
Did the lockdown period and then the odd/even license plate period change how people in Lebanon view public transport, from your perspective?
We saw more people walking or riding bicycles so there were positive steps in that direction.
We would have liked to see more of a push from the government for this mode of transportation, as was done in other countries which reduced the space for cars in favor of bike paths and walking lanes.
How do you think the economic crisis the country is passing through will impact Lebanese’s views on public transport?
At one point, most Lebanese relied on their private cars and did not even think of taking shared transport. This is because it was relatively easy to buy a car since banks offered loans on good terms, cars were advertised everywhere, and there was this whole image of how essentials cars are to our lives.
Public transport was basically ignored, by the government and many Lebanese, and was viewed as mainly being for the poor. But with the economic crisis today, there is potential for more people to view public transport in a more favorable light. Some people may be forced to use the existing shared transport because, at some point, they may not be able to fill their cars with benzene (gas) anymore or they will not be able to afford fixing their cars when they break down. This thing, this crisis, may end up having a positive effect in that it drives people to use shared transport or alternatives modes of transport again.