BEIRUT: More than 200 cyclists took over the streets of Beirut Sunday, parading from the New Waterfront to the abandoned Mar Mikhael train station to demand a sustainable public transportation system for Lebanon.
“A sustainable transportation is vital infrastructure for our future in the country,” said Rayan Makarem, an activist from Greenpeace representing the National Coalition for Sustainable Transportation, a network of more than 14 NGOs lobbying for a sustainable transport strategy in Lebanon.
The event marked the one-year anniversary of the NCST and the 20 year anniversary of Critical Mass, an international movement to promote cycling through protest rides in 300 cities around the world.
“[People think] the problem of traffic is caused by not having enough roads,” Makarem said.
“That’s not the problem. The problem is that we have too many cars and we have no alternatives.”
According to Makarem, the latest Greenpeace study found the level of air pollution in Beirut to be 300 percent more than what is determined by the World Health Organization as acceptable to breathe.
Environmental pollution and chronically congested roads ought to encourage the government to develop alternative modes of transportation, from trains and trams to a comprehensive bus system and bike lanes, Makarem said.
In addition to lobbying the government for legislation on public transport, the NCST has worked to raise awareness among the general public about alternatives to cars through events like the bike parade.
“Here in Lebanon many people laugh when they see someone riding a bike. We are going to show that people like to use bikes – we like green means of transportation,” said organizer Fadel Fakih from the environmental organization Greenline.
“It’s their right to have safe roads that they can use without the danger of being hit by a car,” he added.
Many participants echoed the call for bike lanes, saying that attitudes needed to change on the city’s roads.
Siwar, a 20-year-old graphic design student, cycles as her primary method of transportation.
She says that she is harassed frequently on the roads of Beirut by passersby and people on motorbikes.
“I bike all around Beirut. People are always surprised when they see a girl biking around the city,” Siwar said, adding that on her commute from her home in Mar Elias to her job in Sodeco there are always “a lot of eyes of me.”
Still, she is enthusiastic about the event and tries to encourage people to change their attitude toward cycling and give it a try themselves.
“The first thing that needs to change is to get people excited about biking,” she said.
“When you know someone who bikes you get used to the idea.
“Beirut is tiny, especially compared abroad where people bike around huge cities,” Siwar added.
“Here you can get almost anywhere in 10 minutes on a bike, where in other cities it would take 40 minutes.”
Another protest rider, 20-year-old nursing student Chant, said that the dangerous roads keep him from cycling regularly and instead he must rely on the bus to get around.
“I use the public bus system. It’s awful, but there is no alternative,” Chant said.
“First we need a decent public transportation system starting with a bus system that is fast, efficient and not too costly.
“The second step should be to create bike lanes.”
The seven-kilometer ride, accompanied by police escorts, culminated at the old train stations in Mar Mikhael.
Gathered at the derelict station, the cyclists lit candles and listened to activists call for bringing the train system back to life and creating a new hub for public transit.
“We stopped at the Mar Mikhael bus stations where we see all the carcasses of trains and buses,” Makarem said.
“We want to bring these back to the country – from trams to trains to buses – to offer people an alternative.”