Private cars for transport vs. public transport: Another aspect of inequality

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Posted on Sep 25 2022 by Viviane Akiki, Journalist 8 minutes read
Private cars for transport vs. public transport: Another aspect of inequality
Since the 1950s, Lebanon has adopted a transport model that promotes the use of private cars, which gradually led to the elimination of public transport systems that had been established during Ottoman and French rule, and to advancing the interests of oil and car importers and property dealers. Despite the inequality in mobility rights created by this model as many people cannot afford cars, whereas car owners have to pay their price in instalments at the expense of meeting their other needs, this model also has negative effects on health, the environment and urban development. However, Lebanon kept this model after the war despite the great need for public transport systems in light of the multiple crises it is currently facing.

Post-war political economy

 

This transport model is closely intertwined with the political economy of Lebanon since its creation. In fact, the pre-war political economy has two main characteristics that contributed to the entrenchment of inequality in society [1] and paved the way for a social explosion, namely 1) excluding the State from playing any role in the organization of society and regulating the economy and curtailing its functions through austerity measures in public spending on infrastructure and projects, including transport projects and 2) freeing the movement of capital, financial flows, goods and trade from any control or regulation at the expense of the growth of the productive sectors and the development of infrastructure.

 

 

After the war, rather of addressing the social and economic causes that provided a fertile ground for them, these two characteristics were maintained to attract financial flows into the local economy and preserve vested interests to the detriment of depriving people of their minimum rights to housing, medical care, education and transport, thus reproducing the same deprivations and inequalities.

 

The train, which remained operational even during the war, even intermittently, depending on the rounds of battles, had its last trip in 1992, and the last shipment of goods in 1994, before it ceased to operate. An integrated network of interests established on its ruins includes land owners, real estate developers, importers of cars, fuel and car spare parts, owners of quarries and cement factories, and contractors, drawn from different sectarian and partisan backgrounds and apportioned among sectarian leaders.

 

Property first

 

The system that collapsed at the end of 2019 rests on the use of property as a tool to attract financial flows from foreigners and expatriates, thus increasing the assets of the banking sector, which in turn reinvested them in lending the money to the political authority, while the latter benefited from them to strengthen its legitimacy through clientelism. In other words, instead of promoting area development, strengthening the productive sectors to create job opportunities and reduce emigration, securing people’s fundamental rights, and developing the infrastructure, all of which pose the main problems that arose in the pre-war economy, the exact opposite occurred, and the same conditions were reproduced to boost the profits and wealth of a handful of people who control money and power.

 

Consequently, and in parallel with the concentration of most economic activities and the population in the center of the country (Beirut and its suburbs), property prices increased. Many mechanisms were also used, including subsidized housing loans, to generate additional demand for them and thereby keep their prices at a high level, and ensure the ongoing functioning of this system. This has prevented the establishment of public transport systems that allow population relocation to empty spaces, and the conduct of productive development or economic projects that lead to the reduction of property prices.

 

This is confirmed by the aerial photographs taken by the Directorate of Geographical Affairs of the Lebanese Army, which show that only 8% of the total area of Lebanon is urban,[2] thus contradicting the common discourse on the scarcity of unbuilt land in Lebanon, used to justify rising property prices. This is fostered by random urbanization and its spread in central Lebanon (Beirut and Mount Lebanon) and in major cities (Sidon, Tripoli and Zahle), where about 89% of the residents live, work and receive education according to statistical data released by the United Nations and the World Bank.[3]

 

The automotive community

 

The lack of public transport systems in Lebanon has increased reliance on private cars. A study conducted in 1970 estimated the distribution of motorized trips in Greater Beirut as follows: 52% by private cars, 9% by buses, and 39% by service cars and taxis.[4] The situation worsened and these figures have kept rising until today. According to the plan put forward by the Lebanese government at the CEDRE conference in 2018, it turned out that 68% of commuting to and from Greater Beirut is done by private passenger cars, while the use of public transport does not exceed 32%, divided between 16% for taxis, 14% for privately operated buses, and 2% for train and public transport buses. [5]

 

Hostages to debts

 

A spectrum of interests have been built up about this reality, most notably those of bank owners and car dealers who have accumulated huge profits as opposed to saddling families and individuals with debts that depleted a large part of their budget. The Central Administration of Statistics estimates that families spend at least 15% of their monthly income on transport.

