Adonis Diaries



Its Mass Transit Plan Dead, Car-Obsessed Beirut Plans More Highways

In Lebanon, there is one car for every two people. Photo credit: objectivised via Flickr (More likely two cars for a single adult person)

Arranging a meeting in Beirut is a complicated affair. With few street addresses, directions are often given according to proximity to major landmarks, usually taking at least one or two phone calls as you close in the location.

Coordinating an exact time is also an art; depending on the day and time — or just dumb luck — the unpredictability of the city’s traffic could mean you arrive an hour late, an hour early, or sometimes, not at all.

There’s a very simple reason for all this gridlock: an insane number of cars.

For a developing country, Lebanon’s car-ownership rates are off the charts, with approximately one car for every two individuals, according to a Harvard University study.

Compare that to Turkey, where there’s one car for every seven people, or South Africa, where there’s one for every five.

All these cars spend hours jammed onto a single north-south artery that runs the length of the 200-kilometer Mediterranean strip connecting Beirut to the cities of Tripoli and Jounieh to the north, and Saida and Tyre in the south.

More than 250,000 make the commute into Beirut for work daily, (in a country of less than 4 million) adding stress to the already overstretched grid. The congestion, found the Harvard study, causes $2 billion per year in lost productivity.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Dr. Tammam Nakkash, a managing partner at TEAM International, an engineering and management consultancy, was one of the original architects of a proposal for a comprehensive Greater Beirut Transport Plan.

The proposal, originally drafted in 1994 amid a flurry of government initiatives to rebuild the city after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, hinged on a public transport scheme that included bus rapid transit lines and a revival of the city’s destroyed tramways. The plan was divided into short- and long-term phases, and addressed traffic management, corridor improvement and parking.

That plan is now collecting dust in the bowels of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation.

After a series of amendments and a promise from the World Bank for funding that was ultimately redirected, the project lost steam, eventually hobbling its way into parliament in 2011 and stalling at the cabinet level, where it effectively died.

There was a very myopic vision for public transport,” says Nakkash. “Buses are very easy to procure, but they didn’t think about the difficulties in having the right institutional frameworks — in terms of having private operators, but a public regulator thinking about safety, fair competition, service provision, etc.”

With little hope for a public transport overhaul anytime soon, smaller scale ideas are being floated.

One involves utilizing the country’s system of shared taxis, called “service” cars, which operate sort of like a cross between a bus and a cab, picking up customers according to the route others are already taking.

Passengers hail the taxis and tell the driver their destination; they are then accepted on the basis of whether the other passengers already on board are going that way.  (Mostly in Beirut and large cities such as Tripoli)

The system is widely used and without it life on Beirut’s streets would be worse than it already is.

Fees are set at a flat fare of 2,000 LL ($1.30) for one trip, making it affordable and democratic.  (Compare this fare for half a dollar 2 years ago)

The highly informal service is unregulated, with drivers neither registered as public transport providers and cars not subject to any safety standards or checks. Nakkash says the system could work as a “feeder” network to a broader public transport system if properly regulated.

“The great thing about this service is it increases vehicle occupancy,” he says, “but it follows fixed routes so passengers know where the trip starts and ends, and there should only be specific areas for passenger stops, which again needs enforcement.”

Another option, road widening and the construction of new highways, seems to be getting faster approval for development, but it’s not without controversy.

One new arterial, the Fouad Boutros Highway, already undergoing a feasibility study and set for approval this summer, will see a 13-kilometer, four-lane highway run through the northeastern Achrafiyeh area, and according to Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad, will alleviate traffic by opening up the northern entrance to the city and in the inner streets of the neighborhood.

Some 3,000 people have signed an online petition against the development, arguing that it will increase traffic and destroy some 30 local heritage buildings, cutting through some of the city’s rare green spaces and groves.

“It is a missing link in the network, it’s true, but that’s the only argument I have heard for the project,” said Nakkash. “But you don’t achieve anything by expanding highways except putting more people on them.”

Resilient Cities is made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.


Beirut is Ridiculously Unprepared for a Major Earthquake

Under the Roman empire, Berytus, the capital of modern-day Lebanon, was known as the Jewel of Phoenicia and motherbed of Law.

