Jerom Theunissen Photography


September 19-24

Beirut, the “Paris of the Middle East,” is the cosmopolitan capital city of Lebanon. Out of 6 million Lebanese inhabitants, 2.2 million live in the Great Beirut Area, making Beirut the epicenter for financial, commercial, cultural and governmental activity. This concentration has had major implications for urban mobility, bringing a unique assortment of challenges to Lebanon’s diverse capital city. 

City in Context

In 1975, the city and country of Lebanon would be changed forever. Fifteen years of civil war ravaged the country, stoked by tensions among Lebanon's diverse religions concerning representation in government. For Beirut, the war turned the city into a no-man's land. Cities were damaged, roads were impaired, and train operations halted. Since then, Lebanon has lacked a sustainable and efficient transport system and infrastructure, exacerbating the level of congestion on the roads.

Lebanon's stifling traffic crisis has turned into a daily ordeal for commuters. The absence of serious plans to improve public transportation has weighed down on the economy as well. Lebanon is a small country with most of the big companies and main government divisions centralized in its capital, Beirut. Commuters rely heavily on private vehicles to go to work and for leisure purposes, due to a lack of efficient and regulated public transport. 

According to the World Bank's Urban Transport Development Project, motorization reached 434 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants in 2012, placing Lebanon 17th worldwide. The project conveyed that 50% of Lebanese households own 1 car, while 25% own at least 2.

It comes as no surprise then, that Beirut has notoriously bad traffic congestion. A study conducted by the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut studied traffic congestion in Beirut. In the study titled “Economic Impact of Adopting a Sustainable Transport System in Beirut,” researchers found that traffic volumes in Great Beirut Area’s main arterial roads range between 50,000 and 80,000 vehicles per day, with peak hour volumes reaching 7,000 per hour on the northern approach to Beirut. Peak hour speeds range between 30 kph on main roads to less than 10 kph on local streets. 81.3% of these vehicles consist of private cars, with occupancy of 1.6 persons/vehicle. 

The cost of Beirut’s congestion to the country’s economy is substantial. A study by Lebanon's Ministry of Environment in 2005 assigned the cost of urban congestion at around 8% of Lebanon’s GDP at the time; this figure could easily have grown as population growth and urban sprawl have continued pace in the past several years. The same study predicted that daily motorized trips within the Greater Beirut Area will increase to 5,000,000 by 2015. Much of the cost is borne by employees losing productive time being stuck in traffic jams rather than being at work. What's more, employee commuters are under a lot of stress due to long hours on the road, which results in lower productivity levels. 

Lebanon lacks any form of mass transit, or regular and reliable public transport services, despite the high population density and relatively short distances which generally favor such types of systems. Public transport in Lebanon is primarily provided by taxis (private or shared "service"), buses, and minibuses (see left). They operate on a ‘hail-and-ride’ system: just wave at the driver and the bus will stop. There are no timetables, but buses generally run from around 5.30am to 7pm daily at frequent intervals, with the number 4 minibus coming as often as every 45 seconds!

The informalized public transport system in Beirut has a mode share of about 20% while the private car has a share of 80%. Rising costs of car ownership associated with operational and maintenance costs make the private car increasingly out of reach for poorer Beirut residents. These costs include fuel consumption, taxes, insurance and car service. Commercial investment in cars as a mass transportation system, including the import of vehicles, replacement parts, fuel and related costs, was estimated to be over 7.5% of the country’s GDP. 

Government leadership in the area of sustainable mobility has proven to be unreliable. Lebanon's ministries often operate in silo's, with little to no formal processes for coordinated planning and decision-making at the metropolitan level. Funding for transport projects is controlled at Central Government level, with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport responsible for policy development and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) responsible for project implementation. The CDR reports directly to Central Government (not ministries) and circumvents municipal involvement. It is the main agency in charge of major reconstruction projects, especially involving external sponsoring agencies or lenders (i.e. the World Bank). However, public transit receives very little resources, and roadway projects are preferred, as evidenced by the 2016-2017 Progress Report published by the CDR. 

Transport governance in "Greater Beirut” suffers from any coordinated organizational or administrative structure that includes formal coordination mechanisms administratively among local municipalities. There is no mechanism for updating Beirut's master plan (which was last updated in 2002) and keeping governments accountable to completing goals set by the master plan. This leads to a mismatch between tying short term projects with long term goals. In light of this, grassroots initiatives from citizens and the private sector have sought to make an impact on the state of transportation in the city of Beirut. I wanted to visit the city to see these actions firsthand and to get the local take on urban mobility in Lebanon.

Cycling in Beirut - Advocacy by NGO "The Chain Effect."

No official statistics exist for the numbers of trips made by bicycle in Beirut. While I was there, I saw a few brave souls go head to head with vehicular traffic on their bicycles, but dared not try myself. Lack of dedicated infrastructure and poor driver awareness of cyclists, justified my decision. However, the city's compactness and relatively flat terrain make it an ideal place for urban cycling, and weather is favorable year round. I asked myself, "why aren't there more cyclists in Beirut?"

