Traffic congestion adds to Lebanon’s many woes
Beirut - One would think that Lebanon’s main problems stem from the raging war next door in Syria or the more than 1 million Syrian refugees flooding its villages and towns or from a corrupt public administration and dysfunctional governments, but, no. Spending hours stranded in traffic jams, precarious road conditions and erratic driving causing high numbers of casualties and adverse effects on the economy are as problematic.
Traffic congestion in Lebanon has developed into a transportation crisis that is worsening due to bad roads, an increasing number of cars and a quasi-absent public transportation system.
Excessive reliance on private cars and a very low occupancy rate of vehicles — estimated at 1.2 people per vehicle — are key factors for congestion. People in Lebanon spend 720 hours on average out of 4,380 day hours on the roads annually; more than 16% of the individual’s supposed “productive time”, according to the Urban Transport Development Project, a World Bank-affiliated organisation.
“The traffic in Lebanon is largely caused by the big volume of cars exceeding the capacity of the road network. Moreover, we only have private cars as a main mode of transportation, which means the number of cars will continue to rise,” said Elie Helou, traffic expert with the government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
“Another main reason for traffic is chaos on the road. Systematic violations of the road laws and lack of proper enforcement make traffic much worse,” Helou added.
An estimated 500,000-600,000 vehicles enter and exit Beirut daily, adding to the large number of cars in the city. This, combined with chaotic driving, double parking and bad roads, makes commuting in the traffic-clogged capital a nightmarish adventure.
Police officer Major Khalil Moukarzel of the Traffic Management Centre (TMC) in Beirut underlined what he called “seasonal traffic”, which is predictable compared to “circumstantial traffic” caused by accidents and collisions.
The former occurs in summer with the influx of Lebanese expatriates and foreign visitors who fill the streets with rented cars, during holidays such as Christmas-New Year and Eid al-Fitr and the academic year, which runs from September through June.
“You have traffic at specific hours in the zones where schools are located and in the streets leading to them. Here, there is also an issue with Lebanese mentality and culture. Many send their children to school in private cars, while others prefer to drop them themselves instead of paying school bus fees,” Moukarzel said.
Accidents and crashes can cause sudden and abrupt congestion, Moukarzel explained, citing a global study that showed a single minute delay on a road lane for any reason causes four minutes of traffic. “This count is true in countries where drivers respect traffic laws. In Lebanon, it is much, much worse,” he added.
Some 1.8 million registered private cars are officially circulating on Lebanon’s roads. “On top of that, one should add the unregistered cars, Syrian matriculated cars that increased with the arrival of Syrian refugees, public utility trucks and army and police vehicles patrolling the streets,” Moukarzel said.
In parallel, traffic congestion in Lebanon is causing economic loss of 8-10% of gross domestic product (GDP), an estimated $3 billion, Ziad Nakat, senior transport specialist with the World Bank, pointed out.
“The biggest component of the cost of traffic is time wasted on the road. There is also the effect on health from pollution, excess fuel consumption, impact on economic productivity, higher cost of rent as people tend to live closer to their jobs and higher vehicle operating costs,” Nakat said.
The three experts agreed that introducing a proper and reliable public transportation system is the only answer to Lebanon’s traffic problem.
“We can either build new roads — but that is not going to take us anywhere because new roads mean more cars — or ensure public transportation,” Helou said. “The solution for Lebanon is to have a combination of public transport system and new roads.”
Nakat was adamant, saying: “What we need to do is improve public transport. There is no city in the world that tackles congestion by building just roads and bridges.”
“The solution is by introducing reliable public transport, making parking space more expensive so that people would use their private cars only when needed,” he said.
Enforcement of traffic regulations is also a key to reduce congestion. However, Moukarzel argued that “violations cannot be reduced by issuing tickets only”.
“We have to provide people with alternatives, such as parking places to avoid double parking while fetching their children from school, smooth traffic flow to arrive on time to their meetings, etc.,” he said.
More than 25 years after a devastating civil war that brought havoc and chaos, Lebanon is still a driving jungle. Official records counted at least 16,756 road accidents since 2013 that resulted in more than 2,284 deaths and 22,220 injuries, while traffic solutions are still to be implemented.
“Strong political will and commitment is needed to put in place traffic strategies. The lack of it is what is slowing us down,” Nakat contended.