x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Getting from A to B a thorny issue in Lebanon

The idea of commuting in Lebanon has disappeared from the nation's hard drive.

I bumped into a Beirut jeweller in a supermarket the other day. He was carrying one of those half-face, motorcycle helmets – think 1950s dispatch rider – that whispered: “Yes, I drive a moped. It not only helps me get around this gridlocked city but allows me to do it with enough élan to avoid being mistaken for a fast food delivery boy.”

Sure enough it turned out that our man owned a vintage Vespa – what else? He is also one of an increasing number of urban professionals who are casting caution to the wind and opting for two wheels over four.

Big deal? Well yes actually. The Lebanese will drive to the corner shop rather than walk; cyclists are viewed as a bit barking, while anyone who admits to taking what passes for public transport in this city, as I did once at a dinner party, probably requires electric shock therapy.

The idea of commuting, of getting up close and personal with your fellow countrymen, has vanished from our mental hard drive. Even car pooling has yet to catch on. The attitude is I drive my car. To take the bus would suggest I don’t own, or even worse, can’t afford, a car.

There is a bus network, but it is not a joyous experience. The vehicles are not particularly clean and most announce their presence by belching thick black smoke. Those who ride in them look defeated and quite frankly who can blame them? In a quaint experiment that only foreigners with the time and inclination can conduct, an American friend took a bus all over Lebanon just to prove that it could be done. She confessed it was fun at times, terrifying at others and that only the most desperate or naive tourists would embrace the idea of using them as a way to see the country.

But I would venture that there is something missing in a nation in which people do not travel together. My wife assures me that before the 1975-90 civil war it was quite normal to take the bus. So it is surely an indication of how Lebanon has devolved as a society since then that we feel we are somehow above it.

Which is a shame, especially given that our roads are pretty scary and account for about 600 deaths every year, a number that would be much higher if our infrastructure allowed people to drive faster (give us Germany’s autobahns and there would be a population cull overnight). But if we didn’t feel the need to take our cars everywhere, fewer people would die and we’d spent less time on the road. It’s that simple.

I mention all this because I happened to stumble upon a document called “Economic and Social Reform Action Plan: Seven pillars for implementing economic and social reform in Lebanon”, a report published in March 2012 and written by Samir Daher, a former senior financial sector adviser from the World Bank on behalf of the presidential council of ministers, ie the government.

The 16-page document, like dozens of others, is now gathering dust but it is proof, if ever proof were needed, of the disconnect between reality and delusion, that exists in this crazy country. It talks about “increasing productivity” and “redirecting the economy”, “under the right policies”, as if we had a cabinet of 30 technocrats plucked from high-paying jobs in the West just waiting to whip our tiny but oh so potential-filled country into shape.

The section on transport is particularly revealing. It admits that the sector “suffers from underinvestment and regulatory gaps” as well as “poor infrastructure … heavy congestion, air pollution and traffic accidents.” So far so good.

And the report’s recommendations? “Effective and affordable public transport; diversified means of transport; high -quality transport infrastructure and services; traffic safety and reducing the financial burden on government and citizen”.

He should have simply said: “Buy a Vespa”.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut