Car Dependency and Culture in Beirut

Effects of an American Transport Paradigm

By Mark Perry

Lebanese American University

Beirut, Lebanon

November 2000

Originally published as: Mark Perry, "Car Dependency and Culture in Beirut: Effects of an American Transport Paradigm," Third World Planning Review (University of Liverpool), Vol. 22, No. 4 (November 2000), pp. 395-409. Reproduced by permission.


    The Automobile and Land Use Patterns in Beirut
    Beirut's Suburban Sprawl
    Cultural Reductionism and the Loss of Public Space
    New Urbanism and the Decline of the American Paradigm
        New Urbanism in a Mediterranean Context
    Alternatives for Beirut
    Expected Results


The privately owned car as a means of mass transportation has had unparalleled negative effects in the last fifty years on cities throughout the world, and perhaps nowhere more so than Beirut. Car dependency in Lebanon drains the national economy of wealth and natural resources, encourages the reduction of the quality and quantity of public social space in cities, creates sprawl and far-flung suburbanization, and destroys culture. It is quickly becoming recognized as a global social and environmental problem. Although car sales and usage continue to grow in many parts of the world, many cities and states, including a number in the Mediterranean region, are realizing that this cannot continue unabated and are attempting to gradually move away from the private car to mass transit systems. The consensus is growing that public transportation is not only an economic and environmental necessity but a means of restoring cultural vitality to urban areas.


Lebanon's urban culture has in great measure followed western patterns before and after the civil war period (1975-90). With regard to transportation, however, its paradigm has been particularly and almost exclusively American, that is, favoring the private automobile over the establishment of public transport systems. Car dependency in the United States involves unsustainable social and economic burdens, including the costs of health problems and accidents, heavy government subsidization of roadway construction and maintenance and of gas consumption, excessive land consumption, environmental pollution, lost labor and productivity due to traffic jams, net reduction of employment opportunities, and higher costs of living (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999; Kay, 1997).

If the negative impact of cars is so powerful in the U.S., where mass car use was born and where resources for the manufacture and use of cars are plentiful, it is much greater in Lebanon, where: land resources are far more limited; a large percentage of the food - 70 per cent (Schneider-Sickert, 1997, 66) - and nondurable consumer goods are imported at great cost; and all automobiles, road-building equipment and materials, and automobile maintenance supplies are imported.

A 1970 study estimated that motorized person trips in Beirut were split as follows: 52 per cent by private car; 9 per cent by bus; and 39 per cent by shared ('service') and unshared taxis.[1] Modal split data in Beirut was not recorded during the period of war in Lebanon and a few years thereafter (i.e. 1975-94). Statistics regarding transportation patterns began only from 1994. Yet it is known that during the war there was no public transportation other than the 'service' (shared) taxis and private taxis, both of which were automobiles seating four passengers. In fact during most of the war period there were virtually no buses in regular operation in the city. In 1994, buses, vans and similar vehicles, public and private, captured at most 1.3 per cent of all person trips in the Beirut metropolitan area. Two recent studies (1998 and 1999) estimated that automobiles constitute 83 per cent and 90 per cent of all passenger trips, respectively, the remainder taken by private and public buses (Meymerie, 1999, 28; Najia, 1995, 53-54; Baaj 1999, 9; Nakkash, 1999, 25).

Cars have become mass consumer goods in Lebanon. From 1974 to 1998 the total number of vehicles in Lebanon rose from 243,584 to 1,554,340, an increase of 538 per cent. Private cars were 88 per cent and 84 per cent of these figures, respectively. In 1997 there were 300 private passenger cars per one thousand people in Lebanon, a ratio almost equaling that of Denmark (World Bank, 1999, 164-66).[2] Commercial investment in cars as a mass transportation system in Lebanon, including importation of vehicles, replacement parts, fuel and related costs, was in 1995 estimated to be $825 million, which was 7.4 per cent of the GDP. Consistently since the end of the war period private cars have constituted 10 per cent of total imports to Lebanon. In 1997 and 1998 car imports cost $744 million and $683 million, respectively. The number of private cars in the period 1984 to 1996 increased on average by about 60,000 per year, and in 1998 over 86,000 new and used cars were imported. The average Lebanese household spends 13.85 per cent of its income on cars (Iskandar, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999; World Bank, 1996; Investor's Guide, 1997; Daily Star, 1999a-c). By way of comparison, in 1952-53 the annual percentage of family income spent on transportation can been estimated as roughly 4 per cent (Churchill, 1954, 4, 24, 26). Congestion on roads was estimated to cost Lebanon $2000 million per year in 1997 (approximately 15 per cent of GDP). Traffic accidents in Lebanon were estimated in a 1995 study to cost the national economy about 0.89 per cent of its GDP (Darwish and Timberlake, 1999, 67; Abou Raad, 1999, 84).[3]

