Traffic fills a highway east of Beirut.
To hail a bus ride in Beirut, "make yourself elegantly noticeable." Good luck! Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

The city has lacked regulated public transportation since its civil war.

To ride a bus in Beirut, you have to hail it like a taxi. Drivers pick riders up along routes that have been established informally, based on need. Mapping company Zawarib’s guide of the city’s typical routes advises, “Buses will stop for you at any point...Just make yourself elegantly noticeable!”

Beirut’s public transport wasn’t always this slapdash. Before the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990, trams and buses with dedicated routes were widely used. The war shattered the city, including its formal transit networks. “It changed everything,” said Tammam Nakkash, an engineer who has advocated for public transportation in Beirut for decades. “It wasn’t safe to go from one side of the city to the other.”

In 1994, Nakkash, at the behest of the government, drew up a master plan for Beirut’s public transport that would revive its buses and tramways—and even build a couple of metro lines. But the plan was never realized, and the government instead allowed a taxi free-for-all by granting thousands of new taxi licenses and plates. (While the number of these plates is now limited, drivers forge them, putting more taxis on the road.)

The flood of cabs added to Beirut’s legendary congestion and pollution—though likely not as much as Beirutis’ reliance on private cars. A recent study from the American University of Beirut (AUB) found that around 80 percent of daily trips in the city are made in private cars, and only 2 percent are made in buses. Research shows that the huge number of cars causes a 50 to 70 percent increase in trip times in the metropolitan area.

While the state owns some of Beirut’s buses, the majority are privately owned (drivers own or rent them from individuals), and the models are generally modest microbuses and vans.

A group of students at AUB is developing an app that will make these buses easier to use—and hopefully spur more people to take them. The app, dubbed Yalla Bus (yalla means “let’s go” or “hurry up” in Arabic), uses GPS tracking and data analysis to monitor where buses run and how long they take to get from point A to point B.

With such data, Yalla Bus will give riders the latest information about journeys, and will point them to “virtual bus stops” at which to wait for the next bus. “Since we don’t have actual stops, we are choosing points that will be easily accessible to the user and on the bus’s route,” said Therese Kayrouz, one of the developers.

At the same time, drivers will see where passengers are gathering at said stops, encouraging them to head directly to those locations. “We’ll be progressively reducing the number of seemingly endless stops and raising the predictability of drivers’ behavior,” said Kayrouz.

A potential passenger speaks with a driver of a Beirut bus. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Though Nakkash said the app is “beautifully done,” he’s not optimistic about its impact. “It would be a great part of an organized public transport system—one with already-established schedules, stops, and the like,” he said. “But because of the situation we are in, it’s not likely to help.”  

Yet Yalla Bus is part of a trend in which young Beirutis, aware that their government is unlikely to fix the city’s transportation free-for-all (other than to plan new highways), are trying to effect change from the bottom up. For instance, two residents, Jad Baaklini and Chadi Faraj, founded the Bus Map Project last year, mapping the city’s informal bus routes using GPS data. They created a more reliable resource than had been available before. “Officials sometimes cannot organize certain things, so we fill the gap where the state fails,” Faraj told The Daily Star.

These young people aren’t looking to bring in new, shiny vehicles or start routes from scratch: They believe that the informal networks, while chaotic to the outside observer, actually work pretty well. After all, Beirut’s buses have been transporting the working classes for years without regulation.

The aim is to improve the service for those who need it, and make it more attractive for those who don’t. As Kayrouz said, “We have the buses, we have drivers, we have the routes and a whole system that’s self-organized. We’ll work with the existing sector and make it better.”

As such, Yalla Bus plans to collaborate with a company to ultimately build real bus stops where its virtual stops will be. “There’s a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere,” Kayrouz said.

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