Moving in Lebanon is a luxury, only public transport is the solution

Moving in Lebanon is a luxury, only public transport is the solution
In saving Beirut from further economic and political havoc, nothing will be more important than guaranteeing residents' equal rights to its spaces and socio-economic opportunities, writes Ghida Ismail.
9 min read
03 Nov, 2021
A passenger takes a bus line operating in Lebanon's Caza of Byblos, in the village of Jeddayel north of the Lebanese capital, Beirut on 8 October 2021. [Getty]

On one of the walls in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Lebanon's capital Beirut, "Retrieving Beirut" is written, and below it is a drawing of a taxi car. The writings on Beirut's walls call attention to the indispensability of mobility, secured through the network of taxis and buses/vans, in "retrieving" the city back from the grips of an economic and political collapse.

Amidst an economic crisis, which according to the World Bank could rank as the third worst in the world since the 1850s, residents' access to affordable transportation has been threatened. Removal of crucial subsidies on fuel accompanied with deficient actions to support the informal taxi and bus/vans network, sole provider of transport to the public, translated into increasing ride fares. In turn, residents find their ability to afford transport impeded, depressing their demand for it, and instigating a paralysis on public transportation whose sustainability depends on riders' demand.

Fundamentally, not addressing these hurdles to affordable transportation leaves people in Lebanon with the risk of losing their right to mobility in the city, and in turn, their right to their city.

"Amidst an economic crisis, which according to the World Bank could rank as the third worst in the world since the 1850s, residents' access to affordable transportation has been threatened"

Mobility in Beirut's History

The right to the city is a concept coined in 1968 by the French philosopher and sociologist, Henri Lefebvre as "the renewed access to urban life" against the exclusionary processes of making a city that often result in the disenfranchisement of a large proportion of the population. The right to the city would empower citizens, allowing control of the urban space, ensuring their fair social, economic and political participation in the city’s decision-making.

In securing the right to the city, Lefebvre valorizes the role of accessibility and mobility as critical to enable people's participation in urban life. Importantly, it allows people to use urban spaces beyond their confined living quarters and allows them access to broader social networks.

The pivotal role of accessibility and mobility in the urbanization and modernization of Beirut was highlighted in Sami Kassir's book "Beirut," which was widely praised as the definitive history of the city.

Kassir claims that accessibility and mobility was largely gained through the construction and expansion of roads along Lebanon’s three main axes: the Damascus Road (east), Tripoli Road (north) and Saida Road (south). These expansions changed people's appreciation of space and time by expanding their choices and opportunities.

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In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the development of Beirut from a small town of six thousand people to an important trading city was largely driven by people’s enhanced mobility. Increased mobility made it possible for people to migrate from the mountains to Beirut, to seek better economic opportunities and contribute to its economic and social development, while keeping their ties to the mountains.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, urban mobility was essential to reconnect a divideda city as a mean to reinstate everyday urban life. In that regard, the informal public transit network in Lebanon was crucial to ensure the social and economic inclusivity of urban development, recovery, and opportunities. "The car enabled the democratization of transport, since with the shared taxi cars system, the roads were accessible by people of all budgets," wrote Kassir.

While the tramway was the main provider of mobility in the early 1900s in Lebanon, in the 1960s, automobile-based mobility started gaining a central role, and car-oriented planning schemes were adopted at the expense of official public transport networks. This led to the official dismantling of the tramway in 1968 and the emergence of informal networks of service taxi cars and buses which reinstated the tramway's transport routes, and essentially became the main provider of affordable transportation in Lebanon and guarantors of residents' right to mobility.

Eventually, and perhaps ironically, investment in the improvement of the informal public transit network has been relegated low among the list of the authorities' priorities. For instance, the public transit network was largely absent from reconstruction efforts after the Lebanese civil war, with most investments concentrated towards physical infrastructure in lieu of initiatives that encouraged collective means of transport and retrieved affordable mobility to residents.

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Authorities' lack of interest in public transit and failure to establish a coherent and comprehensive framework to regulate it resulted in its deterioration over the years. Despite its deficiencies, the informal public transit network remained the sole provider of affordable transportation to residents in Lebanon. It largely served the poorest residents who do not have access to other options for their daily commute, including to their jobs.

This seems to be changing, as transport fares have become a heavy burden on commuters' salaries, whose value plummeted as inflation in the country surpassed 100%. A round-trip using the shared taxi car now costs as much as the official daily minimum wage in Lebanon, and fares often mount to more than half of the average commuters daily pays. In parallel, drivers of shared transportation vehicles are finding it increasingly hard to cover their basic expenses given the stark increase in the cost of fuel.

