Michael Karam: Lebanese disdain for public transport

Getting the Lebanese, the most non-collegiate of people to abandon their cars and go to work together is going to be a big ask and says a lot about how dysfunctional we are as a nation, writes Michael Karam.

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‘Where in Copenhagen can you park like that?” The fearsome hi-viz-clad female traffic warden barked at my friend who was picking me up from the airport in the Danish capital. The normal, well-oiled machine that is Danish traffic had been thrown a curve ball by the unannounced building works at the airport entrance and my friend, while technically infringing the traffic law, had only pulled over momentarily to get her bearings.

But apparently that’s enough to incur the wrath of authority in this neck of the woods. A card outlining how the temporary traffic flow worked was thrust through the passenger window and we were sent on our way with a warning.

I tried my best to mollify the situation by explaining to my friend that the incident should be seen as an example of why Danish society is so envied. “Take Lebanon for example,” I said cheerily. “The government is only now trying to implement a plan to introduce proper pavements and a public transport system. Imagine.”

And it’s true; we are. Just last week, parliament’s Public Works Committee unveiled a complex “road map” aimed at improving infrastructure for public transport services to tackle the horrendous traffic that plagues much of Beirut and its suburbs.

The head of the committee said they were working with the World Bank to adopt something called the Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. A random trawl of the internet told me that BRT was … wait for it …“a city-based, high-speed bus transit system in which buses travel on dedicated routes”. Amazing. A regular bus service in other words?

But there was more: “BRT is already widely implemented in both the developed and developing worlds and research shows that [it] can reduce travel time by millions of hours for commuters worldwide”, which I guess is think tank speak for “less cars on the road eases traffic”. Who knew?

Which is on the face of it all well and good, but getting the Lebanese, the most non-collegiate of people to abandon their cars and go to work together is going to be a big ask and says a lot about how dysfunctional we are as a nation. In fact, I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another country in which the use of public transport is so scorned upon as it is in Lebanon.

Many western tourists are, quite rightly, flabbergasted by the lack of decent public transport, especially in such a small country with relatively few main arterial roads and freeways and this must surely be a factor as to why Lebanon has not been able to attract more western tourists than it does.

At a dinner about 10 years ago, I admitted to sometimes taking the bus from my home in the east Beirut district of Achrafieh to my bank on Hamra street in the west of the city. More than anything, I explained, I avoided the nightmare of finding a place to park on a busy Saturday.

My confession was initially met with laughter but when my fellow guests realised I meant it, there was a moment’s silence, before one brave soul piped up and said “Good for you. I mean why not?” There followed similar murmurs of agreement but you knew they’d rather be hacked to death by a hate mob than ride a bus themselves.

Anyway, moving on. Other promises in this latest initiative include a pledge to enforce traffic violations, which would indeed bring in much-needed revenues into the state coffers and hopefully reduce the needless death and destruction that is on our roads daily. Also on the agenda is getting rid of illegal taxis and the widening of roads and the pavements.

The last bit reminded me of a conversation I had with a cab driver a few years ago. For as we all know, it is a truth universally acknowledged that taxi drivers are fonts of wisdom and this chap was no exception when he pointed out that no matter how wide the roads were in Beirut there would always be only enough space for one car. “The rest is taken up with double or even triple parking,” he said, motioning with his cigarette to the rows of cars illegally parked, in plain view of the cops who were, as Beirut cops tend to do, standing around, drinking coffee and smoking.

Meanwhile, in Denmark it is not uncommon for government ministers to cycle to work. We can but live in hope.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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