Still sitting in Beirut traffic
Paige Kollock, May 5, 2010 from now lebanon

Mohammed al-Masri says he sits in traffic for up to three hours a day. That equates to 18 hours a week, 936 hours a year. And that’s just for work.

“If you want to do shopping, forget about it,” said Masri, who drives a black Mercedes with tinted windows.

Stories like Masri’s are not uncommon in the Lebanese capital, where, according to 2008 data, 50 percent of households own at least one car, according to the Urban Development Transport Project for Greater Beirut (UDTP). In 2004, the most recent data available, Lebanon had the second highest car-person ratio, ranking just behind the United States.

There are other factors that contribute to the dire traffic issue in and around Beirut. Among them are the lack of adequate public transit and a Lebanese obsession for all things motorized. The traffic not only causes lengthy commutes, it leads to dangerous levels of air pollution and a high number of road accidents.

According to Kunhadi, an association for youth awareness on road safety, the number-one cause of death for youth in Lebanon is road accidents, which in January of this year alone numbered 852. Deaths or injuries from road accidents have more than doubled between 2001 and 2008.

While an urban transport project by the Ministry of Public Works has been successful on many fronts, some sections still face setbacks. The UDTP, launched in 2005, proposed to reduce congestion by increasing public parking, improving traffic management with the use of traffic cops, installing more surveillance cameras, and completing the construction of 12 overpasses and eight underpasses to ease congestion. Project manager Elie Helou says the UDTP is 50 to 60 percent complete.

“The Antelias Bridges, Dora Bridge, Hayek Bridge, the Schmoun Amoun Road, the Adlieh underpass, the Mathaf Underpass…these projects have been completed, and you can tell the improvement,” Helou said. “Others, such as the Tayouneh Underpass and the Mar Mikhael Underpass, are in the works or pending completion.”

As for the installation of parking meters and on-street parking management, those goals are 90 percent complete, said Helou, because they are easier to implement.

“Whatever can be done quickly we are done with, but the bridges and underpasses take time.
Each site is a two-year project, and they can’t be done at the same time, so you have to stagger them. Initially, we envisioned a five-year project, and now it’s turning out to be a seven-year project.”

The traffic cop training, on the other hand, has been somewhat of a disaster. The idea was to train Lebanon’s police (the ISF) to enforce traffic laws, but the training, done by French police, was lackluster, and the government did not prioritize it, said Ziad Alk, an employee of YASA, an international nonprofit that assists the Lebanese parliament with traffic laws, enforcement and road maintenance, among other safety issues.

“The UDTP tried to do training for the police, but it did not go as expected, because they just trained for a few weeks. There is a huge lack of traffic enforcement in Lebanon, and the police just didn’t follow through.”

The installation of traffic lights was helpful, Akl added, but it needs to be expanded. And as for the parking meters, he says much of the money garnered from them, which goes to the Municipality of Beirut, has not been accounted for.

With a wave of summer tourists nearly upon us, there is some pressure on the government to solve the traffic issue. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Lebanon hosted 1.85 million visitors last summer. This year, that number is expected to increase by 20 percent.

Minister of Tourism Fadi Abboud, with a hint of regret in his voice, says he doesn’t feel comfortable promoting Lebanon’s public transit system.

“We’re not promoting public transit because it’s not up to snuff. I can’t promote the services [shared taxis] because they are not regulated, and they charge ridiculous amounts of money,” he told NOW Lebanon.

Instead, the ministry’s plan is to encourage tourists to stay outside of Beirut. Travel agencies are offering week-long packages in which, if tourists stay in the mountains, Middle East Airlines will grant them a discount on their plane tickets.

Still others argue that public transit is the only long-term solution. Less than 10 percent of the city’s commuters are served by public transit, according to UDTP. Lebanon does have an inexpensive and functioning bus system, but the number of buses in circulation has dropped since the 1980s. Reviving the train system, which first opened in 1895 and shut down in 1975 with the onset of the civil war, would be expensive and could take years.