International experts weigh in

Notes on the Traffic part of the Scoping Report for the Environement Impact study by Elard – by Johnny Ojeil

Here are my comments, having broadly looked at the Traffic Work in the scoping document.

The traffic work completed to date is not sufficient to determine the benefits or not of such a proposal and in particular the work to date is not able to quantify in detail the impact upon adjoining highway networks and junctions.

It appears that they talk about carrying out a micro simulation exercise but no results are evident of this piece of work.

It is important that first at a macro simulation level to be able to identify any routes that could result in:

  • Rerouting of traffic as  a result of these proposals; i.e. other important junctions and link in the network could suffer as a result or benefit;
  • Unrestrained demand needs to be assessed. This implies that with new highways and additional capacity further demand is released that increases trips within an area. This needs to be carefully assessed.

In relation to land uses have they assessed:

  • Full use of BCD Area as currently it is operating from a land use point of view at well below its capacity;
  • Have they taken into account the New Waterfront District approved master plan and its associated land uses thus generated traffic.

The danger here being if unrestrained demand is released and additional land uses are not taken into account the benefits of such a new network will not look as attractive.

More important also these need to be assessed against a do minimum scenario and test carried out at a wider junction and link basis to determine what real benefits exist in terms of;

  • Levels of service;
  • Junction delays;
  • Overall journey times.

Another very important component not taken into account is looking at a comprehensive public transport strategy and its effect on traffic. I estimate that if some 30-40% of traffic is diverted onto a mass transport system like LRT or BRT congestion levels will reduce considerably within Beirut. This has to be aided by an overarching transport policy plan which does not exist to date.

This test has not been carried out as most likely the need for such major infrastructure at a very high cost would not be required and thus monies spent on one stretch of limited highway and possible benefit could be used to the benefit of the city via public transport.

Thus the question of are funds being distributed to the wider benefit of the community is a serious one to ask?. Value for money is an important component and this cannot be neglected in assessments thus a more comprehensive comparison against a fully functional public transport system needs to be carried out. In summary authorities need to look at the wider picture in terms of overall benefits to the community at large.

In my view as and as an expert transport planning professional it is key that authorities look at transport in a multi modal and comprehensive way rather than try and invest into highway dominant measures only and thus in reality all they are helping in is push the problem from one area to another. Lebanon has suffered from  a lack of  a multi modal transport approach and I would consider such expenditure as a waste of public money until a more comprehensive multi modal transport strategy is set in place.

One only has to look at a scenario that if Beirut was currently more secure and economically more prosperous what would traffic congestion levels be at?. Beirut is unique as a city as it relies on no public transport and still encourages more highways to be built. This is not a sustainable way to promote and protect citizens and stakeholders alike and is one that has proven in the west to have failed.

In reality the city needs as comprehensive policy based strategy to be put in place that looks collectively at:

  • Overall policy towards land uses and parking in particular;
  • Traffic management measures that include public transport;
  • Promote a mass public transport system.

When the city is spending millions of dollars on a highway scheme these sort of questions need to be answered.

Johnny Ojeil

Lebanese Director of Arup with international experience in Transport Planning having worked on milti modal based projects in major cities around the world


The Bridge to a Better Beirut, (A 3×3 Proposal) – by Hashim Sarkis

The release of the tender for the proposed Fouad Boutros Bridge Project has inadvertently created a rare chance for the Lebanese public to exercise its democratic rights in a non-sectarian and constructive manner. Civil society has spoken. It is saying three simple things loud and clear: 

1)      The Fouad Boutros Bridge Project is obsolete. It is bad for traffic. It is bad for adjacent property value.

2)      Improving the existing neighborhood is both a need and an opportunity provided by the available property. An alternative project could be found that reconciles growth with conservation.

3)      The success of this alternative project could set a precedent for other neighborhoods in Beirut and in Lebanon especially when it comes to viable conservation and public participation.

There is only one Beirut. Yet Beirut is not unique in the challenges that confront its urban development. Like all living cities, Beirut needs to grow and change, but this should not happen at the expense of the historic city. The experiences of other cities also prove that growth and its management are not incompatible. Cities around the world have been spending fortunes to dismantle similar bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s because they did not solve traffic problems and because they devalued the surrounding property and destroyed the historic fabric. Beirut will be unique when it learns from other cities and generates innovative solutions. This requires careful, inclusive, and innovative thinking. If the city’s leadership only repeats other cities’ mistakes and applies obsolete solutions to old problems, Beirut will only be unique in its ignorance.

The crisis of the Fouad Boutros Bridge Project points to the lack of vision in addressing this tension between growth and the historic fabric of the city. It also points to the absence of mechanisms to review and discuss matters of high relevance to citizens among citizens. In Beirut, like elsewhere, the political debate has clearly moved to arenas like the environment and heritage. These are new public priorities that demand immediate solutions but they also require institutional frameworks for decision-making, debate, and accountability.

