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Green activists set out to reclaim the streets from cars

28 January 2004

By Bashir Barrage Special to The Daily Star

Civic group says that the 1.2 million vehicles clogging the country’s roads are wasting our time and money, and destroying the environment

Sustainable transportation as a viable alternative to automobiles    is economically imperative as the country’s commuters waste nearly  $144 million each year, according to a leading Lebanese environmental   group.

Green Line, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that embraces the principle of environmentally sound development in Lebanon , has kicked   its sustainable transport campaign into high gear. The campaign is    funded by the German Heinrich Boel Foundation.

Firas Abi Ghanem, Green Line campaign coordinator, has lately been   visiting students around the nation and placing bicycle stands at universities   to raise awareness on the issue of adopting sustainable transport.

The campaign aims at confronting the civic entities responsible for  the public transport sector, as well as doing work on the ground to   promote awareness with the general public.

Lectures, bike tours, competitions, and even a television documentary  are tools Green Line hopes will coax people into expanding their sustainable   transport horizons.

The design of an efficient public transportation system that gives  an alternative to one’s car involves the use of buses, bicycles and  our own legs to bring about a decrease in automobile emissions, a reduction    in time spent stuck in traffic and increased national savings in petrol  and miscellaneous automobile expenses.

The environmental watchdog is working towards the placement of bike  stands in major public areas and eventually will start lobbying for  bicycle lanes on all major roads to give the general public a viable alternative to the automobile.

Green Line has already begun taking action by placing two bicycle           stands at the Saint Joseph University Faculty of Medicine and at the           Beirut Arab University , with eight more planned for various universities    around the nation.

More bicycle stands are planned for installation at various schools, places of work and public areas such as gardens and squares.

The car ownership rate in Lebanon is one for every three people, according  to Green Line, which is one of the highest in the world even among   developed countries. With a total estimated population of 3.73 million,   that is roughly 1.2 million cars contributing to Lebanon ‘s environmental    degradation.

According to the Youth Association for Social Awareness, there are   around 550 deaths and 5000 injuries per year due to motor vehicle accidents;  that is about 1.5 deaths and 18 injuries per day.

In an interview with The Daily Star, Wael Hmaidan, Greenpeace campaign           coordinator for Lebanon , said: “The transportation sector is the main  contributor to air pollution and is the least managed in the country.”  He added: “It causes significant environmental and socioeconomic problems,   which negatively affect our health.”

In addition to road deaths, injuries, noise pollution, increasing   traffic and health related problems, the lack of a viable national  sustainable transportation alternative will only make matters worse.

If the average person spends about an hour of each working day in  traffic, then by the end of the year that person would have wasted   a total of 10 days waiting in traffic. Considering the average person   earns $2 an hour in Lebanon , that is $480 per person of productive   income lost annually due to traffic. Multiply that by the number of   commuters stuck in traffic each day in Beirut , roughly 300,000 people,  and the nationwide figure of income lost due to traffic equals an incredible   $144 million.

In an interview with The Daily Star, Abi Ghanem said: “This is income   that’s indirectly lost and, since people don’t actually see this money   being squandered, they don’t think it’s a problem, but it is real money   and time that is being wasted.”

“The campaign is trying to solve these issues, yet there is no single,  universal solution,” he added. “We need to change peoples’ perceptions on how they use their cars … and since you have to induce change within people in order to produce change nationwide, it takes time,” Abi Ghanem   explained.

A good example of the difficulties Green Line faces in challenging   the public’s general perceptions of alternative means of transport  is the word commonly used in Arabic for riding a bicycle: bilaab or    playing. So bicycles are not a means of transport in the common Lebanese psyche, but a toy.

To illustrate this reality, Abi Ghanem asked a random passerby in  Hamra about the possibility of biking as an alternate means of transport.   “What?” the man exclaimed, “Who’s crazy enough to play on a bike in   Hamra traffic?” he asked, adding: “I couldn’t even imagine a person   going to work by bike.”

According to the Green Line campaign coordinator, it comes down to  confronting the public’s perception of bicycles as “playthings.” Likewise,     he added, there is a distorted perception among the people that public           buses are “beneath them” and used only by the poor. These are just  a few of the challenges that Green Line must confront on a day-to-day   basis in its campaign, he said.

Another example which highlights the gap between perception and reality when it comes to implementing public transport solutions is the peoples’ over-dependence on their cars. For example, many students at local universities who live within walking distance of the campus insist   on driving their cars. During a Green Line lecture at the Lebanese American University (LAU), a young girl explained how she drove 50  meters to class every morning from her apartment. According to Abi    Ghanem, who was giving the lecture: “She insisted on using her car, which always involved getting stuck for 10 to 15 minutes in traffic,  before finally reaching the LAU parking lot and walking to class …           all this for 50 meters” He added that the student explained her situation   in front of the entire class, which did not find her story the least    bit absurd.

To make a positive impact on national policy, Green Line has had a  number of meetings with concerned public institutions to lobby its   position on transportation.

According to Abi Ghanem: “We have had two or three meetings with the  major stakeholders, namely Beirut MP Mohammed Qabbani, director-general   of the Environment Ministry, Berj Hadjian, and vice-president Ahmad   Zantout from the Lebanese Commuting Company.” But, he added, getting  interviews can sometimes be very frustrating when it comes to environmental    issues.

One example was an attempt to hold a video interview at the Public  Works and Transport Ministry for Green Line’s upcoming television documentary  on sustainable transportation, something that according to Abi Ghanem  proved to be impossible.

The environmental NGO was however able to secure an interview with   director-general Berj Hadjian from the Environment Ministry.

Green Line should be broadcasting its sustainable transport documentary  on local television stations in around two weeks. This documentary is the first of its kind in the country. “Although people are aware of the problems, they don’t take them seriously unless it is seen on   television,” Abi Ghanem said.

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