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Righting a wrong turn

The revalorization of informal transportation and mobility rights

by Alexis Baghdadi

Stranded near a busy intersection in Beirut, this writer waited thirty minutes to get a cab back to Executive’s offices, located only 3 kilometers away. In that time, traffic revealed a noticeable drop in the amount of single-occupant passenger cars and available taxis and “service” cabs, compared to pedestrians, cyclists, goods and passenger vans. Yes, walking would have been faster and cheaper, but I was not dressed for the heat and humidity.

Under the current circumstances, the increasing re-appropriation of roads by adepts of public, shared, and informal commuting can only be expected to last or become further accentuated, and it will hopefully translate into a number of benefits on the long-term. Looking beyond the traditional promises of reduced emissions, economies of time and money, improved health, etc., a supported informal mobility system could lay the foundation for reevaluating the transport sector along more sustainable lines and even reinforce the fabric of society. These paradigms are still very largely absent from the discourse of mainstream media and pundits.

To regurgitate the latest problems plaguing the transport sector as a result of the economic and fuel crises would be overkill at this point. Media outlets have done a fantastic job of gratuitously covering the issue through a thick lens of yellow journalism. They have made sure to heavily season their “reports” with commentaries from the most colorful, most photogenic, and most exasperated car owners. They also sped to share any footage of altercations at gas stations in obsequious attempts at luring in viewers to increase advertising revenues.

The elusive great deal

Lebanese car dealers are reeling from the effects of drastically reduced sales over the past two years. Car sales in Lebanon dropped by 37.2 percent during the first nine months of 2021, compared to the corresponding period in 2020, and by 83.7 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to a statement released by the Association of Automobile Importers (AIA). In recent interviews, Salim Saad, advisor to the AIA, mentioned that Lebanese car dealers had only sold 6,152 vehicles in 2020, compared to 21,991 in 2019 and 33,012 in 2018.

In light of the current fuel crisis, the knee-jerk reaction of some car owners and would-be owners, has been to consider less fuel-hungry vehicles like hybrid and electric cars. At first reading, this could present attractive advantages in terms of both reduced emissions and national fuel imports bill (see Marc Ayoub’s article). But is it likely that enough car owners can make this transition to ensure a positive impact? A recent Economic Digest by Blominvest Bank sees a rebound in car sales as highly unlikely since Lebanese consumers are seeing their purchasing power continue to shrink and are prioritizing spending on essential goods.

 

The relatively high cost of new hybrid or electric cars, together with the limited availability of hard currencies, constitute the main barriers to acquisition. Banks have stopped issuing car loans to customers, leaving hopeful buyers with only the options of cash payments or trade-ins. Assuming car owners wish to sell their fuel-hungry vehicle to secure the coveted US dollars necessary to purchase a more economic car, they would be hard-pressed to find local buyers. Any potential buyers would be equally wary of the high prices of gasoline, and would also be reluctant to part with their cash US dollar banknotes.


Finding a sustainable source of electricity (ergo, one that does not rely on fossil fuels) to power electric vehicles would require setting up a new generation and supply infrastructure, probably relying on solar energy. Achieving this would require major reforms in the power sector, as-of-yet a very distant eventuality. Lebanon’s goal to generate 12 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 has fallen abysmally below expectations, casting further (justified) doubts on a revised goal of 30 percent by 2030 (see Christina Abi Haidar’s article). At the time of writing this article, the supply of power from the national grid, mainly generated from fossil fuels, is limited to 1 or 2 hours per day, with private generators rationing out electricity to households – those that can still afford the rising monthly fees, naturally.

On this note, in April this year the first “Made in Lebanon” electric car was unveiled by EV Electra, a division of Jihad Mohammad Investment owned by Lebanese-born Palestinian businessman Jihad Mohammad. Locally manufactured – or assembled? The issue is not clear and EV Electra did not respond to Executive’s request for comments – the Quds Rise sports car is the first in a range of 10,000 electric vehicles the company announced it hoped to manufacture by 2022. The car’s supposed green impact is somehow insignificant in a country reliant on fossil fuels for electricity. In previous statements to the media, Mohammad had mentioned setting up solar- and wind-powered recharging stations for the company’s cars in Lebanon. Given the rapid developments in the country over the past six months, time will tell if these vehicles find a ready local market (with payment facilities for local buyers promised by the company owner) or if they will be limited to export markets only, provided it is still viable to maintain manufacturing operations in Lebanon.

Can we run on green?

While waiting for fuel shipments or any other solutions – temporary, of course – to the mobility crisis, the transportation scene is steadily changing around us. Of course pedestrian numbers are on the rise everywhere, but so are bicycles and scooters (including electric ones), skateboards, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled rickshaws), in addition to carpooling. These modes of transportation and the growing networks around them, born (or re-born) out of economic necessity, are rapidly enhancing the informal mobility sector and erasing old prejudices and stigmas associated with them.

