Lebanon’s informal public transport system

The wheels of the bus … are stuck in the mud

Number 12 bus
Photo by Greg Demarque
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Public transport is part of Lebanon’s mobility heritage, as is evident by our popular culture. In the song entitled “Ala Hadir el-Bosta,” the late Joseph Sakr sings of his love Alia’s pretty eyes while on a shared bus from Hammana to Tannourine, humorously describing the passengers who were with him—the song was composed by Ziad el-Rahbani in 1978 for his play “Bil Nisbe La Bukra Shu?” Marcel Khalife also sings about shared transport in “Toot toot ala Beirut,” where a young boy asks his father to take him to Beirut in a service (a Lebanese shared taxi). A popular Lebanese children’s rhyme encourages the bus driver to accelerate to 199 km/h without worrying that this will get him in trouble with the police as the children will have his back.

Songs and rhymes aside, images of the tramway passing through Bliss Street in the 1950s, or of the train running through the coastal plains, are still shared on Lebanon’s nostalgia social media pages and evoked in photography exhibitions of the country’s recent past.

Despite this well-developed history of mobility, a casual observer of Lebanon’s roads today—noting the buses, minivans, and services all stopping to pick up passengers anywhere and anytime they please—would not be faulted for thinking that the country has never experienced organized public transport of any kind. And yet, there is a certain rhythm to the existing madness, as well as emerging plans for the organization of the public transport sector which will eventually—hopefully—revitalize and restore mobility within Lebanon.

A brief history of buses

Ziad Nasr, president and director general of the Railways and Public Transportation Authority (RPTA), explains that with the intensification of the civil war in Lebanon, public transport infrastructure was eventually destroyed. The post civil war government’s immediate priorities were to rebuild the airport and fix the roads to reconnect the country externally and internally, Nasr explains—as such public transport rehabilitation fell through the cracks. Since then, “there were several proposed projects to revive the railway system or rehabilitate public transport, but there was no real political will or a ministerial decree to invest in them and implement them,” Nasr says.

One project that was implemented—but was not very successful—was the RPTA (also known by its French abbreviation OCFTC) owned blue and white buses that were introduced into Beirut in 1995. At the time, a fleet of 200 buses were introduced into Beirut, running on 22 lines, and 806 bus stops were constructed across the city.

“The informal public transport system fills the gap where it is found and answers the need of a certain segment of society.”

Chadi Farraj, co-founder of the Bus Map Project

However, according to Tammam Nakkash, managing partner of Team International, an engineering and management consultancy, who was contracted for this project, they faced a lot of competition from the non-regulated buses and minivans. Nasr believes the lack of consistent funding into their maintenance and into the system itself was another reason the buses were not successful as they would breakdown and there would be no funds to fix them.

“Public transport planning is not simply to have a driver and a bus, but also to have a back office which plays the role of planning and supervision,” Nasr says, adding that only 35 of these buses are still in operation today across nine lines or routes in Beirut and one in the Bekaa.

When nature abhors vacuum

Chadi Farraj, co-founder of the Bus Map Project (see box below), a grassroots initiative that maps public transport in the Greater Beirut Area (GBA), says there are two models of public transport system: formal and informal. The formal system is where vehicles have one operator—a private entity or the government—and run on a fixed schedule with designated bus stops; the kind encountered in most developed cities around the world. The second model is the informal one and is more commonly found in developing cities such as Bangkok, Manila, Amman, and Beirut, where a formal or organized public transport system does not exist.

Bus Map Project

“The informal bus system fills the gap where it is found and answers the need of a certain segment of society [the low-income to lower middle-income segment], so there are many versions of it across the world,” Farraj says. “It operates wherever there is demand, is organic, and makes the best use of what exists. There is no schedule or bus stop in the informal system, and it does not have a unified operator but rather a series of individual operators.”

Nasr acknowledges that with the lack of government provided and regulated public transport, it was only a matter of time before private sector alternatives were developed in a haphazard manner, explaining that this is exactly what is happening with other services meant to be provided by the government like water or electricity—where the private sector is also stepping in given the absence of public sector provision. This lack of regulation has led to a chaotic public transport system that compounds congestion across the country and specifically in the GBA, Nasr says.

Nakkash says the public transport situation in Lebanon can best be described as, “a loosely regulated transport system; loosely in that the existing rules and regulations are not enforced 100 percent, plus the whole regulatory system is deficient.” He explains that in metropolitan areas the size of Beirut there usually is a transport authority body that regulates public transport in the area. While the RPTA could be charged with this role, the fact that they own and operate public transport buses makes it problematic for them to be regulators, in Nakkash’s opinion. “The government should get out from providing the service and play a regulatory role that only the government can play,” he says.

The red plate district

Underlining this chaotic sector is the fact that, in total, there are 23 different syndicates for public transport drivers, alongside six unions.

What compounds the chaotic feel of the informal public transport sector in Lebanon is the system of red registration plates that drivers can obtain from the Traffic and Vehicle Management Authority (TVMA) under the Ministry of Interior (MoI). These registration plates are tradable assets that can be bought and sold, explains Nakkash, and so are a big part of the public transport problem in Lebanon. “Because of this system, organizing the needs for public transport of Beirut or Tripoli or any city based on location is not easily achievable as you cannot control or dictate where the driver operates,” he explains.

As per official data, there are currently 55,236 red plates registered with the TVMA, according to Ali Mohieddine, head of the Syndicate of Public Transport Vehicle Operators, which has over 40,000 registered members. Underlining this chaotic sector is the fact that, in total, there are 23 different syndicates for public transport drivers, alongside six unions. Using numbers from the TVMA, Mohieddine says the plates are divided among public transport vehicles as follows: 33,000 cars, 4,000 vans or minibuses, 2,236 24-seater buses for public transport, and 16,000 freight trucks.