The inability of the market to stabilize at a ride fare that ensures commuters' ability to pay without compromising on drivers' ability to make ends meet threatens to paralyze the informal public transit network in Lebanon.

To protest the adverse impact of the rising fuel costs on their livelihoods, taxi and bus drivers took to the streets during the last week of October and blocked several key roads across Lebanon demanding support to the public transport network. The federations and unions of the transport sector also announced that a "day of anger" would take place on October 27th, later postponed to December 1st after the head of the Road Transport Association met with the Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Ministers of Finance Youssef Khalil, Public Works and Transport Ali Hamiyah, and Interior Bassam Mawlawi.

It was agreed that the government would be given more time to study the possibility of initiating a scheme to support the public transport possibly financed by the World Bank.

Nonetheless, in the past, World Bank funding did not accelerate government’s efforts to support and improve the public transport sector in Lebanon. The World Bank had approved in 2018 a US$ 295m package to fund the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project (GBPTP) that would "overhaul Lebanon's decaying transport sector." The project consisted of purchasing 120 buses to service 40 kilometers of dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes from northern districts to the heart of Beirut, in addition to 250 feeder buses.

However, the project has not materialised, and, underscoring authorities' lack of interest in public transport, it had been reported in September that there are plans to repurpose the funds to cover cash cards for vulnerable families. "The government seems to think that the priority is not for public transport at the moment," explained the deputy Ibrahim Kanaan to L'Orient Le Jour during an interview in early September.

Transport as a common right

Measures to support, sustain and improve the informal public transit network are essential to safeguard public transport drivers' livelihoods and to ensure that Lebanon’s residents are not excluded from the social and economic opportunities provided by mobility.

A car-centric approach to urban development perpetuated a large dependency on private cars in Lebanon and encouraged a perception that public transit was meant only to serve those who cannot afford their own cars.

Not only did the dependency on cars lead to increased social costs, in addition to a detrimental impact on the environment, congestion, and noise pollution, it instituted limited demand for public transportation which diverted financial support away from the existing public transit network. In effect, the high car usage in Lebanon, more than three times the world's median, implied that a significant portion of the US$3bn spent annually by the government on subsidizing fuel was consumed by private cars, rather than spent on improving the quality and efficiency of the informal public transit network for the usage of all.

As such, the existing economic and urban model rendered mobility highly accessible to those who owned their own private cars at the expense of the efficient mobility of those who cannot afford their own private cars. This legitimized spatial injustice in Lebanon, whereby there is a differentiation in people’s ability to access Lebanon's spaces.

A sufficient share of the population must use public transportation to instigate improvement and sustainability of the public transport network, maintain efficient high mobility for everybody, and limit spatial injustice. Studies conducted on 2016 estimated that private cars constituted almost 80% of all passenger trips in Lebanon, while 20% were taken by shared taxis and bus/vans.

Paradoxically it was shown that public transport use should be at 40% to ensure efficient transportation. Accordingly, to sustain the right to mobility for everyone in the city, transportation decisions should not be restricted only to optimizing an individual's self-interest in their own private spheres, but should expand to account for society's common good in the public sphere. 

"Accordingly, enabling residents to take back their right to the city will necessitate equating transportation to a common good requiring collective actions rather than an individual one motivated by self-interest"

To achieve this, countries such as Singapore, charged residents a tax that reflects the social costs of prioritizing the use of their private cars. In Lebanon, the economic and fuel crisis could offer an opportunity to charge people for the social costs of using private cars and redirect mobility from private cars to public transit. The increased cost of using private cars resulting from the crisis could be perceived as a tax on using private cars and reverse the trend of high private car dependency. To then incite a shift to public transportation, authorities could focus on investment, reforms, and regulations to the existing public transit network and on keeping subsidies targeted only to the public transport network.

When describing the right to the city, David Harvey, a Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York, highlights that it is "a common rather than individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization." Accordingly, enabling residents to take back their right to the city will necessitate equating transportation to a common good requiring collective actions rather than an individual one motivated by self-interest.

In saving Beirut from further economic and political havoc, nothing will be more important than guaranteeing residents' equal rights to its spaces and socio-economic opportunities. As understood by Beirut's wall, to retrieve and improve Beirut, spatial justice must be retrieved.

Ghida Ismail is a researcher in development economics, covering diverse social and economic issues in the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia, including social protections for informal workers, women’s access to affordable transportation and the labour market,  social cohesion of forced displaced populations, and farmers empowerment.

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