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Could a bicycle-sharing program be in the future of Lebanon’s capital?

Some in Lebanon question if a bicycle-sharing program would be as successful in Beirut, as it is in Paris, pictured here.

BEIRUT: Najib Mikati is a trendy politician. In September he opened a Twitter account, and now he is suggesting that Beirut adopt the same bike sharing system as Paris.

“The example of Vélib’ rental #bikes in #Paris is interesting for Beirut to be more ecologically/pedestrian friendly and reduce traffic. Agree?!” he tweeted Oct. 16.Mikati told The Daily Star that he was prompted to tweet the idea about seeing such initiatives at work in cities around the world and considering the various possible benefits for Lebanon.

“I was equally thinking in terms of preserving the environment, reducing the pollution, decongesting the traffic, facilitating tourist’s mobility and pursuing the sustainable development of our urban cities, among many other national priorities,” he said.

While he admitted the bike hire scheme may seem trivial compared to many other national priorities his government is trying to tackle, “that doesn’t prevent us from trying to anticipate things ahead in various areas, and think of initiatives that could enhance the ‘common good.’”

The plan Mikati is referring to is a three-year-old comprehensive bicycle sharing system in the French capital that now includes more than 20,000 bicycles and 1,202 automated bike stations across Paris and the metropolitan area.

With a cycle station roughly every 300 meters throughout the city, the Vélib’ (a contraction of the French words for bicycle and revolution), has become the largest system of its kind in the world.

While Beirut is undoubtedly a long way off from similar a bicycle culture to that of Paris, it has developed a budding interest in the two-wheeled vehicle during the past decade.

In 2000, a group of students from the American University of Beirut started Beirut by Bike, a bicycle hire company, inspired by their own enthusiasm for cycling.

The company now rents out bikes for LL5,000 an hour from three places across the city. CycloSport, a company based in Gemmayzeh, offers a similar service.

The bikes are often used along the Corniche, but few in the city use bikes as a mode of transport.

Although all the various bicycle-sharing programs across the world have had different levels of success, one recurring problem they have all had to contend with has been the high cost of operation and maintenance. While Beirut would face the same problem, its initial obstacles would be multiplied by the need to provide the necessary infrastructure, including bike lanes, and to enforce traffic laws.

Mikati suggests that were a pilot scheme to be launched, which would need to be commissioned by the Cabinet and the Minister of Public Works and Transport, it could be piloted in certain areas. “I believe that such a project could well start with a pilot in Downtown Beirut, where the infrastructure allows it.”

“Thinking of alternative transport is a step in the right direction. Lebanon needs to reduce its dependence on the private car. It is costing us our economy, society and environment,” says Wael Hmaidan, director of IndyACT, a group of independent activists.

However, he warns against the government undertaking a plan it could not see through.

“If these actions fail, the public will lose faith in the government’s ability to solve the problem,” he says. “What we need is a holistic national land transport strategy for Lebanon, which suits our local realities and addresses all sectors – buses, trams, pedestrian, bicycles, roads, etc. Just copying sporadic actions could lead to failure.”

Bicycle activist Ezzat Jaroudi voices similar doubts about the schemes’ suitability for Beirut.

“It’s a great idea and it would definitely promote cycling. Now the question is [how feasible would this project be in] Lebanon,” he says.

Tammam Nakkash, a Beirut-based transportation expert with the consultancy firm Team International, agrees that a bicycle-sharing plan by itself wouldn’t solve Beirut’s traffic problem.

“Before thinking about sharing bikes, [we] better address our efforts toward clearing sidewalks, enforcing traffic regulations, providing public transport, etc.”

Taking a look at the current state of Beirut traffic, it is unlikely that Lebanese drivers are going to ditch their four wheels for bicycles anytime soon, particularly as cars often equal status, and many people don’t even like walking from their parking place to their destination, instead opting to use valet services.

At the same time, it is also hard to imagine the Lebanese capital continuing to endure the constant daily gridlock that is affecting people’s commutes, health and well-being.

“Every day hundreds of thousands of Lebanese waste valuable hours stuck in traffic,” says Hmaidan.

He adds that traffic also “reduces our efficiency at work and increases tension in our social relations at work, with friends and family.

“All in all, traffic in Lebanon is a disaster on our economy, society, health, and environment; and we should deal with it fast.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2011, on page 12.

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