Clearly the economic losses in the U.S. due to the mass use of the automobile are magnified in Lebanon. As an importer of cars and their accompaniments, Lebanon pays for its car dependency with an unsustainable cash flow abroad (Salvucci, 1999a, 21; 1999b, 137). Beyond loss of foreign exchange, Lebanon's natural and social capital in the form of limited urban and rural resources is steadily being sacrificed to feed the car culture habit. The paradoxical result is the cultural and economic impoverishment of an inherently rich land.

The Automobile and Land Use Patterns in Beirut

The most pressing economic, environmental and cultural consequences of mass automobile use in Beirut, where, due to war-driven centralization, land is at a premium, is the transformation of the urban and suburban landscape so as to accommodate traffic flow and parking. To understand this loss we must compare the land needs of the automobile with other modes of transportation and urban uses. While a pedestrian uses 1.5 square meters standing and 3 square meters walking, a car requires on average 91 square meters standing, taking into account all passageways necessary for access to parking spaces, and 914 square meters while moving at 48 kph (Kay, 1997, 67).

In the United States after World War Two, land became consumed by the car at four times the rate required by a bus, and twenty times the rate required by a railroad. Highways, roads, parking and all other car-related infrastructure consume nearly half the land of American cities (Kay, 1997, 130, 226). Since 1980 Lebanon has lost to unregulated urbanization some 7 per cent of its cultivated land and 15 per cent of its irrigated land. Most of this development has occurred in the suburbs of Beirut and the other coastal cities (Masri, 1999, 120). In adopting the American paradigm, Beirut and many of its sister Mediterranean cities are less bearing the appearance of their traditional combination of urban beauty and agricultural wealth, and more resembling American cityscapes servicing and storing automobiles. If anything, the situation in the Mediterranean cities is worse, for these, unlike most of their American counterparts, evolved organically for the sake of pedestrians and slow vehicles within a deliberately small area, lacking the cartesian grid of straight, broad boulevards typical of America.

Beirut's public tramway lines were eliminated in the 1960s to allow automobiles greater freedom of movement. Pedestrian amenities - sidewalks, benches, parks, lighting - have become scarce or disappeared in order to accommodate parking spaces and wider streets. Yet in every major commercial district of Beirut parking availability continues to decline rapidly with the annual increase in imported vehicles.[4] Expansion of underground parking facilities, far from solving the problem, will only exacerbate street congestion. The city is severely taxing itself by taking land out of use for productive commercial or cultural activity in order to permit vehicular movement and parking. The urban land becomes dead space, like a garage, available neither for cultural uses nor for commerce. Such a no-man's land is the antithesis of the purpose and genesis of the city itself.

Beirut's Suburban Sprawl

The car's devastation of productive urban spaces has not been confined to within Beirut's city limits. As the number of cars increases beyond practicality businesses are fleeing the city's central commercial districts and re-establishing themselves in suburbs with an abundance of relatively inexpensive land for mass parking - a pattern of collapsing urban centers first experienced in the United States. New malls and 'hypermarkets' have been established in Dbayyeh, Khaldeh, Jnah and Hazmieh, with more planned and under construction. This 'ad hoc' and 'rampant' development, made possible by weak zoning laws that, since the end of the war, have been 'by-passed or ignored', is in sharp contrast with green planning policies elsewhere.[5] A noteworthy example is that in the mid-1990s the United Kingdom banned all further construction of shopping malls outside urban centers in order to halt the spreading consumption of rural land (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999, 55).

Noise, congestion and pollution have motivated residents to seek suburban housing. The fundamental priority of suburban housing is convenient vehicle access and parking; therefore the first infrastructure to be built is typically a paved road. Apartment buildings then suddenly spring up alongside it. The first access road functions as a feeder to a newer secondary road, and so on.

