Lebanon’s car culture called into question during the crisis

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BATROUN: A passenger pays a tuktuk taxi driver when he arrives in the Lebanese city of Batroun, north of the capital.-AFP

BEIRUT: By challenging Lebanon’s national passion for owning cars and pushing a growing number towards greener or more collective transportation, the economic crisis succeeds where all else has failed. In the absence of a functioning public transport system, the auto culture thrives and many households, even modest ones, have multiple vehicles.

But since 2019, a worsening financial crisis has made gasoline unaffordable for many and long queues at gas stations unbearable for the rest. One of the by-products of the historical scarcity and currency crisis in Lebanon is the first significant dent in the rule of the private car in decades. Tuk-tuks, bikes, carpooling, and affordable buses – which used to be out of the question for many – have since grown in popularity amid changing public attitudes and skyrocketing transportation costs, including higher taxi prices.

“Before the crisis, I had to rely on my family’s car or a taxi, but it’s all become unaffordable,” says Grace Issa, a 23-year-old customer service representative who works about 12 miles from home. Her only way to get into the office is now a private coach from Hadeer, a start-up without whom she would not have accepted her new job. “I now spend about 30 percent of my salary on transportation instead of 70 percent,” she told AFP as she got on a bus to go home.

“Unclean, unsafe”
There are more than two million cars for six million people in Lebanon. Car imports have declined by 70 percent in the last two years and many Lebanese can no longer afford new cars as the local currency loses around 90 percent of its value on the black market against the dollar. Dwindling foreign exchange reserves have forced the authorities to cut subsidies on imports, including fuel, which has skyrocketed prices. Twenty liters of petrol are now worth around a third of the minimum wage, and almost 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

In response to the crisis, Boutros Karam, 26, and three friends started Hadeer, which offers affordable bus transport along the country’s northern coastal road. In contrast to the ailing public transport system, buses run according to a fixed timetable, are equipped with WiFi and location services and are relatively safer for women who frequently report harassment in public buses and delivery vans.

Sixty percent of Hadeer’s customers are women. “The problem of public transport is an old problem, but it has recently been exacerbated by the fuel crisis and the fact that many can no longer afford to get around in taxis or their own cars,” Karam said. The start-up, which has also developed a mobile app that allows customers to pre-book seats, breaks Lebanese stereotypes about local transport, Karam added. Many of our customers were “not used to groupage transport,” says Karam. “They used to refuse it because it was considered unclean … and unsafe.”

‘Lifestyle’
Lebanon has had a railway network since the late 19th century, but it has been out of service since the beginning of the civil war in 1975-1990. Over the decades, several proposals to modernize public transport have been put on hold. In 2018, the World Bank approved a $ 295 million package to launch the country’s first modern public transportation system.

However, the Public Transport Project in the greater Beirut area never started and the Lebanese government is now trying to use the funds to support the poorest in the country. “Talks are ongoing with the Lebanese government about the feasibility of restructuring and reprogramming the entire portfolio of the World Bank, which also includes the Greater Beirut public transport project,” World Bank spokeswoman Zeina El-Khalil told AFP.

In the coastal town of Batroun, a popular summer tourist hotspot, the tuk-tuk has become more popular with visitors and residents alike, says Toni Jerjes, who runs a service for the auto rickshaws. “The crisis has changed the transport habits of the Lebanese people. Tuk-tuk is a cheaper and faster option, ”he said. In the city of Tripoli further north, Natheer Halawani has relied on a bicycle to get around for almost two decades.

He has campaigned for a bicycle boom in his car-clogged city for years, but in the end it was economic disaster that finally set the wheels in motion, and he says more people are now pedaling the city streets. The private vehicle “is not just a means of transportation, it is also a way of life,” he said. For the 35-year-old, the crisis offers “a suitable opportunity to rethink such old transport models”. -AFP


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