By Ghida Ismail
“Retrieving Beirut” was written on one of the walls in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Drawn below it was a taxi car. Beirut’s walls seemed to be calling attention to the indispensability of mobility, secured through the network of taxis and buses/vans, in retrieving the city from the grips of an economic and political collapse.
Amidst an economic crisis that, according to the World Bank, could rank as the third worst in the world since the 1850s, residents find their access to affordable transportation threatened. Removal of crucial subsidies on fuel accompanied with deficient actions to support the informal taxi and bus/van network, the sole provider of transport to the public, resulted in increasing ride fares. In turn, residents find their ability to afford transport impeded, depressing their demand for it, and instigating the paralysis of public transportation, its sustainability dependent on riders’ demand.
Fundamentally, the failure to address affordable transportation leaves people in Lebanon with the risk of losing their right to mobility in the city and, in turn, their right to the city.
Mobility in Beirut’s History
The right to the city is a concept coined in 1968 by the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre, as “the renewed access to urban life” against the exclusionary processes of city-making that often result in the disenfranchisement of a large proportion of the population. The right to the city empowers citizens, enabling them to retrieve control of the urban space and ensure their fair social, economic, and political participation in the city. In securing the right to the city, Lefebvre asserts the role of accessibility and mobility, since it is critical to facilitate people’s participation in urban life. Importantly, it allows people to experience urban spaces beyond their confined residences and to access broader social networks.
The pivotal role of accessibility and mobility in the urbanization and modernization of Beirut was highlighted in Samir Kassir’s book Beirut, widely upheld as the definitive history of the city. Kassir claims that accessibility and mobility, largely gained through the construction and expansion of roads along Lebanon’s three main axes–the Damascus Road (east), Tripoli Road (north) and Saida Road (south)–have changed people’s appreciation of space and time by enhancing their control of both while also expanding their choices and opportunities. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the development of Beirut from a small town of six thousand people to an important trading city was largely driven by people’s enhanced mobility. In fact, increased mobility made it possible for people to migrate from the mountains to Beirut, to seek better economic opportunities and contribute to its economic and social development, while retaining their ties to the mountains.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, urban mobility proved essential in reconnecting a divided city and reinstating everyday urban life. Crucially, the informal public transit network in Lebanon was key to ensuring the social and economic inclusivity of urban development, recovery, and opportunities. “The car enabled the democratization of transport, since with the shared taxi cars system, the roads were accessible by people of all budgets,” wrote Kassir. 
While the tramway was the main provider of mobility in the early 1900s in Lebanon, in the 1960s automobile-based mobility began playing a central role. Car-oriented planning schemes were adopted at the expense of official public transport networks. This led to the official dismantling of the tramway in 1968 and to the emergence of informal networks of service taxi cars and buses which repurposed the tramway’s transport routes. This public transit network took over as the main provider of affordable transportation in Lebanon and as guarantor of residents’ right to mobility.
However, for a long period of time investment in the improvement of the informal public transit network has been relegated to the end of authorities’ priorities. For instance, after the fifteen years of Lebanese civil war the public transit network was largely absent from reconstruction efforts, and most investments were instead concentrated in physical infrastructure in lieu of initiatives to limit private cars, encourage collective means of transport, and offer affordable mobility to residents.
Authorities’ lack of interest in public transit and their failure to establish a coherent and comprehensive framework to regulate it  has resulted in its deterioration over the years. Despite its deficiencies, the informal public transit network remained the sole provider of affordable transportation to residents in Lebanon. It largely served the poorest residents, who lacked access to other options for their daily commute including to work.
This seems to be changing, as the lack of attention given to public transportation in Lebanon in the thick of the fuel crisis has resulted in transport ride fares becoming a heavy burden on commuters’ salaries, whose value plummeted as inflation in the country surpassed 100 percent. In fact, a roundtrip using the shared taxi car now costs as much as the daily minimum wage in Lebanon, and fares often amount to more than half of the average commuter’s daily pay. Drivers of shared transportation vehicles are finding it increasingly hard to cover their basic expenses, given the stark increase in the cost of fuel.
The inability of the market to stabilize ride fares that could ensure commuters’ ability to pay without compromising drivers’ ability to make ends meet, threatens to paralyze the informal public transit network in Lebanon. This then risks excluding a large proportion of people in Lebanon from the social and economic opportunities provided by mobility.
