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World Lebanon's car culture questioned in crisis

07:26  20 october  2021
07:26  20 october  2021 Source:   afp.com

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By challenging Lebanon ' s national passion for automobile ownership, and driving growing numbers towards greener or more collective transport, the economic crisis is succeeding where everything else failed. In the absence of a functioning public transport system, car culture has thrived and One of the by-products of Lebanon ' s historic shortages and currency crisis is the first meaningful dent in decades in the reign of the private automobile. Tuk-tuks, bicycles, carpooling and affordable buses -- which were once out of the question for many -- have since become more popular amid changing public attitudes

The Lebanese liquidity crisis is an ongoing financial crisis affecting the Middle Eastern nation of Lebanon starting in August 2019. Lebanon ' s crisis was worsened by U.S. sanctions targeting Syria's

By challenging Lebanon's national passion for automobile ownership, and driving growing numbers towards greener or more collective transport, the economic crisis is succeeding where everything else failed.

Natheer Halawani said the economic crisis has provided 'a suitable opportunity to rethink' old transportation models © Joseph EID Natheer Halawani said the economic crisis has provided 'a suitable opportunity to rethink' old transportation models

In the absence of a functioning public transport system, car culture has thrived and many households, even modest ones, boast multiple vehicles.

Since 2019, however, an ever worsening financial crisis has made petrol unaffordable for many and long queues at gas stations unbearable for the rest.

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — As she sat in the sun in her Mini Cooper inching her way through a long line of cars to get gas, Lynn Husami, 23, tried to use her time well. Lebanon also forms an active front in the regional struggle for influence between Iran and Israel and the West. Inside Lebanon , the crisis has created a distinct sense that the country is coming undone, as all but the wealthiest spend their days sweating through frequent blackouts, waiting in fuel lines that wrap around city blocks, and running from pharmacy to pharmacy to search for medicines that have disappeared from shelves.

Of course, Lebanon ’ s electrical grid, like the rest of the country’s essential infrastructure, has been repeatedly bombed by the Israelis (who make no secret of their intentional targeting of such civilian objects, in grotesque violation of international law). But, despite the Israelis, billions of dollars have been allocated over the years to repair or rebuild Lebanon ’ s electrical capacity, and yet there is little to show for it. The previous prime minister designate was the witless son of the tycoon prime minister who had opened the door for the country’s plunge into its debt crisis in the first place; the current candidate for

One of the by-products of Lebanon's historic shortages and currency crisis is the first meaningful dent in decades in the reign of the private automobile.

Tuk-tuks, bicycles, carpooling and affordable buses -- which were once out of the question for many -- have since become more popular amid changing public attitudes and skyrocketing transport costs, including higher taxi fares.

A tuk-tuk taxi drives on a street in the Lebanese city of Batroun north of the capital Beirut © Joseph EID A tuk-tuk taxi drives on a street in the Lebanese city of Batroun north of the capital Beirut

"Before the crisis, I relied on my family's car or a taxi, but this has all become unaffordable," said Grace Issa, a 23-year-old customer service professional whose workplace is around 20 kilometres (12 miles) from home.

Tuk-tuks, bicycles, carpooling and affordable buses -- which were once out of the question for many -- have become more popular amid changing public attitudes and skyrocketing transport costs © Joseph EID Tuk-tuks, bicycles, carpooling and affordable buses -- which were once out of the question for many -- have become more popular amid changing public attitudes and skyrocketing transport costs

Her only option to get to the office now is a private coach operated by Hadeer, a start-up without which she would not have accepted her new job in the first place.

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Lebanon (/ˈlɛbənɒn, -nən/ (listen)), officially known as the Lebanese Republic, is a country in the Levant region of Western Asia, and the transcontinental region of the Middle East.

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"I now spend about 30 percent of my salary on transportation instead of 70 percent," she told AFP as she boarded a bus to go back home.

- 'Unclean, unsafe' -

There are more than two million cars for six million people in Lebanon.

Car imports have fallen by 70 percent over the past two years and many Lebanese can no longer afford new vehicles with the local currency losing about 90 percent of its value against the dollar on the black market.

Lebanon has been facing a fuel crisis for months, with long queues at service stations © JOSEPH EID Lebanon has been facing a fuel crisis for months, with long queues at service stations

Dwindling foreign currency reserves have forced authorities to scale back subsidies on imports, including fuel, causing prices to skyrocket.

Twenty litres (4.4 gallons) of petrol are now worth around a third of the minimum wage, while nearly 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

In response to the crisis, Boutros Karam, 26, and three friends launched Hadeer, which provides affordable bus transport along the country's northern coastal highway.

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Could European culture be displaced by the crisis ? Now when I was in Marseille I was driven by older French lady via Bla Bla car . I asked her about the It creates a questions about how should liberal society reacts toward a fraction of its population that is very much illiberal. Or Lebanon , which, despite Hezbollah’ s rise, has only 1.86 children per family (so that its population will soon be shrinking).

The Lebanon hostage crisis was the kidnapping in Lebanon of 104 foreign hostages between 1982 and 1992, when the Lebanese Civil War was at its height. The hostages were mostly Americans and Western Europeans, but 21 national origins were represented.

Unlike the dilapidated public transport system, buses operate along a fixed schedule, are equipped with wi-fi and tracking services and are relatively safer for women who often report harassment on public coaches and vans.

Sixty percent of Hadeer's customers are women.

"The public transport problem is an old one but it was compounded recently by the fuel crisis and the fact that many can no longer afford to move around" using taxis or their own cars, Karam said.

The start-up, which has also developed a mobile app that allows customers to book seats in advance, is breaking stereotypes Lebanese have harboured regarding mass transit, Karam added.

Many of our customers "were not accustomed to using collective transportation", Karam said.

"They used to refuse it because it was seen as unclean... and unsafe."

- 'Way of life' -

Lebanon has had a railway network since the end of the 19th century but it has been out of service since the start of the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Several proposals over the decades to revamp public transport have been shelved. In 2018, the World Bank approved a $295 million package to jumpstart the country's first modern public transport system.

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The Greater Beirut Public Transport Project, however, never took off and the Lebanese government is now looking to use the funds to help support the country's poorest.

"Discussions are under way with the government of Lebanon regarding the feasibility of restructuring and reprogramming the entire World Bank portfolio which also includes the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project," World Bank spokesperson Zeina El-Khalil told AFP.

A worsening financial crisis has made petrol unaffordable for many and long queues at gas stations unbearable for the rest © ANWAR AMRO A worsening financial crisis has made petrol unaffordable for many and long queues at gas stations unbearable for the rest

In the coastal city of Batroun, a popular tourist hotspot during the summer, the tuk-tuk has gained traction among visitors and residents alike, according to Toni Jerjes, who manages a service offering the auto rickshaws.

In the absence of a functioning public transport system, car culture has thrived and many households, even modest ones, boast multiple vehicles © Joseph EID In the absence of a functioning public transport system, car culture has thrived and many households, even modest ones, boast multiple vehicles

"The crisis has changed the Lebanese people's transportation habits. Tuk-tuk is a less expensive and faster option," he said.

In the city of Tripoli further north, Natheer Halawani has relied on a bicycle for nearly two decades to move around.

He has lobbied for a bicycle boom in his car-clogged city for years, but in the end, it was the economic calamity that finally put the wheels in motion, and he says more people are now pedalling through the city's streets.

The private vehicle "is not just a means of transport, it is also a way of life", he said.

For the 35-year-old, the crisis provides "a suitable opportunity to rethink" such old transportation models.

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