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Public policy missed the train

Beirut’s transportation has potential, but currently drains the economy

by Thomas Schellen

I enjoy action thrillers. But when it comes to cinematic car chases, I suffer from acute thriller fatigue. Why am I bored by watching unrealistic, brain-numbing races in urban or rural traffic? Perhaps it’s because I live in Beirut.  

No ride down San Francisco’s Lombard Street or race along the Cote D’Azur holds half as much opportunity to observe risky and stupid — not to mention rude and reckless — traffic behavior as time spent at a Beirut intersection. I never know if first to scream, weep or laugh. I usually end my corner time just shaking my head and walking away laughing at the intensity of our human folly.    

The buses and taxis that comprise the totality of the country’s  public transport system play a role in this urban traffic disaster. In Beirut, you find no privileged lanes for mass transit and no rules giving buses priority over cars. Information flows only on the individual level and one would be an idiot to ask for schedules. Bus drivers are steering outmoded and polluting wheeled boxes with worn-down seats along impossible streets, and mini-bus passengers are ferried by drivers without a trace of professional driver training. And if you want to honestly discuss train service, be ready for a sad story. Why should it matter then, to talk about public transport options in Beirut? 

See also: Buses bought to die

Photos: Lebanon's historic train route

Because this city has so much underused potential, even in transport. First, Beirut is a comparatively small city in geographic terms. Unlike Istanbul or Cairo, it is no mega-conurbation of 10 million or more inhabitants. Its metropolitan area is 27 to 33 times smaller than those two cities. With such compactness and a well-educated populace, it should be a piece of cake to implement an urban commuting structure that can make Beirut one of the most productive knowledge cities in the world. Second, this city has mystifying survival qualities, even in transport. The total breakdown of Beirut traffic, while a daily and always increasing possibility, has not happened. I believe this is owing to the amazing flexibility of the Lebanese, their readiness to use the smallest opportunity and live with chaos as a co-operating principle of society.

But be not mistaken. While Beirut traffic is a no-entry-fee entertainment option with a highly reliable thrill factor, it is a painful burden on the national economy. When activists credibly claim that a two-hour commute from northern and southern suburbia could be condensed to 30 daily mass-transit minutes, what they are really saying is that many of us waste 15 or so percent of our economic productivity on vehicular insanity. Imagine that as an annual deduction from your savings account.   

Assessing the real price of having no true public transport in Lebanon is important because cities are organisms of opportunity and cost. Even mega-conurbations with more than 10 million inhabitants can keep growing and improving if they can magnify economic opportunities. However, in a recent work on the decline of economies, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson said, “The net benefits of urbanization are conditioned by the institutional frameworks within which cities operate.”  

This raises the specter that Beirut and its urban economy could soon be doomed to perennial net losses and abandoned in non-competitiveness. Our road infrastructure is already in shambles because of dysfunctional institutions and so is our public transportation. 

In this situation, we don’t need populists in politics or media who take the bus once every decade to show off their commonness. We don’t need negative role models of traffic misbehavior from people in business and officialdom who treat the whole city as their park-where-I-please fiefdoms with their obnoxiously massive personal vehicles. 

Beirut and Lebanon definitely cannot afford losing more time bemoaning old toll-road concepts or betting on imported consulting schemes, and we certainly cannot afford sequels of corruption in procurement and hasty implementation of some half-assed public transport network.  

Quite simply, Beirut needs to invest in real urban transport solutions immediately, and in any which way possible. Perhaps we can get ourselves motivated to do so if we study the real cost-benefit story of investing in urban infrastructures and understand that we will lose big money if we further postpone creating privately managed, accountable and economically beneficial public transport.   


Thomas Schellen is Executive's MENA business editor

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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