While it is true that exaggeration is somewhat of a national trait, when it comes to congestion getting in or out of Beirut—and driving inside it—it often feels that no hyperbole is enough to describe the sense of despair evoked when inching forward in bumper to bumper traffic breathing in exhaust fumes and listening to the sound of honking horns.
The numbers indicate that the congestion problem in the Greater Beirut Area (GBA) is real. The World Bank estimates that 650,000 vehicles enter the GBA on a daily basis, with 300,000 accessing the city via the northern entrance of the Jounieh-Beirut highway, 200,000 via the southern entrance, and 150,000 via the eastern highway or Hazmieh highway—not counting the vehicles already in Beirut. Getting stuck in this kind of traffic is not only frustrating, it has a negative impact on GDP as well; the World Bank estimates the cost of urban congestion at 5 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.
Because Lebanon does not have reliable public transport, people have little choice but to use their cars, especially when commuting from outside the GBA, according to Ziad Nakat, senior transport specialist at the World Bank. “The available public transport in Lebanon is of low-quality and people are reluctant to use it,” he says. “It is catering for the market of those who really don’t have an alternative, so it’s not fair for the low-income population, and is not providing the middle-income people with an alternative to their cars, so it’s not solving the problem.”
Decreasing congestion by developing more roads is not a viable option, according to Nakat, because of Lebanon’s urban density and its terrain, with the mountains to one side, the sea to another, and a narrow coastal strip in-between. Any road development project would need to either expropriate land or construct tunnels in mountains or highways over the sea, all of which are costly options, Nakat says. This, he argues, leaves developing a reliable public transport as the only option for decreasing congestion. “Greater Beirut has a population of at least 2 million, and in any city with a population of more than 1 million, it is very difficult to reduce congestion without public transport,” Nakat says. In comes the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project (GBPTP).
Bus by numbers
According to Nakat, the GBPTP includes a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network—described by the international civil society Institute of Transportation and Development Policy as a “high quality bus based transit system similar to a light rail or metro system”—of around 120 18-meter BRT buses, each with a capacity of 120 sitting and standing passengers, that will run on 40 km of dedicated lanes—lanes sectioned off with barriers to prevent other vehicles from accessing them.
The main BRT line will run in the center of the highway from Beirut to Tabarja, Keserwan, covering a distance of 26.2 km, with a couple of lines on the outskirts of Beirut proper, including Ain el-Mreisseh, Cola roundabout, and Mirna el-Chalouhi avenue, according to Nakat. When the infrastructure does not allow for a dedicated BRT lane, such as when there is a bridge or tunnel, it will join the other vehicles on the road for a short distance, which is something a train or metro cannot do, he explains.
In order for people to access the BRT, there will be three central “park and ride” spaces, in Tabarja, in Charles Helou station, and in the Mar Mikhael bus station, the latter two of which will be renovated, where passengers can park their cars and take the BRT. There will also be bus stations at every 1 km of the journey from Tabarja to Beirut that passengers will access through a pedestrian bridge equipped with both stairs and elevators; this is a plus for pedestrians who will be able to cross the highway risk-free.
According to Nakat, the BRT itself can bring down the roughly 90-minute journey from Beirut to Tabarja—or vice versa—during rush hour traffic to 40 minutes, reducing total daily commute time by an hour. To connect the BRT with the cities and areas around it, Nakat says the GBPTP includes a network of 20 lines upon which a total of 250 feeder buses will drive among the other vehicles on the road and take passengers closer to their destination. He explains that a dedicated BRT line is not needed for those areas that will be served by the feeder buses as congestion is not a major issue there.
The total cost of the GBPTP is $295 million, $225 million of which are coming in the form of a soft loan from the World Bank, with the remaining $70 million a grant, Nakat says. Future plans, which the World Bank may be interested in being a part of, include a BRT at the southern entrance of Beirut, he adds.
The Council for Development and Reconstruction and the Railways and Public Transport Authority (RPTA) are working with the World Bank on the infrastructural groundwork, but operation and management of the BRT and feeder buses will be by the private sector upon purchase of the buses, Nakat says.
The GBPTP project has been approved by the World Bank’s board of directors and Lebanon’s Council of Ministers and the loan has been signed off but is still pending the approval of Parliament, at the time of this writing; the deadline given by the World Bank was July 5.*
On paper the GBPTP looks like an ideal solution for the GBA’s congestion problem, however, stakeholders are aware that implementing it will not be an easy task. To Ziad Nasr, president and general director of the RPTA, anything can be surmounted through collaboration. “Shared transport is a shared responsibility and so there should be coordination among all stakeholders including the Ministry of Interior and all municipalities in which the buses run through,” he says, explaining that this is the most crucial for the first phase when the infrastructure is being laid down.
Nakat anticipates an increase in congestion while the infrastructure is being developed that will result in backlash from commuters who will suffer even more in traffic before things begin to get better. The BRT will also necessitate that a lane be taken away from private cars, which Nakat again anticipates will be a problem among motorists who are attached to their car as a mode of transport—and there are plenty of those in Lebanon. According to Nakat, private cars account for 85 percent of the trips made in Lebanon.
Still, Nakat believes these discomforts will help in shifting the Lebanese mentality from driving their cars to riding the public transport vehicles, emphasizing that the focus should be on moving people more efficiently and not on moving cars.
A reality that the GBPTP will have to contend with is the existence of an informal network of public transport buses and minivans in Lebanon. “In the absence of the public sector providing shared transport, the private sector has largely taken over although in a chaotic and unregulated manner, and there are many who now work in the informal public transport sector,” Nasr says. “Therefore, there should be solutions by the government for those who are working in this sector such as integrating them in the new system.”
Nakat sees all stakeholders of public transport, including the informal system operators, as working together to increase public transport usage in Lebanon, and says the majority of bus and minivan operators will be integrated within the GBPTP. He explains that some will be hired to drive the feeder buses while others may tweak their business model and choose to operate in the areas the GBPTP plan does not cover or transport passengers to and from the BRT stations. Others, however, are not as confident and believe that integration will not be smooth. Speaking out of personal experience with the RPTA owned buses, Tammam Nakkash, managing partner at Team International, an engineering and management consultancy, says the informal system negatively impacted their business back in 1995. “The informal sector heavily competed with us even breaking the glass of our bus stops and harassing RPTA drivers and there was no one to stop them,” he says. “The system broke down because there was no mechanism to regulate the others.” Nakkash advises stakeholders in the GBPTP to use the “carrot and stick” approach if they want to integrate the informal sector, working with them but also enforcing regulations when they are violated.
Chadi Farraj, cofounder of the Bus Map Project, an initiative that maps the informal public transport system in Lebanon, believes that integration of the informal system alone is not enough. “They should follow a participatory approach with those in the informal bus system and include them in the conversation to get the majority’s input before they proceed,” he explains. Farraj adds that the World Bank convened focus groups with syndicates of public transport operators but those do not represent the majority of drivers.
Once the GBPTP is approved by Parliament, it should take up to five years to be operational, Nakat says. During that interval, Lebanese commuters to the GBA will unfortunately continue to drown in traffic while dreaming of faster commute alternatives such as the BRT; or dare they even dream of a railway or metro system in the future?
*Parliament approved the GBPTP during a legislative session on June 26.