Transport as a Common Right
Measures to support, sustain, and improve the informal public transit network are essential to safeguard people’s right to mobility and in turn their right to the city.
A car-centric approach to urban development perpetuated a belief in automotive dependence in Lebanon and thereby cemented the perception that public transit is meant to serve only those who cannot afford their own cars. Not only did the Lebanese auto dependency contribute to high social costs such as environmental degradation, traffic congestion, noise pollution, and declining road conditions, but it also dampened demand for public transportation. Funds were diverted away from the existing public transit network. In effect, Lebanon’s high car usage, more than three times the world’s median, implied that most of the three billion U.S. dollars spent annually by the government on subsidizing gasoline went to individual drivers, rather than improving the quality and efficiency of the informal public transit network for the benefit of all.
As such, the existing economic and urban model rendered mobility highly accessible to those who owned their own cars at the expense of the efficient mobility of those who cannot afford their own vehicles. Such policies and private market decisions legitimized spatial injustice in Lebanon, whereby there is a differentiation in people’s ability to access Lebanon’s spaces.
A sufficient share of the population must use public transportation to instigate sustainable improvements of the public transport network, maintain efficient high mobility for everybody, and limit spatial injustice. Studies done in 2016 estimated that private cars constituted almost 80 percent of all passenger trips in Lebanon, while only 20 percent were taken by shared taxis and buses/vans. Paradoxically, it was shown that public transport use in Greater Beirut should be at 40 percent to ensure efficient transportation. Accordingly, to sustain the right to mobility for everyone in the city, transportation decisions should not be aimed at the self-interest of the citizenry’s private sphere alone, but should be expanded to address the broader public’s transit needs.
To achieve this, countries such as Singapore charge residents a tax that reflects the social costs of automobile prioritization. In Lebanon the economic and fuel crisis provides an opportunity to address the social costs of an auto-centric transportation policy and redirect mobility from private cars to public transit. One could argue that the increased cost of private automobility resulting from the crisis could be framed as a tax on using private cars and reverse the trend of high private car dependency. A carefully framed argument juxtaposing these two issues could then be deployed to incite a shift toward public transportation; authorities could focus on investment, reforms, and regulations to the existing public transit network and maintaining subsidies targeted only to the public transport network.
In 2018, the World Bank approved a 295 million U.S. dollar package to fund the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project (GBPTP), a plan that promised to “overhaul Lebanon’s decaying transport sector.” However, the project has not materialized, and, underscoring authorities’ lack of interest in public transport, it has been reported that there are plans to repurpose the funds to cover the cash card program that would provide 25 dollars for each individual in vulnerable households. “The government seems to think that the priority is not for public transport at the moment,” explained the politician Ibrahim Kanaan to L’Orient-Le Jour.
Instead of further de-prioritizing public transport in Lebanon, the economic and fuel crisis should trigger efforts to sustain and improve the public transit network, in turn protecting the right to mobility of Lebanon’s residents and their right to the city. When describing the right to the city, David Harvey argues that it is “a common rather than individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.” Accordingly, safeguarding the right to the city will also necessitate equating transportation to a common good requiring collective action rather than an individual one motivated by self-interest.
As understood by the people behind the writing on Beirut’s wall, to retrieve and improve Beirut, spatial justice must be retrieved as well.
Ghida Ismail is a researcher in development economics. She has worked with international organizations such as UN Women, the World Bank, and Innovations for Poverty Action on using robust research methods, evidence, and data to better inform the design of policies and development programs. Her research has covered diverse social and economic issues in the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia, including social protections for informal workers, women’s access to affordable transportation and the labor market, social cohesion of forced displaced populations, and farmers’ empowerment.
Featured image (at top): “Retrieving Beirut,” Ghida Ismail photographer, between 2019-2021.
 Lefebvre, H. (1968). Le droit à la ville. Le droit à la ville. L Homme et la société.
 Kassir, S, (2003), L’Histoire de Beyrouth.
 Assaf, C. (2020) Social Innovation: Utopia of (Re)shaping the Culture of Mobility in Beirut. Supervised by Pieter Van den Broeck and Christine Mady.
 Kassir, S. (2003), L’Histoire de Beyrouth, 358.
 El Moussawi, H. (2016) CLAIMING THE RIGHT TO THE CITY THROUGH INFORMAL PRACTICES? THE CASE OF INFORMAL PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN BEIRUT.
 Council of Development and Reconstruction (2016).