Historically cities arose organically around a unifying center - a place of worship, market, source of fresh water, harbor or train station - and people and institutions clustered together in such a way as to facilitate human interaction, mutual assistance, and community. Suburban developers in Lebanon and elsewhere, however, following the American suburban paradigm, for the most part deliberately avoid creating town centers so as not to reproduce the problems of the automobile-congested city. The suburban dream in Lebanon is thus above all a life of easy parking and driving. It is a dream satisfying the needs of the family car, not the family itself, nor the cultural needs of the Lebanese community as a whole. In the absence of suburban public transportation, the family car quickly becomes multiplied into a fleet of cars to allow each family member mobility, thus increasing demand for imported vehicles.

The consequences have been dire. Without local town centers, Beirut's suburbanites, like their American counterparts, require cars for every purpose of daily life, the satisfaction of which is no longer within walking distance but typically miles away. The auto-driven development in and around Beirut is a vast extension of what James Kunstler (1994) calls 'nowhere', places without cultural value or identity that discourage social interaction and rapidly destroy the natural environment.

Cultural Reductionism and the Loss of Public Space

Since the dawn of the automobile age architecture has experienced a tremendous reduction of artistic quality in Beirut and other Mediterranean cities. Typical pre-auto-age buildings were designed to attract the pedestrian and offer artistic expressions to citizens. Building facades were ornamented with carved stonework and decorative brickwork. Entranceways were clearly identified by welcoming pillars or other features that expressed symmetry and openness to the public. Sidewalks, benches, greenery, ornamented lighting, lines of shade trees, fountains and gardens - all these encouraged the population to enjoy the urban center, to meet and exchange ideas, and to engage in commerce and collective enterprises, the essence of urban life. A distinguished example of this rich style is the reconstructed Beirut Central District. The BCD project has, out of the rubble of the recent civil wars, renovated many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, and in the process resurrected a treasure of architectural detail. The project is based on painstaking craftsmanship, including delicate stonework and window-framing, and the fabrication and installation of copies of the original turn-of-the-century street lamps.

But by the 1970s nearly all of these attractive features had disappeared from the rest of Beirut.[6] In the wake of a powerful economic boom[7] arose buildings that for the most part lack any significant aesthetic value. Many buildings are, in the words of one prominent Lebanese architect, 'ill-conceived concrete structural boxes'; they set new standards that, echoing and perhaps distorting the Bauhaus school, positively rejected artistry in design in favor of commercial expedience, 'the vulgarization of so-called architectural postmodernism' (Tabet, 1998, 104).

Proof of this reductionism can be seen in any series of photographs of Martyrs' Square, the traditional center of Beirut, from the late 1800s to the 1970s (see, for example, Debbas, 1986, 68-77; Jidejian, 1973, 245-46). Originally a beautiful public space centered on an elaborate garden and surrounded by handsome buildings set to a human and pedestrian scale, by the early 1970s all the buildings on the square had been replaced by high-rises bereft of any architectural distinction, the skyline was dominated by crass neon signs, and the garden had long been obliterated in order to make way for the symbol of post-World War Two Western life: a parking lot. The square had become swamped by a great tide of automobiles, a tide imposing its own cultural logic.

This cultural blight spread across Beirut. By the mid-twentieth century nearly all new construction was in the anonymous stylelessness now dominating the city. Many streetscapes in the city are not easily recognizable by sight alone because of their great similarity; moreover, they cannot be identified as part of Lebanon or the Middle East, as they do not reflect the culture, artistry and spirit of Lebanese society. Normally we tend to think that such a cultural loss must naturally be due to a loss of material resources with which to maintain the city's beauty. The paradox is that as Beirut became more and more an architectural wasteland it became more and more wealthy. The means existed, yet the standards of urban life had been revised such that wealth remained for private consumption, and the tradition of beautifying public spaces faded.

Much of this change was due to the conjunction of several factors: the advent of concrete as a more malleable construction material, enabling the great expansion of building size and height; the emergence of economic forces driving up the value of Beirut real estate; and the absence of a cadre of trained architects large enough to handle the demand generated by the building boom (Ghosn, 1970). But these factors still leave unexplained the waning of artistry in urban design and life, and the collapse of the ages-old vernacular architectural style of Lebanon.

Jane Holtz Kay (1997, 71-73) argues convincingly that this loss of artistry and the bankrupting of public life is in large part the direct result of the rise of car dependency in urban society. As automobiles became more affordable, the pedestrian gradually left the sidewalks to travel through the city by car, a means of conveyance that reinforced his or her sense of alienation from the urban environment. Architects and urban planners realized the era of the pedestrian had ended, and thus the ornamentation of public buildings and spaces ceased. The citizen transferred his or her admiring attentions from the cityscape to his or her primary investments, the automobile and the residence, which represented not only material investments in the improvement of the quality of private life but also personal worth and public self-image. Whereas in the past a city's denizens would identify themselves with its beauty and culture, now they identify themselves with private possessions.

New Urbanism and the Decline of the American Paradigm

The cultural impoverishment of modern cities has led to a new international paradigm in architecture and urban planning: New Urbanism (Calthorpe, 1993; Jacobs, 1993; Katz, 1994; Krier, 1998). New Urbanists apply the paradigm in diverse ways, but they all believe that urban car dependency must cease, and the urban environment must be scaled to human life rather than to machines.

Some New Urbanists do not object to private car use; they design residential and work spaces to accommodate it, yet encourage a balance with public transportation, bicycling and walking. This is important with regard to Lebanon because it is likely that any transport paradigm shift in the country will require a time of transition in which cars will still be relied upon. Portland, Oregon, has instituted a free public transit system that covers the central business district of the city and pays for itself by the excellent sales and reliable tax revenues generated by the strong customer inflow (Kay, 1997, 320; Newman and Kenworthy, 1999, 228-30). Hasselt, Belgium, also has established free central buses, and the project has been successful on several fronts. The city, which had been dying economically, saw an 800 per cent rise in bus ridership, the attraction and retention of new businesses to the downtown, the reduction of city taxes and debt due to increased consumer spending and employment, the return of the city's population to a healthy level, fewer accidents, lower traffic speeds, and lower car dependency. Sixteen per cent of Hasselt bus passengers 'would have made their trip in the car previously.'[8] In both Portland and Hasselt, cars have not been eliminated, but an economically viable alternative - free public transportation - has proved not only preferred by residents but also financially successful.

Efforts to reduce car dependency have also proved effective in the developing world. Progressive transport policies have earned Curitiba, Brazil, world-wide acclaim. The city saved so much money by instituting a relatively inexpensive yet highly efficient and attractive public bus system that it returned wealth to the public in the form of a new opera house and other civic buildings (Kay, 1997; Newman and Kenworthy, 1999).

Other New Urbanists prefer to eliminate automobiles completely, creating 'car-free' urban landscapes. In many old cities of Europe, governments, backed by enthusiastic popular support, have permanently closed historic city centers to automobile traffic, leaving streets safe for pedestrians, bicyclists, children, shoppers and café-goers. The trend is spreading rapidly. The English city of Birmingham recently declared one quarter of its city center car-free, and intends to devote another 20 per cent solely to pedestrians in the near future. Many cities are beginning to follow the example of Paris, which has instituted an annual car-free day that has generated such popularity as to lead to serious considerations of expanding the program. Beginning February 2000 several Italian cities instituted regular monthly car-free days.[9] The long tide of destruction of public space by the private automobile is clearly beginning to turn.

New Urbanism in a Mediterranean Context

Some Mediterranean cities have defended their culture and architecture despite pressures to adopt the car-oriented lifestyle and economy. Indeed, the largest car-free city in the world is a Mediterranean city: Venice.[10] Venetians enjoy an urban freedom which has long since disappeared in most other major cities. They regularly encounter each other in public space that is free of car-generated noise, pollution, traffic, and chaos. The street in Venice shares the intimacy of private space and the free access of public space in a way that unites the city holistically. Playgrounds, squares, fountains, cafés and restaurants are immediately accessible. The close proximity of public and private spaces emphasizes the reality that urban culture centers on the sharing of human life. The heart of Venice is not the automobile and its demands but the human being and cultural expressions. The city is not a vast garage but an all-embracing home; not a network of noplaces but a rich treasure of human expression filled with meanings for present and future generations; not a lost city buried under the burdens of an inappropriate, massive transportation technology, but a living landscape. The failure of urban life the world over in the late twentieth century has been so profound that we can scarcely imagine such a city could still exist. Yet despite the ravages of time, sea and ever-new environmental circumstances, Venice remains a convincing testament not only to the possibilities of urban culture on the Mediterranean but to the reality of humanity's social and cultural needs.