All those to whom Executive spoke, say that the number of public transport vehicles in Lebanon is significantly higher than the number of licensed vehicle plates provided by the TVMA. The last time the TVMA issued new red registration plates was back in 1994; the abundance of red plates seen on the streets today is partly due to the widespread forgery, with duplicate registration plates in circulation. Mohieddine says that based on the syndicate members’ estimations, more than half the public transport vehicles in operation have forged plates or are driving without license plates in remote areas out of the GBA. A 2017 UNDP study estimated that there are 17,000 illegally procured and operated taxis in circulation. Aside from saturating the market, forged plates are dangerous in case of accidents or security issues, as allocating blame becomes impossible, Nakkash explains. Nakkash and Mohieddine both believe that those who are bold enough to use duplicate registration plates are politically-backed.

The MoI issued new designs for the red registration places in 2017, which all registered public transport vehicles should shift over to by the end of 2019. The move was partially intended to curb the number duplicate plates used by unlicensed public transport vehicles as the new design is harder to replicate, according to a statement by Huda Salloum, head of the TVMA. Mohieddine explains that this move is a step in the right direction by the MoI as the new license plates can only be obtained from the TVMA and so only registered cars can make the switch; cars with duplicate or forged plates are unable to secure a new plate, which could explain why a big percentage of public transport vehicles still have the old red plates with only six months to go on the deadline.

Buses for all

Chaos and corruption aside, Lebanon’s informal public transport sector has its own problems. Nasr says that because public transport is provided by profit-driven private operators, areas with the highest demand are over served, whereas more remote areas have little or no access to public transport—those living further away from the GBA have less public transport options. If public transport was provided by the state, says Nasr, then all areas of Lebanon would have to have equal access to it as a public right. Nakkash says that the informal system cannot even be called a system in his opinion, as it does not run on a reliable fixed schedule or frequency.

There is also the public perception that all of these buses and minivans are in bad condition, are badly driven, and are only used by those who absolutely cannot afford a car or cab, although Farraj says this is all exaggerated. “We should break the stigma of riding buses,” he says. “A small percentage of buses are rundown and some lines do feel like they are managed by a cartel, but this is not true across the board.

“When there is a stigma regarding the public system, people will believe anything: If there is only one bus that is broken, the perception is that it is all broken.”

A beautiful mess

For all its faults, the informal public transport system manages to get a nearly impossible job done; it takes people to their destinations, despite the congested roads, in an affordable and efficient manner—a bus ride within Beirut costs LL1,000 ($0.66).

Although the perception is that there is no structure to how the informal system of buses and minivans run, two initiatives—the Bus Map Project and YallaBus—have demonstrated otherwise by mapping out the bus lines in the GBA. Farraj explains that the GBA is divided into lines or bus routes that are identifiable by number. This system was developed in 1995—with the aforementioned white and blue buses—and at the time there were 22 bus lines within the GBA, says Farraj. While no official data exists, Farraj says that more lines have been added since then, as urbanization increased the areas that needed public transport.

Each line has an average of 30 buses or minivans running on it with roughly fixed intervals—around 10 minutes—between each deployment. Within the city, the 12-seater minibuses or vans are proving more successful than the 24-seater buses. As Farraj explains, operators realized that vans go faster in Beirut’s narrow streets and fill up quicker, enabling them to do more trips in less time. Operators also priced them competitively, at LL1,000 per ride anywhere in the GBA.

Therese Keyrouz, cofounder of YallaBus, says that bus lines within the GBA tend to have one main operator or rayess who owns the vehicles in the line and pays the drivers a daily fee for their service. Buses that take passengers to and from the GBA are usually individually owned and drivers/owners decide on the frequency of deployment through a gentleman’s agreement, says Keyrouz. Bus drivers commuting intra-city also communicate with their frequent passengers to eventually develop a timetable that works for all, she explains. (The nature of the informal system makes it very hard to pin down its operators, as they are disparate and mostly unregistered, with no authoritative source to go to for answers.)

While the informal public transport system is clearly far from perfect, a considerable number of people rely on it for their daily commutes.

Then there is the model of privately-owned companies that operate more or less organized public transport generally from and to Beirut. Connexion, which runs between Beirut and Tripoli, is one such example: its buses are air-conditioned, well-maintained, and have Wi-Fi; they also run on fixed schedules and make few stops along the way. Although Connexion has a higher fee than a van (LL5,000 for a one way ride as compared to LL2,000 with a minivan or bus), some do not mind forking it over for some extra measure of comfort.

By the numbers

While the informal public transport system is clearly far from perfect, a considerable number of people rely on it for their daily commutes. Based on her field research, Keyrouz estimates that each bus in operation within the informal bus system carries an average of 200 riders per day.
Some lines have more demand than others. Farraj also conducted field research on line number 5—that runs from Hamra to Ain Saade in Mount Lebanon—and estimated that its 24-seater buses carry 3,500 passengers per day on their average three round trips per day. According to a 2016 study by Petra Samaha and Amr Mohtar, then students at the American University of Beirut, the minivans on line number 4—that runs on a high demand route between Hamra and Hadath—carry 5,600 passengers per day. Louai Halabi, director of Connexion says their 24 buses run on a daily occupancy of 80 percent with each bus making two round trips per day.

While Lebanon’s current informal public transport system is a far cry from the organized and thriving formal system the country enjoyed in the pre-civil war days, it still functions, despite the obstacles and despite its obvious flaws. There are a lot of improvements that could be done to this system, and yet its relative success in transporting passengers efficiently should be noted when planning for the new models of formal public transport systems soon to be introduced to Lebanon (see article page 30).

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail