Posted on April 1, 2019
November 16, 2018 will always be remembered as the day the entire country came to a standstill because of practices in downtown Beirut for the Independence Day parade. The drills, coupled with a storm, had citizens stuck in their cars for up to four hours to make the trip from Jounieh to Beirut – a drive which would take a maximum of forty minutes on an empty road; a pregnant lady even gave birth on the road since she couldn’t get to the hospital in time due to the traffic.
While such heavy traffic jams are rare even in Lebanon, it is unfortunately very normal to spend an hour or more in congestion during rush hour to make a journey that would otherwise take less than half that time.
Efficient and fast ground mobility is clearly a huge problem in Lebanon and while the Ministry of Public Works and Transport says it plans to tackle the issue, nothing has been done yet. So, instead of waiting, some of Lebanon’s entrepreneurs have set their sights on innovation in transportation: YallaBus, Carpolo, Loop, Towbe and Careem are all startups working towards making daily commutes less of a nightmare for the average citizen.
Traffic is not only a problem because it is incredibly frustrating for those stuck in it wishing they could just leave their car in the middle of the road and walk; the loss of productivity resulting from time wasted in traffic jams is considerable. According to the World Bank, the annual economic cost of traffic congestion in Lebanon is $2 billion or 5-10 percent of our national GDP.
Transportation in Lebanon overwhelmingly relies on private cars. A 2016 study by the IPT Energy Center and UNDP claims that 230,000 passenger cars enter Beirut from the north highway on a daily basis and 85,000 do so from the southern highway. As such, the study says, a proportionately higher percentage of emissions are released into the atmosphere per vehicle-kilometer or vehicle-hour of congestion in Lebanon than in more developed countries. The environmental implications of this fact are serious given that Beirut has little greenery to absorb all the CO2 being released into the air.
Next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, look around you and notice that most cars you see are occupied by one user only, the driver, which compounds the traffic problem. Ralph Khairallah, co-founder of carpooling search engine app Carpolo, who has done extensive research on mobility before launching his company, says 80 percent of the vehicles on Lebanon’s roads today are private cars. Moreover, the passenger per vehicle in Lebanon is 1.2 over five cars seats when the global average is 1.4; increasing that number to 1.4 can save the Lebanese economy $320,000 per day by reducing the number of cars on the street, he says.
Public transport in Lebanon exists only in the form of taxis and buses, the latter of which are chaotically run and unregulated. Therese Keyrouz, co-founder of bus map and application YallaBus, says the government owns less than 1 percent of the 4,000 licensed and registered buses currently running in Lebanon.
Worldwide, innovation in transportation is making headlines. The general trend is towards green mobility – aimed at reducing a country’s carbon footsteps, and include self-driving electric buses which are already in operation in China and Germany and are being tested for the US market. Others also look at decreasing traffic congestions such as elevated buses which allow cars to drive underneath them – currently being designed in China, or self-driving drone taxis.
Innovations aside, developed countries already rely heavily on their existing public transportation. We have all taken the subway, tube, metro or train in cities abroad or ridden on buses however these options are nonexistent or not easily available in Lebanon.
All of the entrepreneurs we spoke to for this article agree that Lebanon needs immediate solutions to its traffic problems. “We want to organize how things move and we are trying to do this in a country that has not had a transportation strategy for the past forty years. Today, we cannot replicate what has been done abroad exactly: ideas like digging underground to have a metro or getting funds to completely update the bus network are not going to be achieved in the near future. We need something practical that can be done right now,” says Carpolo’s Khairallah.
Carpolo makes use of the aforementioned empty car seats by connecting those with a similar route to each other so they may carpool. Although Khairallah says the concept of carpooling is not new to Lebanon- people in rural areas have been asking their neighbors for rides to the city for ages now, with payment being a homemade treat or a bag of fruit instead of money, he acknowledges that it may be awkward for people to ask for rides and that often times we don’t even know that our neighbor has a similar route.
As such, Carpolo incentivizes carpooling by gamifying it through points for both the driver and the user which can be redeemed at various stores. Carpolo is currently being used within by the BDD community and by Bank Byblos employees (7,000 active users in total) with Khairallah hoping to not only add more corporations and individual users but also to get governmental support for Carpolo to go nationwide.
The ride sharing app Careem, which was recently bought by its international counterpart Uber, modernized the concept of taxis by also making use of cars already on the road and by having the payment and ordering of rides more efficient and user-friendly.
While YallaBus’ Keyrouz applauds the World Bank’s plan regarding a new bus system for Lebanon, she believes making immediate use of the buses already running in the country is important. The main problem with these buses, according to Keyrouz, is that most people don’t know their route; this is where YallaBus comes in, a map which outlines the routes taken by Lebanon’s 4,000 buses. She believes riding the bus to university or work is the ideal solution for cash strapped students and young professionals, especially when they are coming to Beirut from far destinations, giving the example of a student who used to commute to work through Uber or Careem but saved $90 in thirteen days by riding the bus. Keyrouz says the maps are available across Beirut and that interest is so high that they ran out in many stores. She says the app with the map will be launched before the end of the year and that although today only 26 buses are equipped with trackers – allowing them to provide estimated times of arrival, YallaBus’ plan is to ultimately have all buses equipped with GPS trackers.
For commuting within the city, bicycles are the ideal option; however, they can be impractical if there are hills or rather long distances to be covered in a short period of time. In comes the electric scooter, which not only reduces the time spent in traffic, and the number of cars on the road, but is also environmentally friendly.
Funded by Berytech Fund II in 2016, Loop introduced sharable electric scooters to Beirut under the belief that if they can succeed in Beirut, they can succeed anywhere. Those who wish to use the scooters have to download the app, provide their current location and be directed to the nearest station where they enter a code provided by the app to release the bike and start using it. Today, there are 15 stations for Loop’s electric scooters situated in key areas in Beirut with 15 to 20 scooters. The app has 1,500 subscribers and around 600 active users who take it almost every day and so expansion is very much on the company’s mind: they plan to have a hundred scooters and 50 stations across Beirut by July 2019, according to general manager Mira Raham.
Not all transport innovations are centered around traffic reduction. Through Towbe, wait time for a tow truck can be reduced by less than half. As co-founder Naim Nassereldin explains, Towbe is an app currently used to help businesses such as insurance companies to easily and efficiently secure a tow truck for their clients; to date they have completed 153,000 jobs. It will soon be launched as an app which drivers can use for emergency car services such as changing a tire or charging a car battery instead of hoping for a do-gooder to take pity on a stranded individual.
While Lebanon’s traffic problems are far from solved, such innovation in transportation provides frustrated citizens with options beyond being stuck behind the wheel. There is hope for us still.