 Bicycles are the first thing that comes to mind when talking about green mobility and, yes, they are now increasingly out there, but there is only so much ground they can cover, so to speak. First, they require physical effort, which excludes several segments of the population, notably the elderly and physically challenged, but also people residing far from their place of work. Lack of proper urbanization standards in large cities, the dearth of green and public spaces, and the poor condition of the road network make it near-impossible to establish safe bike lanes. With the current economic crisis and devaluation of the Lebanese pound, purchasing a bicycle is also no longer within reach of some.

The local bicycle market is not a huge one, due to the abovementioned reasons, but Zeina Hawa, co-founder of The Chain Effect non-governmental organization, and a fixture in Lebanon’s cycling scene, says demand for bicycles had been on the rise even before 2019. During the COVID-19 lockdown, mobility restrictions contributed to increasing demand. To make bicycles more affordable, The Chain Effect organized a fundraiser to purchase bicycles from local second hand shops and provided them to people who could not afford to buy one and lost their means of mobility (via referrals from other organizations and an online survey).

Hawa tells Executive The Chain Effect is constantly working on removing some of the barriers for bicycle adoption in Lebanon by being solutions-oriented and looking for practical interventions, now being the right time to do this. Awareness is a big part of what The Chain Effect does. For over 5 years now, the community-based organization has been working on promoting the bicycle as a sustainable and convenient form of transportation. Over the years, their awareness efforts have materialized campaigns like “Bike to Work.” They have also worked on promoting bicycle-friendly routes and enhancing the urban appeal and functions of areas used by cyclists, notably through brightly-colored graffiti across the cityscape, proclaiming positive messages such as this one on a traffic-heavy road: “If you rode a bike, you’d be there by now.”

“Wave” electric bicycles are a very recent addition to the cycling landscape. These rechargeable vehicles are equipped with a battery that provides pedaling support to cyclists, reducing the amount of effort they need to ride to work or run errands. Incubated by Berytech through the European-funded Green Impact MED (GIMED) project, Wave is the brain child of Dutch entrepreneur Jan Willem de Coo, who originally thought of the model as a way to reduce commuting time by avoiding traffic and parking hassles in Beirut. Wave financed its first fleet of bicycles through donations from the team’s family and friends, supplemented by small-scale Lebanese investors. With the project gaining momentum, Wave received a significant grant from the Dutch government, which propelled the company towards finally opening for business in March 2021.

The startup’s entire first batch of 70-odd vehicles has been rented out since the first month; meanwhile the waiting list of eager customers continues to grow. By 2022, Wave hopes to grow its fleet with an additional 250 electronic bicycles.

Unlike “Loop,” a popular electric scooter rental service that specializes in rentals for one-off trips, Wave is a long-term subscription service, renting its bicycles for at least one month. Eva Lattouf, customer success manager at Wave, explains that their focus was different from the outset. “The majority of our customers are long-term subscribers that have really opted adopted the bicycle as a daily mode of transportation,” she says. As at October 2021, the subscription fee amounts to LBP 620,000, which Lattouf says is still affordable compared, for example, with the price of paying for two “service” cab rides every day. “The crisis didn’t prompt our subscribers’ choices; the demand was already there. Awareness of the benefits of bicycle riding had grown organically in Lebanon thanks to the work of other associations and groups, like the Riders’ Rights association and The Chain Effect, so we were addressing an already converted audience.” This collaboration is ongoing and focuses on plotting bicycle-friendly routes and tips, as well as publishing awareness and safety videos.

A series of wrong turns

One key element is still missing from the above to paint a comprehensive picture of transportation in Lebanon: shared transport.

While more people reeling from the high prices of gasoline (when available) and car parts are resorting to shared transport, this subsector is suffering from poor policymaking and the social stigmas associated with it.

 In March 2020, buses, vans and other modes of shared transport in Lebanon were virtually grounded and had to abide by a limited number of passengers in early efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Hamad Hassan, then-Minister of Public Health, defended this measure in a TV interview, saying that it only affected poor people who, in his view, were the only ones using shared transport. This was an unnecessary decision, according to Chadi Faraj, co-founder of the Riders’ Rights civil society organization, and further hurt the reputation of the system. Unlike Lebanon, many European countries, and even the Wuhan province in the People’s Republic of China, kept their public transport systems running at the time. “Studies in Germany and France showed that aeration and mask-wearing drastically reduce the chances of contagion in shared vehicles,” Faraj tells Executive. Riders’ Rights sought to reduce the fallout from the policy in Lebanon by training drivers and raising awareness among passengers, as well as distributing masks.

