Lebanon News

Railroads and cycle routes in Beirut? It can be done

File - Cars sit in traffic in Dawra, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Green transportation may seem like a dream in Lebanon, where cars clog the road and the thick layer of smog hanging over the capital is visible from the mountains. But Wednesday night, some 30 people involved in the transportation sector as well as local environmentalists got together at the Green Transit+Green Space Meetup at Alt City on Hamra Street to brainstorm ideas about how to get Lebanese out of their cars and onto public transportation and bicycles.

Among those present were a group from the American University of Beirut who are offering a $20,000 prize for one green startup plan.

Some ideas were more feasible than others. In most cases, however, the ideas came up against the reality that any comprehensive plan requires high-level coordination at municipal and national levels.

In the absence of an official action plan to address the congestion and the environmental, economic and social issues that come with it, many participants had already taken it upon themselves to pursue an alternative lifestyle of biking, walking or taking the bus.

“We have no cars and create no pollution,” said Matt Saunders, founder of the bicycle courier service Deghri messenger, launched earlier this year in Beirut, a city in which experts say the levels of pollution have reached dangerous levels. “We’re showing people that it can be done – being on our bikes all day in Beirut.”

A much longer-term plan, but one that would require government support, is the restoration of Lebanon’s railway network and the development of rail lines throughout the country, starting with a “touristic” route from Jbeil to Batroun.

“We want to prove it can be done,” said Elias Maalouf, brushing aside criticisms of infeasibility. “We can restore the whole [Jbeil to Batroun] line in less than six months.”

Maalouf heads the NGO Train/Train, whose projects include restoring railway stations in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley’s Raya, as well as creating a museum and archive center on Lebanon’s railroad history, which dates back more than 130 years.

But until an efficient train system can become a reality in Lebanon – something that would take many years even if it ever got off the ground – some people believe using a bicycle is the best way to start living green.

Joumana Nabti, a California-based transportation consultant currently on a weeklong visit to Beirut, gave a presentation on her plan to create a bicycle route circling the perimeter of Beirut.

She showed examples of other cities around the world that had done similar projects, starting with small initiatives to block some roads for a few hours every Sunday for bikes, and expanding to permanent bike paths.

On her map, she showed that 40 percent of the route was already covered by the Corniche, while the rest of the route would go through Beirut’s various districts, connecting communities that tend to be insulated from one another.

Moreover, she added, bikes were an inexpensive means of transportation.

“Why not in Beirut?” she asked as she concluded her presentation.

Alt City plans on making this the first of many monthly meetings for green transportation ideas for Lebanon. For more information, visit www.altcity.me.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 25, 2013, on page 4.

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