BEIRUT – Faced with fuel shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, dozens of Lebanese drivers stranded outside petrol stations on Mar Mikhael Street anxiously wait to refuel their vehicles – a situation echoing the “queues of expectation of humiliation” last summer. Due to the fuel shortage, many Lebanese have turned to bicycles, a cheaper and more environmentally friendly means of transport.
Ramzi Alieh, a young Lebanese architect, uses his bicycle to cross Beirut.
“I immediately started cycling in Beirut…when the fuel crisis hit Lebanon. Thanks to this mode of transport, I was much less affected by the shortage,” Alieh told Al-Monitor.
“Now, with the war in Ukraine, mobility is becoming a problem again. As I’m already used to cycling, I don’t have to worry about queues, rising fuel prices or expensive repairs,” he said.
In the space of a few months, the price of oil has increased drastically in Lebanon. While the price of diesel was 30,000 Lebanese pounds last June, it increased by 1,667% to 500,000 Lebanese pounds in April, almost the entire monthly salary of a Lebanese worker. For many, this increase in fuel costs has added another burden to an already difficult daily life, said economist Patrick Mardini, director of the Lebanese Institute for Market Research.
“The war in Ukraine has led to an increase in fuel prices around the world. As a result, the price of transport and fuel will become even more expensive in Lebanon,” Mardini told Al-Monitor. “People who depend on their personal car will not be able to get to work or travel around the country. It is essential to find alternative solutions.”
As a result, bikes have slowly made their way onto the streets of Lebanon. Elena Hadar, one of the founders of The Chain Effect, a non-governmental organization that promotes cycling as a sustainable and convenient form of urban mobility, has noticed an increase in the number of people contacting her for information about cycling. Natheer Halawani, an electrical engineer who was elected cycling mayor of Tripoli, has also seen an increase in cycling.
“With the war in Ukraine, I see a strong increase in cycling in the city. For example, this weekend I was in the main square of Tripoli, and in just 10 minutes I saw around 100 people using their bicycles to get around the city,” he told Al -Monitor. “Many more people use bicycles today and anticipate the transport problem. They know fuel will be an issue in the coming weeks and prefer to get used to the bike before that happens.”
If the bicycle represents an economic alternative accessible to a large part of the population, its use also allows a less congested Beirut, which experiences a high traffic rate with more than 700,000 cars entering the city every day. In addition to creating monstrous traffic jams, this situation produces a high level of pollution, with the country having a rate of CO2 emissions from transport 1.4 times higher than the world average.
Thanks to the bicycle, The Chain Effect began to reclaim more and more public space through street art.
Halawani has set up a bicycle delivery service which is quickly becoming a success. “When we started the new year, we had one order per week for our bike delivery. Now we have an order every 10 minutes. …,” Halawani said.
However, institutional barriers remain high, and those with the legal power to implement real change lack the political will. In 2019, the municipality of Beirut announced the establishment of 16 kilometers of cycle paths in the capital. Today, despite the approval of the Ministry of the Environment and pressure from civil society, the project has still not been implemented.
“Six months ago, I tried to re-engage with this project, and I asked them to try to do something affordable, to choose certain sections where tactical urban planning can be done. The governor has accepted and the head of engineering at Balladieh also gave his approval,” Hadar, co-founder of The Chain Effects, told Al-Monitor.
“But after six months of bureaucratic procedures, logistics and discussions, nothing was done because of the inefficient and blocking system. Even if you want to implement changes, the institution prevents it,” she added.
The bicycle in Lebanon has become much more than a simple means of transport; it is also a question of political freedom, freedom of mobility and connection between people. As such, the use of bicycles, particularly in Beirut, is also described as a form of political resistance to a post-civil war urbanism that partitions neighborhoods and accentuates community dynamics.
“There is a desire on the part of local authorities to maintain the segregation of neighborhoods in Beirut. One of the ways to achieve this was to cut off neighborhoods with highways and prevent Beirut from having any kind of public spaces and transportation,” Alieh said. “Cycling through the streets of Beirut is a way to break down the barriers imposed on us, to discover and interact with my city as I wish.”