Shared mobility apps provide more options, but may fuel congestion

An alternate route

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Beirut suffers from heavy congestion and a lack of proper public transportation that causes commuters to be stuck in traffic for long periods of time and fuels CO2 emissions. The likes of shared mobility apps like Carpolo, Loop, and Careem give some Lebanese residents more options for getting around while seeking to reduce congestion and carbon emissions. Globally though, ride sharing apps have a mixed record and have even proven to contribute to the very problems they aim to solve.

In Lebanon, measuring the effect of apps like Carpolo, which launched in 2016, and Loop, which had its soft launch in May 2017, is difficult. Representatives from both tell Executive that their companies have made strides in attracting a user base, and they are optimistic that their efforts will help make a small but positive impact on reducing emissions. Urban and transportation experts, however, tell Executive that while apps like these do provide more options and added convenience, reversing high congestion will ultimately take large-scale efforts by the government to develop and implement a proper public transport system, such as a bus rapid transit system, coupled with new policies and infrastructure.

Maya Abou Zeid, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the American University of Beirut (AUB), with a research focus on urban transportation planning, says that the large number of vehicles that commute in an out of Beirut each day are driving the congestion problem. A 2018 World Bank project appraisal document for the Greater Beirut Transport Project estimated that 650,000 vehicles entered Beirut daily on what it calls “critical highway sections” referring to the northern, southern, and eastern roads leading to the capital. Road congestion costs Lebanon nearly $2 billion a year, or 5 percent of its GDP. A Ministry of Environment report conducted in conjunction with UNDP from 2016 found that in 2012, the transport sector alone was responsible for 23 percent of total emissions, most of which came from private passenger cars.

Carpolo’s co-founder Ralph Khairallah says that alleviating this stress is one of his app’s functionalities. With its community-based sharing or public sharing option, users outside Beirut can find a ride into the city on the app, boosting car occupancy rates—currently 1.2 riders per vehicle in Lebanon, 0.2 behind the global average. “We’re a search engine for unused car seats,” Khairallah says. Carpolo seeks to “fill up those [unused] seats, reduce pollution, congestion, [and] increase productivity.” Khairallah figures, using UNDP statistics, that if Lebanon is able to catch up to the global occupancy rate of 1.4, CO2 emissions would drop by 288,000 kilograms per day, and overall mobility savings—such as fuel and insurance—would be $329,000 per day. By the Carpolo team’s estimations, reaching the global occupancy rate would reduce the number of vehicles entering Beirut daily by 85,000.

Carpolo, which currently has about 7,000 users, looks to partner with businesses so that people within the same network can find rides within it, but it also has a public option that anyone can access. It has entered into a CSR partnership with Byblos Bank as of March 2019 to form a carpooling network that Byblos Bank employees can use to find a ride to any of the bank’s branches or the headquarters, which houses more than 700 employees. Carpolo is looking to replicate this model with local universities and companies, and are seeking partnerships with organizations looking to cut down their environmental impact, Khairallah says.

Hail that ride

Unlike other carpooling apps, like Europe’s BlaBlaCar, no cash is exchanged via the app. Instead, Carpolo uses a “gamified point system” where users earn rewards—such as points that can be redeemed at Medco or Zaatar w Zeit, sponsors of Carpolo.

Where Carpolo helps link up ride seekers with drivers who are going to the same place, Careem, like the globally operating Uber, is a ride hailing app. Based in Dubai, Careem operates in 14 MENA countries and was acquired by Uber in March 2019. It launched in Lebanon in 2014. Ibrahim Manna, managing director of Careem for emerging markets, tells Executive in an email that Careem sought to focus on the lack of easy access to reliable, affordable, and modern transportation in the region. They have recently launched the “Servees” function that operates like the Lebanese red plate shared taxis.

Poor individuals are not able to easily access these services, because they are typically slightly pricier, and will still rely on other modes.

While both apps increase options for riders in Lebanon, specifically Beirut and its suburbs, they may only serve specific segments of society—such as the middle and upper classes and urban populations—and typically do little to alleviate congestion. Abou Zeid refers to a 2019 study on Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, conducted by the University of Kentucky and the San Francisco Transportation Authority, that analyzed data from 2010 and 2016 and found that these apps increased traffic delays by 40 percent over a six-year period due to factors including “deadheading”—or moving while out of service—and by contributing to congestion on busy streets by disrupting traffic for passenger pickup and dropoff. The study’s authors also estimate that between 41 and 61 percent of Uber trips substitute walking, cycling, or other modes of transport.

In Beirut, where biking can be treacherous and other viable options of transit are limited, the percentage of ride hailing app users opting for Careem or Uber instead of other forms of transport may be smaller. In terms of travel time, “[These apps] don’t have an advantage, but you can do in-vehicle activities,” Abou Zeid says. However, one advantage is time and money saved in parking because parking in Beirut is scarce and costly, she adds.

Mona Fawaz, professor of urban planning at AUB, points to socioeconomic factors and says these apps are only accessible to certain segments of society. “Uber and Careem might be a good option because people don’t want the financial burden or responsibility of owning a car, but it’s class related and linked to credit cards,” she says. Poor individuals are not able to easily access these services, because they typically are slightly pricier, and will still rely on other modes, such as the informal public transportation system to get around. She explains there is also a geography factor in that these apps work better in urban population centers; for those living in rural areas access is a challenge as rides become increasingly expensive over long distances.

Carpolo and Careem may not reduce a rider’s travel time, but an option that has that ability is Loop, an electric scooter fleet management company. Because the scooters can weave through traffic, they allow users a quicker trip from point A to B. And because these are electric scooters, there is an added environmentally friendly component. “The traffic and the pollution are bad,” says Loop’s general manager Mira Raham. “This service helps attack these two major issues in Beirut.”

Raham tells Executive that with around 25 scooters in the fleet and after rolling out a new station every two to three months, there are currently 17 stations scattered throughout Beirut, they will expand to 100 scooters and 50 stations before the year’s end. When a user finishes using a scooter, they plug it in at the station, which are equipped with chargers. Each scooter can travel 50 km on one charge with usage fees of $.050/km and $0.01 a minute to park.

Raham says that with around 2,000 subscribers and 600 active users as of mid 2019, the increased fleet size and reaching around 700 active users is essential for Loop to start turning a profit. Between mid 2017 and January 2018, when they fully launched, Raham says they used that period to raise awareness and introduce the concept of fleet sharing, which was non-existent here. “It was a bit challenging,” she says.

Disrupt the system

Other challenges associated with scooter sharing include the safety of operating in Beirut where traffic is hectic and roadways are often less than ideal quality, Raham says, adding that, fortunately, they have had no accidents yet. Loop also provides training for new subscribers on scooter safety. Starting with just one station in Beirut Digital District (BDD), which served as a pilot to measure interest, they have now expanded the map in Beirut. “The demand increased bit by bit,” says Raham. Once Beirut is rolled out, they will look to expand to Jbeil, and investors in Greece and Cyprus have shown interest, she says.

Loop, like Carpolo and Careem, provide options to people in Beirut looking for alternate modes of transportation in a city where public transport is minimal. While profit-seeking enterprises, these apps also seek to disrupt the current system, alleviate congestion, and reduce the environmental impact from cars. In terms of offering an alternative form of mobility—at least to certain segments of society—there is potential for these apps but, so far, there is little to indicate they can alleviate Beirut’s chronic congestion problem—and the experience of other cities suggests they could even add to it.

Lauren Holtmeier

Lauren Holtmeier holds a masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and has worked on refugee issues at the American University of Beirut.