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Lebanon’s Daily Paralysis

Lebanon’s Daily Paralysis

It's not politics, it's the traffic

BEIRUT: “In Lebanon, green means go, amber means go faster, and red means look both ways before running the light,” a Lebanese cab driver said while idling in Beirut traffic. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t too far from the truth. No foreigner who has ever set foot in Lebanon has failed to observe the atrocious motoring habits of the locals. Lebanese appear to consider driving regulations as suggestions rather than laws. After a deeper look into this seemingly nationwide malady, can we still attribute the horrendous traffic in the country only to the locals’ motoring habits, or is it frustration with traffic that leads to unlawful driving?

The varied reasons behind Lebanon’s traffic problems can be traced to the country’s past. Today in Lebanon, a small country with a relatively high population density, there are approximately 1.7 million motor vehicles according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, with a vehicle-per-population ratio of 0.43.


But only a few decades ago, the number of motorists in the country was but a fraction of the current levels. At the time, the main motorway that linked Beirut to Jounieh was but a conduit that cut across mostly undeveloped territory. The route was constructed along the country’s narrow coastal strip, level land barely a few hundred meters wide. As time passed, and the population grew, the available properties on this narrow strip were developed for residential, commercial and industrial uses, effectively hugging the motorway on both sides. What began as a highway became a street that ran through the city that had overtaken it.

Jumping forward a decade or two, along with the increase in number of cars on the road matching or exceeding population growth, the primary coastal highway found no room for natural growth to meet the needs of motorists. Initially, to eliminate the needs for intersections, bridges were constructed, albeit ones that could accommodate fewer lanes than the actual road, and this solution resulted in insane traffic caused by bottlenecks at the mouth of these bridges. The shortage of level land to allow for properly designed exits also played a significant role in compounding an already complicated problem. But this was then.


Today, the picture is somewhat brighter, although not by much. A number of recent additions to the motoring map allow quick connections to various parts of the Beirut suburbs, including the Achrafieh-Sin al-Fil overpass, the Karantina-Hazmieh motorway and the Nahr al-Mot-Roumieh skylane. But these remain testaments to the fact that despite having unobstructed passage to your destination, you can still encounter congestions if bottlenecks are not eliminated. Perfect examples to support this argument come in the forms of the Antelias and Dora bridges. Where only a few years it would have literally taken a motorist hours to fight his way through congestion until he managed to enter the mouth of the bridge, today that nightmare is a thing of the past thanks to bridges that can accommodate the same number of lanes as the road itself.

But while bottlenecks and lack of space to properly develop roads may account for a sizeable share of problems behind congestion, there are a number of other contributing factors, as well as a number of consequences beyond loss of time.

The interest in traffic issues can be traced as far back as the 1920s, by which time there were a sufficient number of cars on roads to warrant concern. In recent times it has gained in importance at a global level, including in Lebanon, as a result of the unprecedented shift from rural to urban dwelling and the increased motorization accompanying this phenomena as well as the growing understanding of the negative impact congestion can have on a variety of factors. Congestion costs us all money through wastage of fuel and repair costs due to the wear-and-tear of idling, clutch use as well as excessive gear changes and braking. And of course there is the value of time lost.

Furthermore, more bumper-to-bumper traffic means relatively more greenhouse gases are emitted into our planet’s already ailing atmosphere; idling longer than 10 seconds uses more fuel and produces more CO2 compared to just restarting the engine. But, as the Union of Concerned Scientists advise: don’t switch off your car while in a traffic jam—it makes it worse.

High levels of carbon dioxide aren’t very friendly to human physiology either. A 2008 study by Jacobson published in Geophysical Research Letters found that there is a causal link between levels of CO2 emissions and mortality. Another traffic pollutant is noise, for both drivers and for those located near it, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), can pose health-risks like raised blood pressure, hypertension and disrupted sleep among other things—not to mention stress and aggravation.

Three Problems

While there is a shortage of comprehensive studies on major problems affecting the transportation system in Lebanon, local drivers astutely identify the major culprits of congestion, Professor Samer Hamdar, a transportation engineer at George Washington University (GWU), told Observer. Roughly, the problems fall into three categories beyond the issues mentioned earlier: problems with the transportation system’s current infrastructure, lack of public transportation and poor traffic enforcement.

With regards to the first, the fixed components of the transportation system in many cases are not up to scratch. For example, the asphalt used to pave the roads is not of a quality that can withstand the ravages of nature, which means roads end up being paved repeatedly, hampering traffic and causing congestion. Similarly, the medians that separate lanes rarely fulfill their basic functions:  absorbing the shock of an impact, preventing vehicles from overturning and crossings over to the other side.

Lebanese motorists can often also find themselves driving in pitch darkness as a result of the poor or absent illumination on the roads. Embedded road reflectors that could assist drivers in the dark are also often lacking. Furthermore, a lack of dedicated hard shoulders for the occasional—a regular occurrence in Lebanon—breakdown means stranded motorists leave their vehicles in the middle of the road, causing congestion and risking accidents and injury.

