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Can Beirut’s cyclists break the city’s 4-wheel obsession?

BEIRUT: With its Francophile tendencies, Beirut may be able to match Paris for designer shops, vibrant culture and great food, but it certainly lacks the Parisians’ love affair with the bicycle.

Unlike Paris, whose city bike the Velib is a source of pride, loved by locals and tourists alike, a bicycle is a rare sight on the streets of Beirut, or elsewhere in the country.

Look hard enough though and you can find a determined group of individuals tackling the obstacles to make their journey on two wheels. And with fuel prices having reached record-highs last week, and the approaching summer promising the regular mass influx of visiting vehicles, getting on your bike looks pretty appealing.

“Nowadays it’s a la mode to use bikes,” says Jawad Sbeity, the co-founder of bicycle hire company Beirut by Bike. “Ten years ago you couldn’t find many bike shops [anywhere] and now you have specialists.”

Sbeity and two fellow students from the American University of Beirut started Beirut by Bike in 2000, after their own difficulties trying to cycle around the city. “It was hectic because there were no routes and no paths to safe cycling.”

The company now has three hire points in the city, and rent out bikes for all ages for LL5,000 an hour. Their bikes, and those of other hire companies such as Gemmayzeh’s CycloSport, can often be seen along the Corniche. A cycle path is also part of the new waterfront, Solidere’s latest development near BIEL, which is currently little more than wasteland, but for which green spaces are planned. The city’s municipality is also discussing plans for a cycle route around Beirut.

But while these routes are a pleasant weekend activity, few cyclists are brave enough to take a bike to the streets as a means of getting from A to B.

For Mounir Marrash, a 24-year-old student who takes his bike everywhere, cycling makes the most sense as a way to get around, particularly given the limited means of public transport in the city.

“You get health, you get no traffic and you don’t need a parking place which is really hard to find here,” he says. Marrash was inspired to cycle around the city after a visit to Amsterdam, but acknowledges that cycling in Beirut is much trickier.

“It is very difficult. One mistake and you’re dead.”

Those who do brave it want to see steps taken which will make it easier for people to choose to cycle. Last year several nongovernmental organizations put together a cycling event, Darreja, at which over 150 cyclists took over the streets to show their support for bicycle-friendly reforms.

The current attitude, says Lily Abichahine from NGO Fast Forward, one the event’s organizers, is definitely “four wheels good, two wheels bad.” “You sometimes have the feeling the city is not for humans anymore, it’s for machines.”

Safety is an obvious concern. “Drivers are actually sometimes even kind of mean,” says Ruba Mourad, of Critical Mass Beirut, organizers of monthly group cycle journeys around the capital. Unused to seeing bicycles on the road, she says, they are treated the same way as the mopeds and delivery motorbikes that zip around. “It’s like we are pests.”

While Critical Mass events in Paris, or in London and the U.S. often force road closures, in Beirut they average only six or seven riders. “We tease the cars in Lebanon, but we can’t really win,” says Abichahine.

Cyclists suffer a bit of an image problem in Lebanon, where the latest gadgets and flashiest cars are symbols of success. Yet, the cyclists believe perceptions may be changing, albeit slowly.

“We have [already] moved from people discovering the bike, to people utilizing and buying the bikes as leisure, and having fun on the bike as a sports activity,” says Sbeity. The rise of environmental awareness, Sbeity believes, is likely to encourage more people to seek alternatives to the car.

“There is a vicious cycle of people not believing in cycling because it’s not safe, and it not being safe because people are not demanding it,” says Abichahine. “The bikes are here, the people are here, the will is here,” she says. “We just need the bicycle lanes.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 11, 2011, on page 12.

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