Traffic congestion adds to Lebanon’s many woes

Sunday 04/12/2016
A Lebanese woman plays with prayer beads as she waits in a traffic jam on a highway between Beirut and Jounieh, north of Beirut. (AFP)

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.