Beirut: It takes Mansour Khalife a good two hours to reach the Lebanese capital from the city of Jounieh given the unprecedented traffic chaos prevailing in the country.
“I promise to light a candle to Mar Charbel [the country’s venerated Maronite patron saint] the day I reach my shop in an hour,” Khalife, a salesman who works in downtown Beirut, told Gulf News.
Khalife’s car is among the 1.6 million registered vehicles taking to Lebanon’s roads every day.
That figure does not include cars not registered in Lebanon, which has swelled due to the massive number of Syrians who have filtered into the country due to the civil war in their land.
Chronic congestion and lack of parking have always plagued the country, but a growing population coupled with the influx of Syrians has made the situation particularly intolerable.
Syrians now make up a quarter of the population, bringing the total population to around 6 million, up from 4 million. This figure does not take into account the country’s one million Palestinian refugees and 750,000 foreign workers who are not counted in national census figures.
Hundreds of thousands of commuters who drive to Beirut every day complain that they waste precious hours of their life behind the wheel.
To alleviate the growing burden on the roads, governor Ziad Chebib promised to reveal a new plan to revamp the city’s public transport system within weeks.
However the promise has not excited Lebanese due to many past pledges that have not materialised — a plan for a metro and light-rail system have been floated.
The absence of an effective public transit system has only made Lebanese more dependent on cars.
In 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, 39,361 new passenger cars were sold in Lebanon, up by an annual 4.1 per cent, which brought the state over $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) in excise taxes, cars registration fees, and cars control fees.
Few Lebanese take public buses due the danger associated with navigating the country’s haphazard roads combined with the reckless drivers to whom they would perforce have to entrust their safety.
Lebanon records more than 6 million automobile passenger trips each day, up from 2.8 million in 2007 and 1.7 million in 1995, according to statistics from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
A 2012 American University of Beirut study confirmed the existence of a “deep-rooted need for an effective public transportation system as a competitive alternative to automobile dependency”. The Council for Development and Reconstruction — the supra-national body in charge of everything after the civil war — failed to heed calls for urgent action, which is the primary reason why traffic jams are now the norm.
Earlier this month, a high-ranking World Bank Group visiting Beirut earmarked $200 million for upgrading Lebanon’s road network, which the international institution perceived as a “risk to public safety as well as an impediment to urban-rural development and equitable economic growth”.
This was not the first time that such resources were allocated to repair around 500 kilometres of roads in the first phase of a broader government plan to revamp the country’s crumbling road infrastructure, though Lebanon requires all the help it can get.
But Lebanon’s infrastructure does not lend itself to support such ambitious reconstruction plans. Already, there are not nearly enough parking lots to deal with the growing pool of cars in the country.
Many are desperately hoping that the latest World Bank commitment of $510 million to assist the government will rehabilitate the existing road networks, improve road safety, and lead to purchase of equipment for emergency repairs.
But Mohammad Qansu, a taxi driver, is pessimistic.
“Our traffic jams will be fixed in 8,888 years,” he said.