The crisis of the bridge also puts the authorities, in this case the municipal council of Beirut and the Council for Development and Reconstruction, in front of a predicament. The fact that the plan has been approved, the funds allocated, and the property expropriated does not make it a legitimate project. The historic houses may have indeed been saved by an accident of circumstance and by delays. They could turn this into an opportunity to preserve them and to find an alternative solution. Such accidental delays have saved many historic districts around the world that are now thriving because of their historical character which may have been undervalued at one point but is now a goldmine. It is precisely because the property is public that the CDR and the Municipality can do something different than the planned bridge as long as it is for the public good. Yes, there may be hurdles but these can be overcome. No doubt, and as the parliamentary representatives and the landowners are saying, the area of Ashrafieh deserves investment in its infrastructure, but not of this kind.

However, the crisis presents the city officials with a truly unique opportunity to provide a progressive vision for their city and a precedent for future projects. The issue is not merely about building or not building the Fouad Boutros Bridge. On this matter, the answer coming from the experts is a resounding no, be they experts in heritage, environment, transportation, or even real estate. The key issue here should be about putting in place a process to engage groups that are directly affected by the project like landlords, merchants and residents. Democratic engagement and a better Beirut go hand in hand.

To get there, the CDR and the Beirut Municipality could start by listening to what the civil society groups who have bravely mobilized against the project are saying. If they listen carefully, they can hear a proposal for a solution made of three points each in three parts.

1.  The Fouad Boutros Bridge Project will not solve the current traffic problems in the area. It is also going to create other problems including the devaluation of adjacent property.

a)      On the issue of traffic, it is time to debunk the long-held belief that the road is the solution to traffic. Roads generate traffic as well. The bridge was meant to facilitate through traffic but in effect, it is going to create more congestion on Alfred Naccache Street and on Charles Helou Bridge. As has been argued repeatedly by transportation engineers, the Alfred Naccache Road is not wide enough to accommodate the flow. It is also a surface road with too many big stores that spill their traffic onto it.

b)      Bridges are also notorious for destroying neighborhoods and streets, generating undesirable spaces under them, and radically degrading surrounding property. Land-owners of adjacent property should go visit areas like Basta, Cola, and Tahweeta to understand the negative impact of such bridges.

c)      Dismantling the two classified houses and then reassembling them over the tunnel is not feasible for a variety of reasons: seismicity, cost, and complexity. It is also not the few classified houses alone that merit conservation but the overall context of Mar Mikhael/Gemmayzeh of which they are an integral part in their present locations.

2. The campaign to stop the bridge includes very carefully worked-out alternatives by local world-class planners and transportation engineers who have volunteered their time to come up with viable solutions that are consistent with the aspirations of Beirut today not in the 1960s. These experts are saying that:

 The land made available for the bridge project provides a rare opportunity to improve the neighborhood without destroying the existing buildings and through a financially viable scheme.

a)      It is possible to find a solution that addresses some of the through-traffic problems without destroying the existing fabric, while providing public amenities for the neighborhood and improving the value of the property. If the city is incapable of substituting public transport for more streets at the larger scale, then it should consider implementing public transport at the local scale. It is economically more feasible. Buses and surface trams are proving to be a major success in small historic cities in Europe. The residents of Gemmayzeh are ideal users of local public transportation.

b)      Some experts and local residents see this land as a sinuous park that provides relief space in this dense neighborhood and provides a much needed unifying and pedestrian “bridge” through the neighborhood. If you create a pedestrian connection, you reduce car use.

c)      The area benefits because of its unique historical character that distinguishes it from other areas in Beirut. This character has clearly attracted the nightlife and the arts scene that have in turn helped increase real estate value in the area. Preservation of the historic fabric of this area would be the key to its economic vitality. Heritage is an economic asset. History is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Let us not chop its neck with a bridge.

Drawing in active citizens from other localities like Sodeco and Geitawi who face a similar fate, the residents of Gemmayzeh/Mar Mikhael are also saying:

3.  The success of this project could set a model for other neighborhoods elsewhere in Beirut and in Lebanon especially in terms of policies for conservation and public participation.

a)      The process of conservation requires both regulation and economic incentives. Legal mechanisms have been developed around the world to bring the two together and they have proven to work. Our legal system is robust and capable of developing such regulations and incentives. Much more complex legislation has been developed for the creation of Solidere so there should be a way, when there is a will.

b)      Regulation includes a more serious reassessment of classification. Classification of historical buildings has proven to make them more vulnerable. The state has been good at making lists but mysteriously its lists keep shrinking. The city needs a more rigorous process that also includes districts, public spaces, and natural sites. It also needs to encourage public debates about what is valuable. The success story of Byblos’s municipality and its integrated parks, pedestrian zones, and other socially inclusive projects proves that heritage extends beyond individual buildings. On the other hand, incentives have to be created in order to make a historic building more valuable than the land that it sits on. Such incentives include, among others, transfer of development rights from historic building sites to neighboring sites, real estate tax exemption for the owners, flexibility with land uses, technical support and subsidy for the restoration works, and linkages with larger development projects.

c)      A plan for Beirut can no longer be uniquely authored by an agency in France, presented to the CDR and then approved by parliament. Creating mechanisms for local review and deliberation of all new plans prior to their implementation has become vital.  A unique plan for Beirut has to also come from the Beirutis themselves. The dedication, professionalism, and passion of the civil society groups, the volunteer experts, and the citizens have been nothing short of superlative. It is time to listen to them. They are the bridge to a better Beirut.