Istanbul is perhaps the best example of the advances and setbacks of Mediterranean cities addressing car dependency. Much like Beirut, Istanbul is ideally situated at the juncture between East and West, is endowed with a renowned panorama, and will likely become one of the most culturally and economically influential cities. Yet it is struggling to free itself from a morass of urban problems, many of which are directly related to ever more serious traffic congestion threatening its vital tourist industry and its role as an international business center. Therefore, Istanbul's citizens are vigorously applying alternative transport solutions. The city offers a combination of transport systems that is rarely seen in the world and is perhaps unique in the Mediterranean region. Taksim, the major hotel district, is centered on Istiklal Caddesi, a long car-free thoroughfare lined with well preserved, richly decorated buildings dating from the nineteenth century, and traveled by foot or by a picturesque, original and popular electric tramway dating from the early twentieth century. The city opened a new light rail system in 1994 running from the airport eastward to the edge of the old city, and which eventually will cross the Golden Horn to the northern suburbs. An older light tramway traverses the heart of the old city. Conventional ferries serve all the major harbors of the city. High speed catamaran ferries, 'Sea Buses', with interiors and service comparable to airlines, carry passengers on the longer routes between city harbors and beyond at about 40 knots (70 kph). Extensive bus systems, shared taxis and private taxis round out the rich choice of transportation alternatives (Istanbul, 1997, 102, 233).

Conscious of the religious, historical and touristic value of the city's older quarters, and preserving architectural gems and their urban environment from the reductionist trend caused by car dependency, Venice and Istanbul are successfully interpreting New Urbanism in a Mediterranean context.

New Urbanism has become applied in a number of outstanding renovation and recovery projects in Beirut. Foremost is the Beirut Central District. Its planners have specified that a number of key pedestrian locations in the heart of the district will be car-free (Gavin and Maluf, 1996). Already the BCD has hosted highly successful antiques shows which, even before the project's completion, have demonstrated the popularity of the car-free urban setting.[11]

Lebanon even has its own car-free town: the old city of Sidon (Saida). Sidon's original narrow alleyways were laid out according to a medieval pattern of urban life, where security and defense from outsiders was of paramount importance, and there was little need to move faster than a walking pace. Traditions and family preferences led to its preservation. Of utmost significance is that today the residents and property owners in old Sidon are fast becoming conscious of the historic and cultural treasure in their hands (Haddad,1999). Houses and shops centuries old are being restored with attention to historical detail. In the process, each property's value is magnified many times, inasmuch as it becomes a part of a living urban museum. Several mosques have already been completely restored, serving as 'anchors' setting the example for the rest of the renovation work in the community.

Alternatives for Beirut

Beirut can take advantage of the failures and successes of other cities on the Mediterranean and elsewhere to maximize the economic efficiency of its transportation budget and move quickly to long-term solutions that will be a sure foundation for prosperity and rich cultural life.

Nations are becoming conscious of the inevitable and fast-approaching limit to the mass use of private cars. The phenomenon of 'generated traffic' is convincing evidence of the need for alternatives (Kay, 1997, 15-16; Newman and Kenworthy, 1999, 52-59). For decades the United States, and many other countries following its example, believed that the solution to traffic congestion was to replace the old, narrow roads with wide, straight boulevards and highways that permit cars to move with maximum efficiency. Seemingly logical, this approach soon proved faulty, for the more highways were made available the more traffic was generated due to a number of related causes. A new highway encourages drivers to use it more frequently because they are convinced that it saves them time, and thus provides more time to travel. A second and more subtle cause is that people other than drivers find good use in a new highway, namely real estate developers. As Newman and Kenworthy (1999, 54) note, a highway facilitates the sprawling development of the lands bordering it for residential and commercial purposes; more housing and malls along the highway mean more people driving.

    It is not hard to understand how improving the urban environment rather than building roads leads to a better economy. Road construction leads to dispersal of land uses and, together with the greater road capacity, facilitates a rapid growth in car use. The resulting congestion sets up a never-ending spiral in demand for road space. As Phil Goodwin of London University's Transport Studies Unit says, '... to try and build our way out of congestion is impossible, since the rate at which traffic levels are likely to increase will far outpace any realistic construction programme' ... But even before the limits to construction are met, the city will have experienced significant reductions in the quality of its urban environment, reductions that today translate directly into decreased economic performance.
Clearly, in the long run highways can never solve a problem of which they are a fundamental cause, as has been found by experience in the United States, England, Istanbul and elsewhere.

