While Beirut has a growing cycling scene, most of the city’s residents remain hesitant to attempt navigating its streets by bicycle. One of the main reasons for that reticence is the lack of infrastructure to protect cyclists in a traffic system that often resembles a free-for-all of cars, minibusses, and motorcycles. Officials and advocates say that getting more Beirutis to trade in their cars for bicycles, at least some of the time, could be a key part of a strategy to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.
In a step toward wooing more Beirutis to become bicycle commuters, Mayor Jamal Itani announced Wednesday, in conjunction with Lebanon’s annual Bike to Work Day, that the municipality would create 16 kilometers of dedicated bike lanes throughout Beirut in the coming year.
Monika Schmutz Kirgoez, Switzerland’s ambassador to Lebanon, joined Itani and other government officials, including Environment Minister Fadi Jreissati, in biking to work Wednesday morning after the announcement of the new bike route plan. The initiative is being supported by the Swiss Embassy with 10,000 Swiss francs (about $10,000) in funding.
Itani said the bike routes were part of a larger attempt to address traffic congestion in Beirut.
The World Bank is funding an ambitious project to develop Beirut’s public transportation system. The bank last year approved $295 million for a plan that would include the purchase of 120 buses to service 40 kilometers of dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes running between Beirut and its northern suburbs, with another 250 feeder buses to carry passengers to and from the rest of the country.
“We, the municipal council of Beirut, have been working for a while on solutions for the traffic flow,” Itani said. “We are talking about the city of Beirut’s traffic system, and we’re making local solutions and larger solutions.”
The bike lane project, he said, is “an effort to encourage people to use more environmentally friendly transportation means.”
The planned bike lanes will comprise two loops: one running from Charles Helou to Downtown, the American University of Beirut and Hamra, and circling back to Martyrs’ Square via Sanayeh; the other beginning at Charles Helou and running through Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, looping through Ashrafieh and returning by way of Sodeco to end at Martyrs’ Square as well.
Throughout most of the route, there will be dedicated and clearly marked separate bike lanes lined by flexible bollards, officials said, and in the sections where bikes and cars must cross paths, bumps will be installed to slow the cars.
The mayor said he hoped that the dedicated lanes would help to address the safety concerns that are one of the major factors preventing Beirutis from cycling.
“Of course we can’t say we’re going to make bike routes without ensuring the protection of the people,” he said.
The route will also include 14 bike-sharing stations, but Schmutz Kirgoez said the ultimate goal was to encourage people to get their own bicycles. “Normally, I think each and every person should have their own bicycle once you make this a lifestyle,” she said. “Half of my embassy people, they have their own bikes. … People in the embassy come every day by bike.”
Cycling advocates praised the plan. Elena Haddad, co-founder of the Chain Effect nonprofit, said that eventually, she hoped to see a comprehensive sustainable transportation plan for Lebanon’s cities.
But in the meantime, she said, the bike route plan was a good start.
“We’ve been active for four years, lobbying and really trying to get to this stage,” she said. “It’s one step, but it’s still amazing to me.”
Now, she said, further progress on the system “has to come from two sides, from the people and also from the government. Hopefully, people will have a positive response.”
Itani said work was set to begin on the first line over the summer and on the second line by the end of the year.
The Daily Star