The harbor city was a trading hub for luxury gems and spices. Wealthy Romans built holiday villas there, along with towering monuments and dazzling theaters. Its law school gained the city a reputation as “The wet nurse of law“, and a famed center of higher education.n

In 551 AD, the earth broke. A massive earthquake tumbled buildings and sparked a tsunami that wiped the city off the map and killed an estimated 30,000 people.

As Beirut was rebuilding, another earthquake wiped it out again within a decade. It took decades for Beirut to recover its position as a regional capital following the disaster, and even then, it never entirely regained its former glory.

In modern day Lebanon, Beirut’s notoriety stems from its bloody 15-year civil war and its precarious position along a political fault line between regional powers jostling for influence in the tumultuous Middle East.

But it may be the literal fault lines running underneath the country that ultimately present the biggest risk to the tiny Mediterranean country.

Look at a Google satellite map of Lebanon, and you’ll see that the most prominent feature observable from space is a line, at first appearing to be a highway, stretching straight through the center of the country, down from Turkey through the Syrian border in the north, to Palestine in the south.

The line is a fold in the topography that was created by the Yammouneh fault line, one of 3 major cracks in the earth’s surface under Lebanon that put it at high risk for another quake.

The Serghaya fault line, runs to the east, under the Bekka Valley.

A third major fault system, the Mount Lebanon Thrust, running just off the coast of Lebanon, was only discovered in 2003 when geologists surveyed the area after decades of war suspended research for 25 years.

“We live in a very special place on the surface of the planet,” says Ata Elias, assistant professor of geology at the American University of Beirut. “Lebanon is just there between these plates. Earthquakes do happen here and we have had major earthquakes.”

Elias says the country is overdue for another major quake.

In 1759, two quakes, one month apart and each measuring 7 on the Richter scale, killed some 40,000 people in Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon witnessed an earthquake in 1956, and the citizens had to suffer “The earthquake tax” for two decades.

The Yammouneh fault line produces an earthquake about once every 8 to 10 centuries, and the Mount Lebanon Thrust every 15 to 17 centuries. Both have the potential to generate earthquakes of up to 7.5 in magnitude.

“We are at a time when both fault lines have had enough time to produce another earthquake. But how soon, no one can really say,” says Elias.

What he can say, however, is that the current level of preparedness for such an event means it will result in catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

More than 70% or Lebanon’s roughly four million people live along the coast. Beirut has a population of approximately 1.5 million, with most cramped into dense, poorly constructed residential housing.

Those residential buildings, built into picturesque hills — pushed up by pressure from the earth’s movement over centuries — or on soft, sandy coastal soil are not built to withstand a quake of such magnitude.

A law passed in 1994 says all new construction must be built according to standards incorporating seismic resistance. But most residential buildings are old, built before these laws were introduced. And with little government oversight, construction laws are rarely enforced.

“Lebanon is not prepared for this at all,” says Mohammed Harajli, a professor of civil engineering at AUB. “There is a requirement that every building over four-and-a-half stories should be resistant, but the problem is in supervision. There are no strict laws for monitoring and implementation. The country is too busy with the political situation to take this seriously.”

To help mitigate the risk, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is working with the prime minister’s office on a project to help the Lebanese government develop its disaster management and risk reduction strategy.

Signed in 2009, the Disaster Risk Management Project has developed a National Response Plan to deal specifically with natural or man-made disasters, including earthquakes, which feature high on the list.

Project manager for the project Nathalie Zahrour says that, while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go and the NRP has yet to be endorsed by the Cabinet.

“Risk reduction is everybody’s responsibility and the government has a major role at the institutional, sectoral and local level to play. The Lebanese Government has committed to giving DRM high priority,” says Zahrour.

“Making Lebanon resilient to disasters is a long process; laws need to be issued and approved, the National Disaster Management Agency needs to be developed, funding needs to be channelled. Nevertheless, we are determined to become a flagship of resilience.”

Crucial to saving lives, according to Harajli, is public and industry awareness.

“If we design our structures for earthquakes and observe international regulations, we save a lot of lives,” he says. “The cost of making a building earthquake resistant does not add that much to the cost of the building. It’s 5% maximum.

Elias agrees, and says waiting for the next big one to hit is not an option. “We need something to shake people into being prepared for this. If we get a major quake, the face of the country will be changed dramatically. Otherwise we will be another Haiti.”




June 2023

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