An international consensus is forming in favor of a new paradigm arguing that the best form of public transport in urban areas is railroads (Hass-Klau, 2000; Kenworthy and Laube, 2000 and 20001). Even in cities of developing countries in the Mediterranean region interest is growing in light rail systems; besides Istanbul, a number of other Mediterranean cities have proposed or established rail transport systems, including Casablanca, Rabat, Tunis and, most notably, Cairo (Lowe, 1993, 129, 131).

Rail transit systems surpass any other form of mass ground transport in reliability, speed, safety and comfort. They are very rarely affected by weather, whereas rain and snow routinely cause major disruptions on highways. In Europe they typically run according to a precise, dependable schedule, which is a convenience to passengers and a necessity for business requiring the accurate and timely delivery of goods.

Among the cheapest form of ground transport in the world, rail transport is highly appropriate for developing nations. In addition to savings generated by superior reliability, savings are obtained in energy consumption. Intercity trains consume one third the energy used by an airplane and one sixth that of a car carrying one passenger. Freight is transported by rail for one eighth the energy cost of truck transport. Electrified train systems greatly reduce dependence on oil (Lowe, 1993; Newman and Kenworthy, 1999, 76, 78). Further savings are obtained in reduced land consumption, congestion at airports and seaports and on highways, and air pollution.

The consumption of land by railroads is extremely efficient with respect to the environment and the economy. The capacity of a 16-lane highway (122 meters) is more than matched by a railway only two tracks wide (15 meters). More significantly, railroads and tramways serve to consolidate communities around train stations and stops, preventing sprawl (Kay, 1997; Lowe, 1993; Newman and Kenworthy, 1999, 154-62) .

In 1993 passenger rail travel was 18 times safer than car travel in the U.S.; 29 times safer in the Netherlands and former West Germany; and 80 times safer in France (Lowe, 1993). The safety record of Japan's Shinkansen network, running with no passenger fatalities since 1964 at increasing speeds and with ever higher passenger loads, is unmatched by any transport system (Vranich, 1991).[12]

While trains would solve the transport problems between Lebanon's coastal cities, a light rail system would benefit travel within Beirut proper. Tramways were the backbone of Beirut's public transportation system until the 1960s, when they were abolished in favor of buses (Singh-Bartlett, 1999). Today, as in Istanbul, half of all cities in Western Europe of 600,000 people or more rely on tramways for fast, efficient, quiet, safe and non-polluting mass transportation through narrow streets and awkward turns, without taking up great swaths of land and obliterating cherished urban architecture (Lowe, 1993, 130-31; Kenworthy and Laube, 2001; Hass-Klau et al., 2000).

An alternative very similar to tramways, and perhaps simpler in the short run, is electric buses. A new technology, these vehicles have proven themselves in a number of ways. Since the early 1990s they have been running with great success in five U.S. cities. They are nearly silent, are odorless, and are lighter and faster than gas-powered buses. They also cost less than conventional buses; while construction costs are equal, maintenance costs of the electric bus are about half those of standard buses, and operating costs are 6 cents per mile for electric-, and 16 cents per mile for gas-powered buses (Lerner, 1997, 183-85; ETVI).

Significantly, Los Angeles, like Beirut, originally had an excellent tramway system; indeed it was one of the best in the world. By the mid-1930s, however, the system had been purchased by private interests, dismantled, and replaced by noisy, slow and smelly diesel-powered buses, which led the population to buy private cars as the only satisfactory alternative. Now, some 60 years later, Los Angeles is gradually returning to tramways and subways as the best solution in a city choking on traffic congestion and air pollution, further confirmation of the decline of the American car dependency paradigm (Lowe, 1993, 126, 130).

Expected Results

The transfer from one form of mass transportation that Beirut cannot afford to another that is highly efficient and economical could realize in the national treasury a tremendous savings - roughly 20 per cent of the GDP (see figures cited on p. 5), when environmental, efficiency, and health factors are taken into account along with import costs. Such savings would not only provide the capital to pay for a rail transport system, but would free much needed resources for development beyond the transportation sector.

