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Jad Baaklini 07 May 2015

Forget the New Traffic Law, Here’s Three Groups Actually Making a Difference

Over the past few months, the internet’s been picking apart the so-called “new traffic law” that finally* came into effect on April 22 Phase two just rolled out a week ago on May 1. The authorities are already giddy about how it’s going, but it’s still too early to know what kind of impact this will have on the driving experience in Lebanon in the long run.

A policeman distributes pamphlets of the new traffic law to drivers in Beirut, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (Image via The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Ever since Marcel Ghanem featured the law on his show, the country’s been buzzing about the law (and more). Critics of the law have been focusing on its super-high penalties, but several astute commentators have also pointed out the mismatch between the logic of law and current state of Lebanon’s infrastructure, as summarised by one taxi driver who said: “Before implementing the new law, the government should work on improving the roads in Lebanon. We need better lighting, fewer potholes and less traffic.”

See this graphic with ‘fines’ against the government for infrastructure ‘violations’.

In response, a few voices have come out in defense of the legal reform, arguing that the lack of adequate infrastructure is “not an excuse for not abiding by the new rules and becoming a better driver.” In some ways, this chicken-and-egg situation (infrastructure-and-behavior) is a false dilemma. Activists used to lobbying parliament may see parallels between the situation that civil society groups who back the new traffic law are in to the problem that many rights-oriented NGOs deal with: what should we start with? The institutional framework (nousous) or the ‘soul’ (noufous)? For advocates of issues like civil marriage and the right of women to give their children the Lebanese nationality, the abstract smugness of “first this, then that” rhetoric really is just an excuse, and a sneaky way of perpetuating the same old balance of powers that be.

And yet, in the case of transportation as a subset of the built environment, it’s hard to see where infrastructure ends and behavior begins. The way our cities are put together has a powerful effect on how we use them, and as a complex system involving an almost endless chains of issues — from car-centric urban planning to Beirut-centric economic development to labor union fragmentation to public transport stigmatization — the last thing we need now is encampment around particular ways of doing activism. Indeed, even the field of road safety management — whose local champions are the biggest supporters of the new law — is beginning to acknowledge the need for “safe systems thinking” that takes into account roads, vehicles, speeds *and* people.

So instead of splitting the debate along the lines of infrastructure versus behavior, legal reform versus service provision, or even lobbying versus raising awareness, activists might win more hearts and minds by looking for creative ways to have a direct impact on people’s lives. In other words, activism can do with being a little more active.

A few groups out there have already started getting their hands dirty with a few “tactical fixes” that — if linked up in a way that maximizes their impact — might help set a precedent for activists in more than just the transport sector. In this post, we will highlight just three, focusing on groups working to furnish our roads with basic infrastructure through creative methods and partnerships:

1. Rotaract Bus Stop Project

(Image via Facebook)

According to project coordinator Jean-Marc Adaimi, the Rotaract Bus Stop Project was intended to “serve the community” by addressing an actual need, and “not just setting a goal and talking about it.” This meant servicing the country’s bus network as it is, even if it does not always “follow certain criteria,” as he put it, revealing a mix of pragmatism and far-sightedness to the project that’s not always seen in discussions of public transport in Lebanon.

The Bus Stop Project began around March 2014 when a team drawn from seven Rotaract clubs from across Lebanon began discussing the best way of pursuing a sustainability agenda. They quickly identified bus shelters as an immediate need and a concrete way to promote public transport. Rotaract’s bus shelter was designed ‘in house’ (Adaimi is an architect) and funded through various creative ventures, including taking part in and winning first place in a rally paper organised by NDU.

To decide where to put the shelters, the team began with the standard LCC bus map, but very quickly moved on to coordinate with local municipalities to figure out where buses actually pass. The team also conducted field research to settle on the best spot for each shelter.

Seven shelters in total have been installed, one in each participating Rotaract club region. According to Adaimi, their hope is that this phase would “create a snowball effect” by providing bus riders and decision-makers with a “prototype” they can see in action, and, indeed, one municipality has already been impressed enough to adopt the design and produce more shelters, in coordination with the local Rotaract chapter in their area.

2. ODDD+D16 Sustainable Transport Project

(Source: ODDD FB page)

A similar project** was undertaken by ODDD+D16, a group of students at USEK headed by university instructor and Organisation De Développement Durable founder Eliesh Sahyoun. While Rotaract focussed on creating a prototype that could be installed relatively quickly, ODDD was interested in experimenting with creating a site-specific bus shelter from low-impact materials, based on a series of research projects (e.g. the position of the sun in the area over time).

(Source: ODDD FB page)

From this research, ODDD+D16 also produced a series of infographics that helped clarify various aspects of the public transport sector, showing snapshots of a system that seems random and chaotic to those unfamiliar with how it works.

Despite being a smaller scale project than Rotaract’s, the amount of research put into ODDD+D16’s initiative shows another way that the “snowball effect” that Jean-Marc Adaimi spoke about might be achieved — i.e. by simply making the transit system easier for people to understand and use, targeting spaces that might not register on most people’s map of the country. When seen together, projects like Rotaract’s and ODDD’s — if linked up and expanded across the country — could reverse decades of misconceptions about Lebanon’s post-war transport system, as well as open up avenues for specific, incremental improvements in different areas.

3. Kunhadi

Sometimes what needs improving is so small that the fix goes unnoticed. Kunhadi is best known for their awareness campaigns, but since 2010, the NGO has also started installing pedestrian crossings in front of schools, and retro-reflective markings on various highways (e.g. Antelias-Bikfaya, Airport-Jiyyeh, Tripoli, Faraya):

(Source: Kunhadi Facebook page)

What’s most interesting about Kunhadi’s approach is their openness to creative partnerships; to fund their projects, Kunhadi has been sponsored by groups as diverse as Roadsters Diner and the Kataeb Party. Purists might frown at the very large signs that have accompanied Kunhadi’s installations and call their approach a marketing stunt, but the very fact that these basic road markings need private funding makes the high visibility of Kunhadi’s partners an indirect protest against state neglect.

Of course, not all activist interventions are well thought out or sustainable over the long term — who will maintain the bus shelter or zebra crossing after its been installed? More broadly, taking a DIY approach to urban infrastructure should not mean that the strategy of lobbying policymakers is totally abandoned — after all, there would be no need for activists to step in and serve a need if the government was already on it. But what is for sure is that NGOs need to build up their capacity to step in when necessary, because some things just can’t wait.

* This “new” law is actually a law passed in 2012, then “suspended” after protests by taxi drivers’ unions, then reinstated last June, but that’s another story.

** Rotaract and ODDD coordinated by co-convening debate nights around the topic of public transport, but worked independently.