Friday, April 23, 1999

LebEnv # 70


Greenpeace's outgoing chairman, Fouad Hamadan, doesn't mince his words: "We have a mentality problem. Cars are still more important than people and we're doing everything we can to destroy this country."

Mr. Nakkash: "... People are hungry to use their cars."

The above are excerpted from a Daily Star article dated April 8, 1999, that talks about the deteriorating traffic situation in Lebanon. According to the article, the solution so far has been to build more roads that will simply spread the misery of traffic congestion to new places. Public transportation is inefficient and underused due to the lack of a schedule.

Before the war, Beirut was a relatively small, compact city. Its dense layout and well-integrated neighborhoods made it possible to do all sorts of activities on foot: going to work or school, grocery shopping, going to movie theaters, eating at restaurants. "Service" taxis and city buses provided transportation. People drove their cars short distances as well, and traffic was bad but not horrific.

Since the end of the war, the number of cars has been increasing dramatically, much faster than the population. This is likely due to the availability of cheap, imported second-hand cars, a changing culture that glorifies cars, and an increasing need for them.

The "increasing need" issue brings up another environmental issue: urban sprawl. In the last decade, Beirut and other cities have sprawled out beyond their original limits, devouring entire forests and mountains. Some of the housing there tends to be "suburban" style developments accessed by private

driveways, roads or gates. They are often on the side of a main thoroughfare, with no sidewalks, far from the centers of towns and isolated from work, school, shopping and entertainment. Such is the case with numerous luxury developments in the hills east of Beirut. Other areas are full of tall buildings next to each other, similar to the ones in Beirut. However, they were built with little planning so that there are no sidewalks, and services are, again, distant. Such is the case with the Khaldeh-Aramoun area south of Beirut. This new area has resulted in horrendous traffic jams by people driving several kilometers to work in Beirut.

This sounds all too familiar to me. I live in Arizona, one of the most car-oriented places on the planet (even more so than Los Angeles). Neighborhoods are so sprawled out and segregated from services that most people have to drive, even if it is to buy milk from the "nearby" grocery store. For most people, work is miles away, as far as an hour away (equivalent to the width of Lebanon at its widest). New developments have been devouring natural habitat at a furious rate, and advertising glorifies a "secluded" lifestyle far from the "decaying inner city" that, incidentally, rules out public transportation and demands long-distance driving.

Phoenicians (that is, people living in the Phoenix area) have had several opportunities to vote for building public transportation, most notably a light-rail system in 1987. Most failed, but a vote to build freeways passed. Since 1985, the area has been on a freeway-building binge. And yet, the traffic keeps getting worse. Cars crawl on six-lane (per direction!) freeways for several hours on both ends of the day. (Yours truly carpools with a co-worker on most days, but on other days has to leave home at 6 a.m. and leave work at 6:15 p.m. to avoid the mess.) Freeway interchanges become obsolete the day they open, with traffic clogging them. Some have had to be modified just a year or two after opening. In one case, there was talk of widening a freeway and modifying an interchange even as extensive current work was being done on them. The contracting companies are having a ball.

The bottom line is that no amount of road building will relieve traffic. Wide freeways and new roads only encourage developers to build farther out and people to live in more distant areas and drive more, negating the hoped-for benefits.

Lebanon, with its dense population, limited land area, and the need to preserve natural areas, cannot afford a lifestyle that even in America has caused alarm over the loss of land. Every acre paved in the vast U.S. is an acre wasted; the waste is even more acute when it applies to little Lebanon's hectares. Making it easier to get around by car will simply condemn even more of Lebanon's landscape to the developer's bulldozers. Do we really need to make a place like, say, Hammana, a fifteen-minute drive from Beirut so that it becomes a suburb full of buildings?

To cut down on the traffic problem, the root of the problem, "the need to drive," needs to be attacked. This calls for control over development outside Beirut, better planning to provide services in new neighborhoods, a more pedestrian-friendly environment (sidewalks, shade trees), a decent public transportation system, and a railroad system for both public use and freight so that those big, dangerous trucks can be taken off the road.

And, Lebanese officials need to come to Phoenix to learn how not to do things. Phoenix will never solve its problems just by building more roads, and Lebanon is still light years behind it!

by Fareed Abou-Haidar

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)


Created 990503