Bus lanes key to improving Beirut commute: World Bank
Successfully enacted in other cities, plan yet to receive unanimous support from officials
BEIRUT: To those familiar with Beirut’s maddening traffic congestion, introducing dedicated bus lanes may seem like an improbable solution to the city’s transport problem.
The government’s efforts to reduce traffic have so far focused on optimizing the use of the road network but, overall, infrastructure spending has been far below development needs.
While a number of government officials still have reservations, the World Bank and the governmental Council for Development and Reconstruction are spearheading a new approach, based on dedicated bus lanes, as part of the Greater Beirut Urban Transport project, which is on track to receive a World Bank loan of between $200 million and $250 million in early 2018, covering a good part of its total cost – estimated to be $300 million.
“Beirut is a very congested city, but [similar projects have] been done in more congested settings and succeeded,” Ziad Nakat, senior World Bank transportation specialist, told The Daily Star.
According to Nakat, traffic should be conceived as a discrepancy between demand and supply – which in Lebanon translates into both a paucity of spacious roads and an excessive number of private cars.
“We need to shift from a culture of moving cars to a culture of moving people,” he said. In order to encourage more people to embrace the culture of public transport, however, an incentive will be essential. “Lebanon is a high-middle-income country where people value their time,” Nakat said. “To create that culture shift you need high-quality [service] – and a big part of quality is time.”
Dedicated bus lanes, the thinking goes, would ensure quick, affordable transfers of people. According to information collected by the World Bank, transportation accounts for about 15 percent of total household expenditure in Lebanon, surpassing housing and health care. Additionally, import dues on vehicles can exceed 50 percent of their total value – a cost compounded by the petrol tax and the high cost of parking.
As for the feasibility of the plan, the World Bank assessment has so far identified a number of eligible roads. “We are starting with the streets we think are geometrically the widest [in order to] pilot the concept,” Nakat said.
A first part of the project en tails the construction of a Bus Rapid Transit system, composed of one or two bus lines running from Tabarja to Beirut, and then within the city along its outer ring, through the Corniche al-Bahr and Corniche al-Mazraa areas. In order to maximize space, the project envisages the removal of on-road parking as well as the narrowing of the median strip – the separation barrier between lanes.
A second part of the project will see the creation of complementary bus routes, which will provide connections between the northern and southern sectors of the city. At present, as many as 20 different bus routes are being considered.
While removing street parking would necessitate the construction of more parking lots, Nakat said the goal of the project was precisely to create an encumbrance for private car owners. “Part of the success of public transport in other cities is making private transport difficult. We cannot afford luxury anymore,” Nakat said, adding that a number of world capitals had taken steps in this direction.
While the Greater Beirut Urban Transport project was described by Nakat as an initiative “fully owned by the Lebanese government,” some government officials seem skeptical.
In August, Public Works and Transportations Minister Youssef Fenianos launched a Beirut transportation project based on four new bus routes departing from the Abed Clock Tower area. These routes would follow the old railway tracks.
Nakat said the ministry’s plan is complementary to the one sponsored by the World Bank, but Fenianos expressed a lack of trust in the GBUT during the launch of his alternative project in August.
“We cannot wait for the public transport plan sponsored by the World Bank, which has been in the pipeline for five years,” he said.
Fenianos did not reply to The Daily Star’s requests for comment.
However, Beirut Mayor Jamal Itani expressed similar qualms.
“Until now, we are not convinced that a dedicated lane system is possible in Beirut,” Itani told The Daily Star. In contrast to Nakat, who claimed that it was an untenable luxury to be able to park in the city, Itani said Beirut does not “have the luxury to have dedicated bus lanes.”
“I’m not going to destroy the greenery in the median and have a bus lane,” Itani said. Instead, the mayor said he supports the “alternative plan” put forward by the Public Works Ministry, and said a tender for the plan will be ready in 2018.
A first step, he said, would be the installation of bus stops. “You might ask, ‘Why [should we construct] the bus stops before having the buses?’” Itani said. “The bus stops are income-generating investments, [as] you can use them for advertis[ing]. Plus it’s a good introduction, which will help people understand where the bus stops are and [their] schedules.”
Despite some skepticism, the Bus Rapid Transport project is supported by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, as well as some Lebanese academics.
Charbel Mansour is engineering professor at the Lebanese American University and co-author of a yet to be published study that includes an assessment of the Bus Rapid Transport system as a mitigation option for Beirut.
“The BRT has been successful in many developing countries with similar poor and congested infrastructure,” Mansour said.
But he also noted that “implementing a mass transport system alone will reduce vehicle trips but will not dissuade the majority of people from continuing to own their old cars.”
In the World Bank’s view, however, the BRT will clear the way for a variety of complementary projects. While the implementation of the BRT is up to the CDR, Nakat said the expected time frame for the project would be four to five years. However, some parts of the project could be established at an earlier stage.
Regarding the concerns espoused by some parties, Nakat said all doubts would dissipate when the preliminary studies have been concluded. “We are conducting a feasibility study together with the CDR and undergoing discussions with the municipality so that their concerns can be addressed,” Nakat said. He added that, while the project may look like a “dream,” it is entirely feasible.
A second part of the project will see the creation of complementary bus routes.