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There is a popular ghost story that circulates among the pro-transit community of expertise and practice in Lebanon. Ask anyone vaguely interested in the sector about what happened to public transport in this country, and they will mention the story of Czech-made Karosa buses procured by our post-war government in the 1990s. As architect and filmmaker, Nora Niasari, tells the tale:
“Not only were these buses the incorrect size for the Lebanese terrain, they were designed for an average climate of -20 degrees, which did not meet climate specifications for safe operation in Lebanon. This led to countless irreversible malfunctions and breakdowns in the buses because no money was allocated for spare parts. Year after year, the number of buses declined until they reached absolute failure and became ruins to the conflicts that destroyed them, essentially neglected to death.” (MAS Context, Summer 2011)
For many of us growing up in these times, all we knew of public transport were these broken down buses, many of which were left strewn in an empty lot at the state transit operator’s headquarters in Mar Mikhael. Few of us knew that there was a functioning bureaucracy still there; we just called it ‘the bus cemetery,’ as chronicled by an artistic performance of the same name.
This story of ruin and neglect loomed so large that most of us believed that public transport did not exist in Lebanon. Indeed, as recently as 2014, a former minister in charge of overseeing this sector was quoted as saying exactly that. And yet, something like public transport certainly did actually exist — Mitsubishi Rosa, Nissan Civilian, Fargo/Abi Lama — these are actual vehicles that someone procured and that very real people board every day to actually get from point A to point B. They have particular owners and particular drivers, who are associated with specific license plates and driving permits. They gather in specific locations, which are part of complex and precise territorial arrangements that keep the tenuous peace between different fleets and route associations in this highly-competitive market. Fuel is consumed, money is made, and the public is transported from place to place. How can something so complicated and concrete be so easily dismissed?
That question is the genesis of our whole initiative; Bus Map Project was borne out of a frustration with that story of death. Yes, the state has neglected the sector, but Lebanese society is alive and well, and it is time for the pro-transit community to take that very real resilience seriously.
As the UN-Habitat published in a report almost 20 years ago, informal transport systems have a very important social function:
“They exist in large part to fill service voids left unfilled by formal public transport operators. Rapid motorization, poor road facilities, and the inability to strategically plan for the future have given rise to horrendous levels of traffic congestion and air pollution in many mega−cities of the developing world. Formal public transport services are rarely up to the task of satisfying escalating demands for travel…It is only because regulations and rules are laxly enforced that unlicensed operators are “informally” able to step in and pick up where public transport operators have left off.” (UN-Habitat, 2000)
Lebanon’s situation isn’t even that unregulated. Hence, mapping Lebanon’s informal transit system is one attempt at shifting the conversation from an obsession with lack and loss to an appreciation of survival and determination; despite everything, public transport persists in Lebanon, and a positive approach to this reality can teach us a lot, as we push for improvements in the coming years. This is our hope as we join a newly-launched network of NGOs and initiatives, called TRACS — we want to continue to advocate for bottom-up approaches to transit advocacy that take the existing system seriously.
For this reason, we are particularly interested in ongoing talk and work towards implementing a BRT system in Lebanon, a project that has been in the works for a few years. To avoid falling into the errors of the past and give this project the best chance of succeeding, with a high quality of service integration with its environment, the Lebanese government can rely on the experience of transit riders and operators, learning from the informal sector’s accumulated knowledge and experience, as well as providing for fair transitions for their labor forces. In this spirit, our initiative has been encouraged and fully agrees Council for Development and Reconstruction’s Environmental & Social Impact Assessment of the BRT latest proposal, which states:
“The existing public transport modes is a source of livelihood for many individuals and source of profit to private operators. The introduction of the BRT system will impact the existing services through the shift of passengers to a more regulated, faster and comfortable system. Hence, there will be a significant impact on the income and livelihood of the existing operators.” (CDR, p. 342, February 2018 )
Such an integrated and cooperative approach would improve the sector while avoiding the danger of mass unemployment and social conflict. It would also mean that policymakers can make investments with a much more solid foundation in existing conditions, allowing for a clearer plans and solutions for the mobility needs that the informal sector does not or cannot meet. One example is the challenge of providing access to transit to people with disabilities. Another example is the lack of night-time services, or adequate coverage for regions with lower profit margins. These are areas where formal transit operators can make a huge impact.
By breaking the silos between formal transit and paratransit, we can improve the sector as a whole. We can improve the existing system by working with bus operators to shift their practices towards further cooperation, sustainability and accessibility, leveraging our user experience to secure our mobility rights.