Lebanon’s transport sector is one of the most unsustainable in the Middle East region. This is mostly due to the continuing absence of any public transportation by bus or rail for over 40 years, and the lack of infrastructure for alternative transport means, such as bicycles and walking. The result is an exclusive reliance on cars and trucks that are overly polluting; according to local research, 98 percent of all fuels used in Lebanon’s transport are gasoline and diesel, with 60 percent of all cars having large engines, and 70 percent being older than 10 years. Mobility in Lebanon has become synonymous with traffic congestion and noxious fumes, harming human health, the economy, and the environment.
It is clear from the diagnosis of the problem that serious solutions by the state are needed immediately, under the organizing umbrella of a national transportation strategy that is still missing to date. But in a tough economy and without effective state institutions today, it might be more useful to look at feasible solutions that can be done in the near-term at the level of municipalities and non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.
Where the government is not able to fulfill its mandate, many NGOs and experts have been active, but each one working in a separate part of the sector. To increase chances for success, NGOs should unify their voice and engage the state, the private sector, academia, and international bodies in a constructive dialogue, pooling resources. This can push forward low cost, near-term projects and pilot projects with tangible positive impacts on the daily commute.
For example, in the absence of a comprehensive public bus service across all regions, smaller regional initiatives by municipalities and the private sector can be very effective in improving mobility within cities and high-density areas. Such initiatives can also serve as pilot tests ahead of any future deployment of a country-wide bus network by the state, providing valuable insights about passenger demand, service costs, and bus technology performance, potentially even becoming feeders for the main network in the future. These projects would also encourage the gradual development of local capabilities in the sector, from training and maintenance of facilities to information service providers.
However, such initiatives cannot replace the state, which has the primary role and responsibility for providing a nationwide and modern public transport service to its citizens, with all the significant infrastructure and resources needed to operate it. This is why it is equally important to continue lobbying the state for this right, especially at this critical juncture where funding pledges for the transport sector out of CEDRE amount to a third of the $11 billion pledged.
In its current form, the CEDRE -linked Capital Investment Plan (CIP) for the transport sector is entirely focused on infrastructure projects such as roadways and tunnels, but does not account for public transportation needs. And while many of these projects are useful and needed, they will not, however, improve mobility in the long term, as more cars and trucks will eventually overfill the additional capacity—according to a 2016 Bankmed report, on average, over 35,000 new-model passenger cars alone enter our roads each year. This is why some NGOs, like “Transport Coactives” (TRACS), which itself is formed by a number of active NGOs and experts in the transport sector including myself, are actively lobbying today to reprioritize the CEDRE/CIP spending toward transport projects that include public transportation.
In the meantime, more of the feasible and affordable initiatives can be implemented easily and can have a positive impact, if not on congestion levels, at least on human health and the environment. In a 2017 study by the Ministry of Energy and Water and the UNDP on the potential use of low carbon fuels in the transport sector, one of our short-term policy recommendations was to reduce taxes on hybrid electric vehicles in order to make this cleaner technology more affordable, and thereby encourage its adoption in Lebanon. In that study, hybrids were estimated to save nearly 30 percent in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional engine vehicles, while also significantly reducing emission of some of the air pollutants harmful to human health. And while the government did recently reduce taxes on these vehicles down to 20 percent, more reductions are necessary to speed up their adoption, as Lebanon remains largely behind global and even regional trends.
But perhaps the most important takeaway is that collaboration on feasible solutions, while necessary and useful, is not sufficient to sustain the transport sector in Lebanon. Only a national transportation strategy that organizes efforts and resources can begin to tackle the problem at its root cause.