Smart mobility in Lebanon

The other digital revolution

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The first digital revolution was centered around the movement of data and information in the virtual world; the next digital revolution may very well be around optimizing the movement of people and things in the real world. The concept of “smart mobility” is the intersection between the real and the virtual worlds, and this is why it has been gaining traction of late.

Movement, like communication, is a core human need, and technology plays an integral role in how people move—mobilize—in the real world. This explains why mobility startups like UBER, Tesla, Lyft, Careem, DiDi, Ride, Lime, Grab, Deliveroo, and BlaBlaCar—to name a few—have become household names in their respective markets. People need to move more freely and efficiently to keep up with the pace of the information age.

In the case of Lebanon, our mobility infrastructure is plagued with years of neglect and lack of resources. A partial solution for the traffic congestion is to activate new smart mobility systems that tap into a widely abundant resource: unused car seats.

A 2015 environment ministry report cited a vehicle occupancy rate of 1.2, meaning the average Lebanese is driving a five-seater car to only transport themselves. Moreover, with the World Bank estimating there are around 1.6 million cars in Lebanon that means there are 6 million unused car seats cruising our roads pointlessly each day. This is the raison d’etre for new shared mobility solutions, and the reason why young entrepreneurs—including myself—launched Carpolo in 2017 for the Lebanese public. Our app works as a search engine for those unused car seats; it unlocks a sophisticated public transportation network using two simple resources: mobile devices and existing cars on the roads.

Unlike traditional mobility infrastructure systems—roads, bridges, railways—smart mobility solutions require less investment for the value created. For the general public, it might be as simple as downloading a mobile app; for companies, it might mean creating an internal carpooling system for staff; and for governments, investing in smart mobility initiatives can have exponential returns in economic, social, and environmental value.

When we look at the social value created, carpooling apps provide turnkey, smart mobility platforms that unlock a new mode of public transportation for subscribed cities and communities. Moreover, this smart mode of transportation can be activated immediately and requires no hardware and no land appropriation.

The value created as a result of implementing these kinds of smart mobility solutions is multi-fold. It decreases congestion in the city and makes movement less costly; thus allowing people, businesses, and governments to operate more efficiently.

The question remains: Now that we have proven than we are able to create value through smart mobility solutions, who are the stakeholders who should invest in long-term mobility solutions for Lebanon?

The need for public support

Looking at the buses and vans that compete for passengers on Lebanon’s roads, it is immediately clear that the private sector is not doing well when it comes to managing the country’s chaotic mobility sector. Just like urban planning, smart mobility requires a holistic vision of the city’s transport needs.

Our experience as a startup taught us that the private sector can spark the creation of smart mobility initiatives, but the catalyst to activating smart mobility as a mainstream solution will be the public sector. Mass adoption of new mobility concepts takes time, and will only come once this becomes part of a national program.

Low-cost/high-value mobility solutions are among the most important investments that any city or government can initiate nowadays to improve their infrastructure. Collaboration with the private sector to create mass adoption for such mobility concepts is the role of the public sector.

This is exactly what we aim to achieve in the long-run as we seek to establish new mobility habits in the minds of our users. However, apart from building a technology and updating it based on user feedback, startups have to invest resources to introduce new habits. Such investments require persistence and dedication to make a change—something that few early stage investors are willing to do. On the other hand, a big portion of public spending is directed toward traditional brick and mortar infrastructure solutions—projects that require time and resources to be implemented. These priorities will need to be reassessed in the near future. With smart mobility solutions, we save time and money, and build a basis for a smarter society in the future.

Ralph Khairallah

Ralph Khairallah is the cofounder and CEO of Carpolo, a carpooling platform.

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