Lubnan

Ashrafieh’s car-free craze picks up speed

BEIRUT: In cities with good public transportation, some people live their entire lives “car free.” In Beirut, where a plethora of red-plated service taxis vie for space on congested streets with enormous SUVs, often transporting a lone businessman or woman to work, freedom from cars is the stuff of daydreams. Cities around the globe designate certain areas pedestrian only each year on Sept. 22, World Car Free Day, which aims to promote mass transit, cycling or walking as alternatives to driving.

Beirut had its first taste of street fiesta fun in early September 2012, when non-governmental organization Achrafieh 2020 organized a car-free day spanning most of the east Beirut neighborhood.

Conceived by MP Nadim Gemayel, the independent organization is run by a committee of 20 local residents. Its long-term aims are to transform Ashrafieh over the course of eight years, introducing green initiatives, pedestrianization, bike lanes and wheelchair accessibility.

“The idea came because we wanted to promote Achrafieh 2020,” explains the president of the organization, Carole Babikian Kokoni. “We wanted people to hear about us and we thought the best way was to close the streets and [make] car-free days like they do sometimes in Europe.

“People loved it,” she adds. “They asked us: ‘Why don’t you do it every Sunday?’ They didn’t have any idea how much time and money it took us to organize.”

Since its enormous initial event, Achrafieh 2020 has gone on to organize vehicle-free Sundays in Rmeil, Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Monnot, and it appears the idea is catching on elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Ahla Fawda organized a street festival in Hamra, closing the roads to traffic from morning until late into the night, and towns outside the capital are also showing interest in the initiative.

“We have been [contacted] by people in the area of Batroun,” Kokoni says, adding: “People don’t really know how to do it, so we will go there and help them implement this car-free day and once they see the process I think they will be able to do it by themselves.”

In order to organize the events, it’s necessary to apply for permission from the municipality and the governorate of Beirut, she explains, as well as the police, who help keep cars off the streets.

Achrafieh 2020’s next car-free day is scheduled for Sunday in Abdel Wahab and Sodeco. Organizing the events in one small area at a time has a number of advantages, Kokoni explains. Not only is it cheaper and easier to set up, it also provides an economic boost to the neighborhood, as visitors frequent local shops and businesses.

One of the major focuses of the events is naturally the negative environmental impact of cars.

“These days the pollution is much less in this area,” Kokoni says. “We want people to be aware that taking a bike or even a Vespa is better [than driving a car] – it creates less noise and atmospheric pollution.”

The events – which are held on Sundays so as to attract families while not inconveniencing businesses – have a street-party atmosphere.

Sunday’s event is set to feature live music and DJs at a stage in Sodeco, as well as stalls selling food and drink and water-based games to help children cool off in the heat. NGO Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will be there to raise awareness about picking up after dogs, while Sukleen will provide demonstrations centered on recycling. Representatives of Vespa will also be on hand to promote their scooters, which use less gas than a car and take up less space when parked.

In the long term, Kokoni says, organizers hope to make car-free days a permanent Beirut fixture.

“Achrafieh 2020’s motto is ‘A dream in action,’ so we’re really trying to make some dreams come true,” she says. “Some areas are prone to be car-free areas, so we are trying to work on having Gemmayzeh and eventually Mar Mikhael car-free on specific days. We might start with one Sunday every month, until we can make it possible every Sunday of the year.”

“We want people to have a sense of belonging to their area,” she adds, “because when you start making citizens love their city they will take care of it themselves, you will not need to do that for them.”

Discover Abdel Wahab – Sodeco takes place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information please visit

facebook.com/events/657471614306627.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 27, 2014, on page 2.

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