The extreme financial stresses experienced by Lebanese households has prompted a big shift in the way people move. Given the severity of the situation, these changes can be expected to continue for a foreseeable future.
Up until the October 2019 uprising, the vast majority of Lebanese households owned multiple cars. With no more tramways or trains, the alternatives to driving and owning a car were indeed limited. Presently, only a few bus lines and none of the minivans—whether they run across Beirut like the famous “number 4” or the long-distance vans—run according to a set, reliable schedule. Their fares, however, remained unbeatably low. Vans, shared taxis, and the white 30-seater buses therefore have tended to be used by low-income riders and migrant workers for whom a car or taxi remained unaffordable.
Cycling used to be a sport and was only used as a mode of transport by a handful of idealistic locals or foreigners.
An impact on how people move around
For the past two years, the country has been plunged into one of the world’s worst economic crises. The government response has been to gradually lift subsidies on petrol and fuel oil (for generators providing electricity) but also food, most of which is imported. This approach has had devastating effects on Lebanese households. The Lebanese pound has lost nearly 95 percent of its value since 2019, pushing desperate families already struggling to afford food, electricity, and fuel deeper into poverty. As fuel subsidies were cut, filling up a car cost more than a month’s salary on minimum wage.
These developments have massively impacted the way Lebanese commute and move around. Rising numbers of two-wheel vehicles fill the streets, some of which are also used to transport goods. The sight of motorbikes transporting huge loads, such as bags filled with collected recyclable material, are becoming common.
The modal share is also shifting: while some cars have been replaced by scooters and motorbikes, the biggest change is the increase in bus and bike trips and the proliferation of so-called Tuk Tuks, across the country, notably Halba, the capital of Akkar.
With the radical increase of fuel prices in line with soaring living expenses, owning a car, which used to be a status symbol, has for many Lebanese become a liability.
Beyond the often-tragic effects of this situation, such as clashes at petrol stations, the explosion of a fuel tank in Beirut in 2020 and in the northern village of Tleil in August 2021, or an increase in accidents, a number of exclusively private—formalized or organic—initiatives, have emerged in response to the crisis. Some, such as The Chain Effect and the Bus Map Project build on prior activities and activism, while others are novel. The recently launched Bala Benzine (“no petrol” in Arabic) application aims to promote car sharing, and connects drivers and passengers through their digital platform. Individuals such as Ahmad Al-Safadi in Sidon created a solar-powered car, while entrepreneurs and startups have also responded to the transport crisis. Another recent example is Wave, a popular, long-term e-bike rental system which has been successfully operating in Beirut since 2020.
An increase of alternative modes of transports in Tripoli
Responding to the pressing need for affordable, reliable transport, Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has also seen an increase in the use of alternative and cheaper modes of transport. For instance, the Connex is a long-distance bus that connects Tripoli and Beirut, the only of its kind in the country, and an institution for Tripolitans. It has been hard hit by the pandemic and subsequently the fuel crisis. Despite increased ticket prices, from 6,000 Lebanese pounds ($4) in 2018 to 100,000 Lebanese pounds ($2.56 in the black market) this month, it has managed to continue operations and increase the number of trips per day. It is usually fairly full, used by students, elderly people visiting family, tourists, and Tripolitans working in Beirut. It leaves punctually, drops passengers off and picks them up a set route and acts like a post office, dispatching medicine, food parcels or forgotten cables between the two centers.
TripoLine, a bus line that connects Tripoli to the district of Koura was launched at the beginning of 2022. Although trips to and from Tripoli to Koura are frequent, it effectively is the first link of its kind between Tripoli and the region. It departs from Tripoli’s Nour Square, next to the Connex. “Within three months, our service was overloaded and we had to add a new bus and increase the frequency of trips to meet demand,” co-founder Wael Zmerly stated. “The Tripoline initiative team is currently studying adding new lines as per the many requests we have received from our users.”
“The biggest challenge we have faced so far is educating commuters about this type of transport,” Zmerly admitted. “Commuters are still used to the classic shared taxi service where they can stop anywhere and be dropped off at their destination. This type of service is becoming very costly nowadays, and this is helping us in convincing commuters that our service is the best option for an affordable trip. Other major challenges include fundraising to cover part of the expenses to keep the fare as low as possible and the opposition of the taxis.”
Bicycle-based delivery in Tripoli
The negative stigma attached to riding a bus in Lebanon is slowly changing. The same goes for cycling, as Natheer Halawani founder of the Tripoli-based startup bicycle delivery service Wasil (delivery in Arabic), confirms: “The numbers have now multiplied, especially in peak times, meaning the morning and evening commutes, in addition to noon time, where we can spot at least 30 bicycles every half an hour.”
Women, who used to be a rare sight on two wheels, can be seen cycling bicycles braving frequent harassment. A number of them use tricycles, which provides more visibility, stability and allows for personal items or groceries to be transported at the back.
Unlike Beirut, which is hilly, and where traffic is hostile, scaring many potential bicycle commuters off, the center of Tripoli, the new town, and the port district of El-Mina are flat. Given the lower volume of car density, the city lends itself perfectly to cycling.
Wasil started operations in November 2021 and managed to face up to the ubiquitous and tough competition from delivery services using scooters. It presently employs six young people and has been steadily growing.
The first trip on a Monday morning takes Youssef Halabi, a 21-year-old delivery driver riding Wasil’s sole e-bike uphill to Abu Samra, above Tripoli. After that, he went to a textile shop to collect fabric samples requested by a clothing boutique in the new town. Waiting outside the pick-up location, two men enquire about the cost of the delivery bikes and where to buy bicycles from. Bicycles are increasingly sought after and used for their evident economic benefits.
Besides contributing to less congested streets, less noise, less pollution, and changing the image of how delivery services and their employees work and provide services, Wasil has created job opportunities. “That has been a major social aspect for Wasil, where the investors’ contribution takes the shape of financial contribution to university students who had to put their education on hold for reasons such as increase in tuition fees and, sometimes, increase in commute fees,” the founder elaborates.
The furthest delivery Halabi has done took him to Ehden, 20 kilometers high up from Tripoli. For Wasil’s founder Halawani, the fact that the startup has been receiving orders from beyond Tripoli, including less affluent, elevated areas such as Qobbe, Beddawi, and Abu Samra, but also from across Koura and Chekka, 18 kilometers down the coast, means that bicycle-based delivery services worked out cheaper than using motorized transport.
It remains to be seen how these developments will progress and whether modes of transport considered sustainable will in the long run impose themselves in Tripoli and the rest of Lebanon.
As it stands, the still-skyrocketing cost of living in Lebanon has forced car owners and commuters to constantly reconsider their modes of transport. One can only hope that more entrepreneurs and transport operators, stakeholders, and civil society members will rally together to generate holistic solutions and a long-overdue integrated mobility plan. This should reduce living expenses and has the potential to spur much-needed development, fostering a future filled with greener and healthier spaces, urban and rural alike.
Nathalie Rosa Bucher is a writer and researcher who has published features for South African, Lebanese, and international media.