Lebanon fuel crisis sees people switch to bicycles

Cyclist in Lebanon
6 min read
Lebanon
22 July, 2021
With petrol now a rare commodity, and growing more expensive due to recently lifted state subsidies, some in Beirut have taken to cycling as an alternative. 

“I haven’t been driving for like a month now. I’m against waiting in line for hours, the whole system, and I’m not going to keep on feeding it,” Beirut resident Samer El Khoury told The New Arab. “I had a full tank of gas and I’m going to use it for as long as I can for emergencies. Otherwise, I’ve been using my bicycle or walking. I’m not going to fill up again. I find it absurd what is happening, with people lining up every day.”

In early June, Lebanon added a severe fuel shortage to the seemingly endless list of social, political and economic crises inflicted on the country. 

Hundreds of cars have been queuing daily in the summer heat at what few gas stations remain open, only to fill up a small amount of petrol, or be turned away after hours of waiting when the fuel runs out. Fights have broken out at stations as tensions run high and some have taken to sleeping in their cars in the early hours, hoping to beat the lines. 

With petrol now a rare commodity, and growing more expensive due to recently lifted state subsidies, some in Beirut have taken to cycling as an alternative. 

Hundreds of cars have been queuing daily in the summer heat at what few gas stations remain open, only to fill up a small amount of petrol, or be turned away after hours of waiting when the fuel runs out

Khoury, who was an already avid biker for leisure, has taken to using his bicycle more in recent months to get around the capital. 

“I’m seeing more and more people using their bikes around Beirut,” Khoury said. “It took a crisis for people to understand that you can easily get around by bike in Beirut. You don’t need a car.” 

The Chain Effect, an NGO that promotes and facilitates cycling as a sustainable means of transport in Beirut, has had an increasing number of calls from people enquiring about finding affordable bicycles.

“I’ve heard of so many people, including my immediate circle of friends, reaching out to The Chain Effect and that are shifting to cycling,” co-founder Elena Haddad told The New Arab. “I’ve spotted a few people cycling on the highway who looked like they were commuting and I think we might see more of that.

“As much as I want people to cycle, it’s unfortunate to shift because of being forced to. It’s not the way I would have wanted people to adopt cycling,” she added. “Unfortunately, if the situation doesn’t improve and we don’t have accessible, viable public transport other than the informal system, there aren’t any alternatives to walking or cycling.” 

Issa Ibrahim on bike
Lynne on bike
Ahmad on bike
Issa, Lyne and Ahmad have all benefited from their affordable bikes campaign

In the past, the government has subsidized 90 percent of fuel sales at the ‘official’ rate of LL1,500 to the dollar. In January 2021, the price of 20 litres of 95-octane gas increased slightly, costing around LL28,000 and 98-octane gas cost about LL29,000. In June, the price jumped to LL45,200, and cost LL46,600 respectively. 

Voices

With the devaluation of the lira due to Lebanon’s ever-deepening economic crisis – which last week saw the dollar equal a record low of LL17,950 on the black market – the government decided to alter the subsidy program to LL3,900 per dollar, hiking fuel costs further by about 35 percent or about LL16,000. 

While biking would be a cheaper alternative, it comes with its own set of obstacles. New bikes cost about $300 (around LL5,000,000 at the current lira to dollar rate) and the infrastructure required for safe cycling, like bike lanes or public bike racks, is nonexistent. 

“We launched a campaign to help provide subsidies by working with different NGOs, and some people we just gave bikes to,” Haddad said. “We found a place in Tripoli where a guy gets secondhand bicycles and refurbishes them. We were able to do a partnership with him, helping him boost his business so he can provide affordable bicycles to people.

“For the past 50 years, there has been no infrastructure, planning or design for shared transport or soft mobility. We don’t even have proper sidewalks sometimes, so it’s a bit difficult to tell people ‘you have to ride bikes now,’” she added. “It has to be a two-way street, raising awareness but also lobbying for infrastructure or safety regulations, instead of cars not giving way and driving like maniacs.”

The Chain Effect has tried to map out quieter, less congested routes for people to bike around Beirut, hoping to encourage cyclists wary of Lebanon’s dangerous roads. They recently shared several routes on social media, reminding people that most travel distances in Beirut are less than five kilometres. 

Due to a lack of real public transport, those who live outside Beirut and commute for work are forced to rely on private cars, which have often led to spectacular traffic jams. An average of 600,000 cars enter Beirut on a daily basis. 

The only available transport is the informal system of minibuses and ‘services’ (a kind of carpool taxi for people happening to go to the same neighbourhood), which is an unregulated network that has no set running times or routes. Some places outside of the capital are inaccessible save for a private car or a pricey taxi. 

Haddad believes it is this lack of public transport that led to the disastrous fuel crisis Lebanon now finds itself in. Before the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon has an extensive train system, trams in the cities and a reliable bus service. During and after the war, the government neglected these systems, allowing them to fall apart completely. 

A loan from the World Bank of $225.20 million was approved for Lebanon’s Greater Beirut Transport Project, which would be used for a new official bus network and the road infrastructure required for it. The loan is set to expire in 2023, yet no work has been done

“Everyone keeps saying it’s a fuel crisis but for me, it’s a transport crisis. The policies that were taken after the civil war focused completely on private cars,” Haddad said. “It’s why we’re here today unfortunately because we’re depending on gas and fuel because we have no alternatives. 

“We once had an interconnected multimodal transport system before and now they’ve dismantled that,” she added. “People like us and before us have present projects to the Beirut Municipality to revamp our streets, have proper public transport or cycle lanes, and they just put them in drawers and don’t do anything.” 

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In 2019, Beirut Mayor Jamal Itani announced in a press conference that 16 km of bike lanes would be added to Beirut by the end of that year. To date, not a single metre of bike lane has been added and the project has been forgotten. 

Similarly, a loan from the World Bank of $225.20 million was approved for Lebanon’s Greater Beirut Transport Project, which would be used for a new official bus network and the road infrastructure required for it. The loan is set to expire in 2023, yet no work has been done and Haddad says the World Bank is looking at repurposing the loan to address Lebanon’s more immediate issues. 

“We’re here because of the ineptitude of all these ministers and people in power, despite projects existing trying to do better,” she said. “For me, this is a stolen opportunity. Instead of using it today to help people with short-term solutions and put band-aids on what is happening, we need long-term sustainable solutions.”  
 

Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She works full time for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.

Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6