A statistic that stands out in Lebanon is the number of fatalities due to vehicle accidents. In 2007, YASA (Youth Association for Social Awareness) estimated 2692 accidents with 870 vehicle fatalities and 11,400 Injuries. Assuming a population of four million, the number of fatalities per 100,000 population in 2007 was approximately 22—a considerably high fatality rate when compared to other countries in the same year: UK (4.3), France (7.1), Spain (8.6), Italy (8.7) and the US (13.6) as reported in the International Road Safety Comparison: The 2007 Report.

Another significant contributor to traffic problems in Lebanon is the lack of availability of parking spaces. Traffic control, or the lack thereof, also falls within the first category, with traffic lights that are either missing where they are needed most or that fail to operate efficiently—or at all.


Then there is the issue of Lebanese drivers. The science of modeling driver behavior is well under way in developed countries but almost non-existent in Lebanon. What can be gleaned from bits of information, according to Hamdar, is that Lebanese drivers show a tendency not to drive between lane markings, engage in an aggressive-style of driving (abrupt acceleration, deceleration and lane changing), tend to drive above desired velocities and exhibit a lower likelihood of abiding by the traffic code.

The two remaining categories of problems that face the system are the lack of a proper and well-organized public transportation system and a lack of “decent and well-respected traffic-law enforcement,” Hamdar added.

But to every seemingly insurmountable problem there is a solution—or several. If the political will were there, explained the professor, then a series of short-to-long term steps could be taken to curb the level of traffic and congestion on the roads. Immediate remedial steps include sustained traffic enforcement—signs of which are beginning to appear, putting to use the existing traffic controls and “ending existing construction works in a decent manner with proper work-zone signs.”

A medium to long-term objective for the Lebanese government would be to conduct proper parking studies and the provision of spaces with no allowed disruptions. This would remedy, among other things, the traffic that is commonly observed where there is valet parking. Hamdar cites The Moevenpick Hotel setup as a case where valet parking works. Moevenpick works because of controlled exits and entrances for where cars will be taken and where the queuing doesn’t spill over onto the public road. The existing parking laws, Hamdar stressed, are good and can play a crucial role in stemming congestion, but they need to be applied to the letter of the law, with no “buy-outs,” as is sometimes practiced.

An improved public transportation system and making available user-friendly pedestrian facilities such as bike lanes would also form part of this medium to long-term objective. As it stands, our buses don’t appeal to a large set of commuters. Congestion, Hamdar said, is a response to a certain demand. If you shift that demand, you can get people out of their cars and on to more environmental and economic modes of transportation, thus freeing up the roads. However, achieving that requires providing an incentive to use the public transportation system by making it more organized, comfortable and cost-effective compared to private motoring, and making sure it follows a strict schedule.

Technology and Ants

The ideal and longer-term solution for Lebanon, Hamdar said, is a “spider-net” system or “intermodal surface highway system” where major city centers are connected via a decent highway structure. In cities, a proper transit system (bus and tram systems) coupled with pedestrian facilities and London-style congestion pricing schemes in tandem can further free up the streets. The traffic on interconnecting highways can be remedied by improving the planning involved in their construction. Beltways, for example, could be introduced that would circumvent cities and allow drivers to get to their destination without having to enter and exit city centers. Beltways would put an end to many of the bottlenecks that occur at the entrances and exits to city centers.

The “spider-net” system would form the “skeleton” which could then be fleshed with more advanced technologies such as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), systems that are designed to optimize traffic through information gathering and use of technologies via a decentralized system. By decentralization, the system would be autonomous to a great extent—if not completely, with a variety of technologies working seamlessly together, updating one another and able to adapt to the changing traffic situation in real-time. A simple example would be a traffic signal that receives real-time information from a variety of sources to prioritize which lane gets the all-green and for how long in order to keep a smooth-as-possible flow of traffic.

Presently, Lebanon could benefit from Free-Floating Data that can be captured through the GSM mobile network. Each mobile phone—and there is no shortage of mobile phones in the country—can serve as a surrogate for a vehicle on the road. The data collected from the phones can be transformed into flow patterns or traffic. When there is an aggregation of immobile phones for a certain period of time that information can be marked as an incident of congestion. That information could be relayed to individual cars via the radio allowing drivers to modify their route.

In the future, when Lebanon gets access to GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), a system that can graphically represent the geographic features of the country’s layout (roads, rivers, places of interest etc…), the free-floating information can be integrated into these systems allowing drivers the choice of selecting alternate routes to circumvent congestion at a particular location.

In a more advanced system a variety of sources of information are sampled and used to further enhance and optimize travel. The idea has already been perfected in nature, explained Hamdar, in the form of the ant. An ant can detect the amount of activity around it through pheromones left by other ants. It is constantly updated of the situation around it in real time and uses that information to find the quickest route to its destination. What scientists aim to do is to develop systems that are able approximate the path-finding abilities of this insect so that, like the ant, motorists can get near-optimal travel solutions at any point in time.

However, before getting overly excited about the technological advancements in the area of transportation, Hamdar cautioned, we need to realize that Lebanon won’t fully benefit from these technologies if it doesn’t have the proper infrastructure already in place

14 Nov 2009

Observermag. com


International observer magazin

Beirut , Traffic Safety

Date: 5/10/2011 12:00:00 AM

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Date Time: 3/24/2011 7:55 PM
Traffic Safety