Bus lanes key to im­prov­ing Beirut com­mute: World Bank

Suc­cess­fully en­acted in other cities, plan yet to re­ceive unan­i­mous sup­port from of­fi­cials

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Federica Marsi

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.

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