Hashim Sarkis

Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

“Beirut Chooses History over Highway”  – by Hashim Sarkis

It is important to acknowledge the effort of the Beirut municipality to reach out to the public directly and through the media in order to inform Beirutis about the municipality’s intentions and to respond to the criticisms of the civil society groups that are up in arms (peaceful arms) against the Fouad Boutros Axis project. The criticism that they have received, their responses and the criticism to follow (including this one) represent a welcome and healthy direction for urban politics.

Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist no matter how open the municipality is to discussion, no matter how glossy the new bridge images are, no matter how well pruned the ficus trees in the renderings look, and no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project. These problems have been and will continue to be the focus of the debate around the project itself in the media, on the streets, and in the history books yet to be written.

However, the responses heard in the past week reveal a much more serious set of problems that have led to this confrontation. They reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.

First, there is a problem of priorities: Think about it this way. The municipality has more than 70 million dollars, expropriated land, historic buildings, and the authority to address a series of problems. What do you with them? 1) build an axis according to a 1960s plan, 2) use that money creatively to improve on the entrances and exists to major shopping centers, introduce public transportation in the locality, come up with innovative ways of conserving the historical fabric, and enhance the existing public spaces.

During the public presentations, the municipality has acknowledged that it needs to address the problem of public transportation at a later stage. The question is why at a later stage? In the past, President Fouad Shehab, one of our more progressive presidents, in his well intentioned effort to bring development to the mountains and reduce the problem of urban migration, made the mistake of building the roads to the mountains before improving the conditions of living in the mountains and before providing social security to those working in agriculture. As a result the people in the mountains left in higher numbers to the city creating major social problems that many historians link to the eventual civil war. Like the Fouad Boutros Bridge, President Shehab’s road to the hell of civil war was paved with good intentions but he did not have his priorities in the right order.

If we do not want to learn from our past, why not learn from other cities? When Enrique Penalosa, recent mayor of Bogota, was faced with the same choices, he worked with the citizens to turn an existing highway into a park and to dedicate lanes to buses and to bicycles. The result was an urban project that has become the model of other cities in the world to follow.

When traffic became a major problem for London, the city set a limit on how many cares could enter by adding disincentives to drive and increasing spending on public transport. It did not build new roads. These are the examples that Beirut should follow. Beirut deserves a better arrangement of its priorities.

Then there is a problem of representation: In general, a city’s municipality tends to represent the rights of its citizens, the locals, against those of private interest groups like real estate developers and against the negative consequences that national priorities sometimes create, especially for a capital city like Beirut. When faced with a situation like the Fouad Boutros Axis demonstrations, the municipality usually sides with the locals not with a national body like the Council for Development and Reconstruction. When the municipality represents national interests, it means there is something wrong with how it perceives its role. If for the municipality through-traffic is more important than local traffic, then the municipality is more interested in bypassing Ashrafiyeh than in Ashrafiyeh.

Instead of dismissing the visible value of the 30 buildings being destroyed with the justification that only two of them are listed, should not the municipality campaign to list more buildings? Instead of succumbing to the pressure groups from local land owners who wrongly believe that the value of their property is going to skyrocket when the highway is built, should not the municipality be developing mechanisms of property right transfer and other tools that are readily available world wide to protect its heritage not by deterrence but by economic incentives? Why is the municipality taking sides and not seeking innovative solutions that please everybody?

Yes, the municipality must have projects and must have ambitions for the city, but it should not be opposing its citizens. A municipality is where arbitration of differences takes place not where differences are produced. Beirut’s best municipality presidents in its Ottoman period and French mandate were the ones who stood up for its citizens against the foreign rulers even when these presidents were effectively appointed by the rulers. One of the key problems in the Gezi Park uprising in Istanbul is that the mayor of Istanbul took the side of the national authorities not the citizens.

Finally, there is a problem of image: Our image is what the world sees of us and how we also see ourselves. The images that were circulated by the municipality in the past week to represent a kinder and gentler highway approach are very telling of a larger attitude towards the city. Is this the image we want for Beirut? A highway dressed in trees? Between that and the old houses of Gemmayzeh which would you prefer? Does the municipality really want to use the green-wash technique that greedy developers often use to hide the negative impact of their projects against its own citizens?

A real estate developer from Dubai once observed, “In Beirut, you have it easy, you have history everywhere. You can bank on this image to sell your city to the world. In Dubai, we have to invent it from scratch.“ If a real estate developer from Dubai could understand the importance of conserving Beirut’s historic image in order to increase its real estate value why are we trying to make Beirut more like Dubai?

News headlines in the past year have not been very generous towards Beirut’s image. Putting security aside, many reporters have chosen to focus on the city’s growing urban problems. Headlines include: “For a Bike Messenger Beirut May be the Worst City Ever,” and “Beirut : For the Rich Only,” The municipality and the citizens should aspire for a better image, maybe starting with a headline that reads “Beirut Chooses History Over Highway.”

Hashim Sarkis

Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism
Harvard University Graduate School of Design


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