This question was also asked by The Chain Effect, a Beirut-based cycling mobility NGO, back in 2015. Their advocacy for a more bicycle oriented urbanism started with street art and murals. The NGO is a collective comprised of artist-cyclists intensely working on normalizing and promoting the bike as a mobility tool. Founding members of The Chain Effect loved the idea of raising awareness for cycling mobility in places where people were facing the gridlock of traffic and a Tetris game of parking. On various walls in Beirut, they've stencilled lots of playful, passive-agressive bikes and wrote phrases poking fun at those stuck in traffic. One wall reads "If you rode a bicycle, you'd be there by now," while another says "Burn fat, not fuel." 

Since 2014, The Chain Effect has also been sharing portraits of a Beirut cyclist accompanied by a short story, similar to the popular Humans of New York project. The goal of the project is to show the diversity of cyclists in the city from different socioeconomic backgrounds. User groups include migrant workers who use bikes because it is the only thing they can afford, then you have the students, the hipsters, and the foreigners who bike. This "Bikers of Beirut" project garners the most engagement on social media. Humanizing cyclists in the city has the effect of promoting those who are already cycling to press on while showing those who don't that they're human too.

This kind of cycling advocacy is all about shifting public perception of the cycle as a viable choice to get around Beirut. The largest aspect of this is infrastructure. Much of the post-war road reconstruction was car-centric, and created busy road arteries that sliced up Beirut. The Chain Effect acknowledges that the city is far from perfect, and understands people’s perceptions that the streets are neither safe nor equipped for cyclists. To ease that adjustment, The Chain Effect is creating a bike map of Beirut. The map will pinpoint such information as the best crossing points for cyclists, underpasses available for pedestrians and bikes, and routes that involve less hilly sections. The NGO plans to create a printed version of the map, as well as a digital version that could serve as the bicycle layer on Google Maps. Subsequently, this map can serve as another advocacy tool that shows areas where the cycling network needs improvement.

The Chain Effect has big ideas and plans for the future, and is optimistic of Beirut being rebranded as a cycling city. As the organization’s name alludes, it takes just a few cyclists to get the Beirutis to see the benefits of travel via two wheels through the city. To see some of the murals they painted in the city, this article by the Guardian shows some highlights. 


With very little access to and a lack of innovation and efficiency in public transportation, the Lebanese have increasingly opted to rely on their private vehicles to get around, which led to high congestion and skyrocketing pollution rates. According to a World Bank study published in 2017,  81% of Lebanese prefer using their own cars over minibuses (11%) and taxicabs (6%).

One group of young student entrepreneurs from the American University of Beirut (AUB) aims to change these trends. One app, called YallaBus, hopes to encourage public transportation use by offering bus times and routes to the average commuter (yalla means “let’s go” or “hurry up” in Arabic). I spoke with Therese Kayrouz, co-founder of the company, to understand more about the YallaBus, the state of public transportation in Beirut, and some of the challenges she is facing while developing the app.

Rationale for developing YallaBus

Therese told me that inspiration to develop the app began when she attended school at AUB. She told me that the minimum parking fee is 7,000 LL a day (around$4.50), able to rise to as much as 10,000 LL per day. Multiplied by about five days a week, this added financial burden on students who were already paying a lot to attend AUB. Secondly, her commute to campus was a major problem given Beirut's traffic congestion, and people would have little idea how long a journey would take to campus. Thus, Therese created a survey that she shared with some friends on WhatsApp to see if people would be interested in thinking about a solution to these problems and to know how people feel about Lebanese public transportation. Many responded and encouraged her to take action. After assembling an initial team, the idea for Yallabus was born.

How does the app work?

For users, the aim of the application is to provide buses’ specific schedules, stops, and routes. The application tells you which buses are available at what times and where to wait for them. But the genius in the app also comes from improving the experiences of bus owners and drivers. From the driver's point of view, the main source of inefficiency stems from the ability for users to be picked up and dropped off at any point along the route.  With YallaBus drivers will be able to locate the users on a screen mounted on the bus.  

Coordination with Private Bus Operators

Therese and her team started taking the bus during the development phase to practically see the potential sticking points of the app on launch. So Therese reached out to the drivers and bus owners to assess their needs. The bus owners proposed collaborating with YallaBus because they would be able to better manage their fleet of drivers with real-time location tracking. A few weeks after that, her team installed GPS trackers in the buses of a specific line in order to gather data and have a clear idea of the routes, the times, the most popular stops, etc. This process will eventually be used for all bus lines in the city.

What's next for YallaBus?

Therese told me that the next step is twofold: to develop and refine the mobile application and to get all bus operators on board with the system. The aim is to improve the service for those who need it, and make it more attractive for those who don’t. Therese hopes to operate within the existing system to minimize resistance and disruption perceived by users and operators. She believes that the informal network, while chaotic to the outside observer, actually works pretty well. After all, Beirut’s buses have been transporting the working classes for years without regulation. Yallabus bring an app-based mobility service to this informal bus system. Intelligent transportation solutions like these have been taken hold in cities around the world, and thanks to Therese and her team at Yallabus, to Lebanon as well.


More to come on the World Bank proposed BRT project.

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