 For Faraj, such an attitude to shared transport is unsurprising. He draws a picture of how successive government policies since the 70’s have consistently promoted vehicle ownership and individual mobility, at the expense of shared transport. The media has also given little to no attention to the issue, further contributing to the systemic (and willful?) disintegration of the shared transport system and its branding as a means of transportation “only for the poor or second class citizens, run by mafia-like gangs.”

 To be blunt, there are simply too many cars in circulation – a problem often cited when discussing road infrastructure problems. In a recent blog post, Faraj cites the Council for Development and Reconstruction that estimated car ownership in Lebanon at 80 percent in 2013. In parallel, other means of transportation, including walking, shared transport, and informal systems, accounted for less than 30 percent of all commutes. According to Lebanese Customs, car imports between 2016 and 2018 averaged $1.2 billion annually, before plummeting to $210 million in 2020. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2020, banks issued a total of 73,000 car loans.

 The state used to derive direct benefits from this state of affairs through customs and mechanic fees, as well as traffic fines, but most importantly through the allocation of road infrastructure and maintenance contracts to politically-backed companies, explains Faraj. Things have gotten to a point where the Ministry of Public Works and Transport is derogatorily referred to as the “Ministry of Public Works” only, he shares. Former Minister of Public Works and Transport, Youssef Fenianos, seemed well aware of that when he inaugurated a joint transport project in Byblos in 2019 and declared: “Lebanon needs a Ministry of Transport, not a Ministry of Works.”

MIGRATING TO INFORMAL TRANSPORTATION

Too many car owners now suffer from too many and too well-known problems in the sector, and are therefore turning to other solutions they can still afford. “We now see a better representation of Lebanese society in the shared transport system, the shame associated with it has dissolved. People are seeing cars as a burden, not an asset,” says Faraj.

 It derives that shared transport, including more informal alternatives, is rapidly gaining adoption. Unlike hybrid cars, bicycles and tuk-tuks are witnessing a noticeable increase in demand thanks to their comparative affordability for larger segments of the population. Once the brand of poor or rural neighborhoods, tuk-tuks running on rechargeable batteries are now more widespread. Originally used to transport goods or for short commutes in tourist areas, they are taking on more versatile roles, from street food stalls to shared passenger vehicles, and are even being used instead of cars. Because these vehicles do not consume fuel, the price of a fare remains low compared to other more conventional means of shared transport, constituting an attractive option for many.

 There is also some buzz around reviving Lebanon’s railroad network and tramway service, abandoned since 1975. On the ground, the Train-Train association has been lobbying for this cause since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, and has presented studies to the State Railway Authority. The president and general manager of the State Railway Authority, Ziad Nasr, met with newly appointed Minister of Public Works and Transport, Michel Najjar, to ask to prioritize the railroad network and tramway lines. In a visit to Paris, Prime Minister Najib Mikati even discussed the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron.

 Resolving the many crisis Lebanon faces will require time, and the shift to shared and informal transport will likely continue to grow. A more durable long-term solution would be to encourage these sub-sectors so they can increase their coverage and satisfy demand. After his tirade against transport policies, Faraj laments the resurgence of car ads on billboards. Following his thread of logic, even advertising hybrid cars would be compounding to the problem of excessive vehicle ownership and the negligence of shared transport. When the crisis hopefully ends, it is important not to relapse into old habits, and this requires building and improving on the alternatives that have started to take root today.

 Rather than wait for a sensible and achievable plan from the government to address the problem of transport, decentralized solutions are leading change. Individual enterprises and, more importantly, the support and engagement of municipalities, are key to ensuring the success of the shared transport trend. Eighteen months after its announcement and delays attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the joint transport project in Byblos mentioned above finally kicked off on October 3, 2021. The project aims at providing bus routes throughout the Byblos district. Similar localized systems can help shape a new vision of transportation, one that is affordable, convenient, environment-friendly, and light on the national fuel bill.

The migration of commuters to shared and informal transport needs to be managed. There are still many people unfamiliar with the dynamics of this system. To complement their “Bus Map Project” ongoing awareness campaign, Riders’ Rights established a community-run social media hotline where neophytes can ask for advice and guidance on shared transport options. This initiative aligns with other awareness campaigns run by The Chain Effect, Train-Train, and similar organizations.

 Perhaps one day the new transport system will act as the cornerstone for sensible urban planning in Lebanon. 

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Alexis Baghdadi

Alexis Baghdadi is co-founder of the SOILS Permaculture Association – Lebanon, and a communications consultant for agroecology donors and grassroots movements
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