 

During the 2006-2010 period, considerable funds poured into the country and a financial surplus of 19.5 billion USD was achieved according to the Central Bank. However, the State, rather than intervening to channel these funds towards useful and productive investments and rather than building an advanced infrastructure, left it up to the banks to use them in consumer loans, including car loans increasingly needed in the absence of public systems.

 

At the end of 2020, there were more than 45,000 car loans worth up to 475 million USD, according to the Central Bank, with the largest value registered in 2010 when the number of car loans reached about 118,000 worth 1.6 billion USD. In fact, the cumulative figure and value of car loans is much greater, especially that more than one million cars were imported by Lebanon between 2005 and 2020, according to Lebanese Customs Administration figures, while the value of cars imported between 2011 and 2020 amounted to about 11 billion USD.

 

Distribution of spoils

 

Like the states that adopt the American model based on the use of private cars as the quasi sole means of transport, Lebanon has handled the traffic crisis by widening the old and narrow roads and transforming them into wider roads and highways. Experts in transport and urban development agree that this approach is incorrect, especially that the widening of any road increases the number of cars using it to escape crowded old roads, in addition to fostering real estate development in the form of offices, commercial centers and houses on both sides of the highways, thereby causing further congestion.

 

Despite the cost generated by congested traffic, with annual losses estimated at 2 billion USD by the World Bank, the Lebanese State did not abandon this approach, but rather benefited from it by awarding contracts for building, widening and maintaining roads to its contractors according to the logic of partisan and sectarian division of spoils. Figures from the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) show that public funds spent on building, widening and maintaining roads amounted to about 2.9 billion USD during the 1992-2022 period, bearing in mind that ten contractors divided along regional, sectarian and partisan linesshare about 65% of the total value.

 

Reality... and the future we want

 

Considerable funds have been obviously spent on this model; however much less could have been spent to build a network of public transport systems that connect all areas, ensure equity and availability of transport for all and boost the economy. But the outcome was different, and the lack of such systems has inflicted huge costs on society and caused environmental, health and human losses.

 

In fact, the approach based on the use of private cars has resulted in substantial inequality and manifold misery in Lebanese society. It has depleted families’ budgets, put additional burden on them, and contributed to their migration from villages to the center of the country and major cities or their emigration. It has also contributed to neglecting nature and land use, the failure to utilize the economic advantages of the areas, and the exhaustion of considerable resources poured into the country and spent to accumulate the wealth and profits of a few people. Despite all these losses incurred by society and the resources misspent on this model, people today find themselves unable to commute with the collapse of this system, the deepening economic crisis and the high cost of fuel.

 

Hence, thinking about any solutions should be based on political considerations par excellence, before focusing on the technical aspects. It should examine the form of the state we aspire to and its functions, as well as its economic system and society’s way of life, to avoid the reproduction of new forms that entrench the same misery and inequality.



[1] According to the 1960 national census, 4% of the population received 32% of the gross national income, while 50% of the population received 18% of the gross national product (GNP).

[2] Viviane Akiki, "Only 8% of Lebanon’s Area is Built", Al-Akhbar newspaper, Supplement on Capital, 18/2/2019, available at the following link:https://goo.gl/MKEZCv

[3] Viviane Akiki, “The Grim Future of the City,” Al-Akhbar newspaper, Supplement on Capital, 10/8/2018, available at the following link:https://goo.gl/fDLBxg

[4] Mark Perry, “The Culture of Private Car Dependency in Beirut,” Bidayat magazine, Issue 33, 2021, available at the following link:https://bidayatmag.com/node/1389

[5] Viviane Akiki, "Quick Ways to Make Profit", Al-Akhbar newspaper, Supplement on Capital, 23/4/2018, available at the following link:https://goo.gl/4etkHd

 

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