Railways and related transport alternatives foster prosperity and cultural growth in a systemic fashion. Modern light rail transit systems actually raise the value of adjacent land (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999,154-62). Land is no longer wasted in highway construction; more becomes available for housing and agriculture, reducing pressures on housing prices and increasing food supplies. Air and water pollution become greatly reduced, in turn strengthening public health, family life, health care systems, and tourism. The city recovers a sense of architectural beauty and expands green spaces. Parking lots and other dead urban spaces fade and are replaced by opportunities to build public amenities expressing urban culture: sidewalk cafés, open air markets, formal and informal gardens, promenades, amphitheaters, concert halls and museums. The citizen begins to regain the attention of urban designers and architects. The urban population becomes a vast audience for artistic works that stimulate pride, engage the imagination, foster social interaction, and create a spirit of unity. Newman and Kenworthy (1999) have documented these aspects of public transport-based cultural and economic revival in cities as diverse as Curitiba, Portland (Oregon), Singapore and Perth, to name only a small representative sample. Fleeting glimpses of such a revival have already been revealed in the Beirut Central District's car-free street fairs, social occasions expressing nothing less than a people's recognition of their own value and identity.

Following the Sofrerail study, the Lebanese government has continued researching the possibility of reviving Lebanon's rail system between Jounieh and Jiyeh. In October 1999 it was announced that the U.S. Trade and Development Agency had granted Lebanon's Ministry of Transport $625,000 to conduct a six-month feasibility study on the issue. This development suggests that consciousness of the importance of alternatives to private vehicles is gaining ground at the highest levels (Darrous, 1999).

Beyond the life of Beirut itself, rail-based transport will restore to the city affordable and efficient connections to neighboring cities on the Mediterranean and beyond. Like no other mode of transport - not even the airplane - the railway makes comfortable long-distance travel affordable to average people. Beirut's wealth and cosmopolitan character, like any great city, derive from its intimate relationship with other lands. Diversity of ideas, cultures and commerce generates the creativity and broad imagination of the city, and prevents social and cultural routine.

The point of New Urbanist alternatives to the American car-based paradigm of urban life is not to force the individual to adopt a way of living contrary to his or her preference. Rather it is simply to present a choice, and to allow the individual to select whichever he prefers whenever he chooses. Cars probably will not disappear overnight, and need not. The recovery of Beirut's urban culture does not demand the end of cars per se but the end of car dependency through consciousness of advantages to be gained.


[1] Personal communication from Tammam Nakkash dated 14 November 2000.

[2] Upper middle income countries, in which Lebanon is grouped, average 119 passenger cars per one thousand people. The average for the Middle East and North Africa is 40 cars.

[3] Health problems in Lebanon from high blood lead levels alone are estimated to cost the society $118 million annually (El-Fadel and Hashisho, 1999, 86).

[4] ‘The current parking space deficit is estimated at 60,000 (based on detailed analysis if it continues to be provided at the current prices and free at the curb). Even with strict application of the current building laws and a sizeable shift by 2015 to public transit, this deficit will not drop by more than 10%’ (Nakkash, 1999, 31).

[5] ‘Social Aspects of Sustainable Development in Lebanon’, at, viewed 7 November 2000.)

[6] The most prominent exception is the campus of the American University of Beirut. In general, college and university campuses tend to be the last bastions of harmony between culture, society and environment, and could well serve as models for revising development strategies.

[7] The phenomenal growth of Lebanon’s economy from 1950 to 1973, known in some circles as the ‘Lebanese Miracle’, is discussed in Murray (1974, 85-88).

[8] NRC Handelsblad, ‘Hasselt rijdt gratis met de bus, uit geldgebrek’, 16 September 1998, cited in Carfree Times, viewed 18 January 2000; 'The Transport Policy of Hasselt’, viewed 13 November 2000.

[9] ‘A Mouse and Other Naturalists Reclaim Paris’, Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 1999, viewed 18 January 2000; ‘Italian Cities Declare Sunday a Carless Day’, International Herald Tribune, 17 January 2000, p. 2. See also the comprehensive web site, Car Free Day Consortium.

[10] See ‘Venice’, at, viewed 14 March 2000.

[11] Several other Lebanese cities are in some way involved with New Urbanist projects. A plan to revitalize the old district of Jounieh foresees the central avenue as partially or wholly car-free. In neighboring Zouk Mikhail, the historically preserved old Souk (market) is centered on a street closed to auto traffic.

[12] More recent Shinkansen safety information is available at Viewed 15 March 2000.


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