Tuesday, June 1, 2010

From the Middle East

(Originally written April 25, 2010)

It's been a busy few weeks in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel! I wasn't there to study transit or development patterns, but there's no escaping the topic once you get into the habit of thinking about it. So here are a few reflections...


After a week in Lebanon, you can be sure I came up with some great ideas to improve their transportation - but of course, they're probably worth very little in the economic and political realities of 21st century Lebanon!

Lebanon is a prosperous little country, a mini-California in its climate and geography. During the long civil war in the 1980s and '90s, many Lebanese citizens fled to other countries (especially the Persian Gulf), where they worked hard and sent home lots of money. For the most part, this was invested wisely in buildings and infrastructure, so even though Beirut and several other Lebanese cities were bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces in 2006, there are very few scars left in busy Beirut. But it would not make much sense for Lebanon to invest heavily in infrastructure until the situation in the Middle East stabilizes and the Lebanese central government is able to assert its authority over the entire country.

Even if politics and international relations weren't tremendous factors, geography would be a big challenge for Lebanon's transportation structure. Most of Lebanon's population lives in a narrow strip of land running north to south along the Mediterranean Sea, hemmed in by mountains that, in places, actually jut out into the sea. Far from being a solid rampart, though, the mountains are riven by steep valleys that run mostly at right angles to the coast.

For some reason, there is very little public transportation in Lebanon. What few buses I saw were weary-looking 20-25 passenger affairs, apparently still in their gray primer paint; mainly Toyota Coasters. But as I mentioned, Lebanon has prospered, and most people seem to own a vehicle of their own. Some are certainly run-down and battered, but there are surprising numbers of new Mercedes and BMWs zooming around. US-brand cars are pretty few and far between, with Japan, Korea, and Germany the main providers, though the French have a solid foothold, and even the Chinese have a small toehold. The result of all this is traffic that makes I-94 at rush hour look like a picnic. It doesn't help that the Arab way of driving is very different from ours, resulting in some pretty hair-raising experiences until you realize that there's a system. Very few accidents actually happen, but it takes a long time to get anywhere, and there are no realistic options besides a car of your own, or a taxi. (I'm so glad I didn't try to rent a car.)

Most of the traffic is concentrated in the coastal zone, which has an expressway reminiscent of I-5 through Seattle or Portland. This is the western backbone of the country, which needs a robust public transportation axis on which to hang a multitude of east-west feeder lines. In effect, that's what the road system does now, but its capacity is inadequate, especially in the Beirut metro area. What a shame the coastal railroad was torn up 20-30 years ago - the capacity of rail is badly needed now. A moderate-speed railway along the coast would be ideal, topping out at 120 kh/h or about 85 mph - no need for a bullet train in this small country. It would need to be at least double-track all the way from north to south, with a 4-track main for local commuter service in the Beirut area.

The main part of the capital juts out on a peninsula into the Mediterranean, and a crescent-shaped rail loop following the coast to the downtown areas would work nicely. But there is a large urban area in a valley extending east from the coastal region. I'd vote for a busway along the east-west expressway into the city as the spine for this area.

In fact, all the east-west lines are ideal for buses. Many of the valleys are very steep-sided - canyons, really - so the settlements are often on the hilly ridges rather than in the valley-bottoms. As a result, the roads leading up from the coast are extremely steep and winding, quite unsuitable for rail, although in some places cable cars or funicular railways might meet short-distance transportation needs. Probably the ideal solution would be trolley buses for towns closer to the coast, and diesel buses for the more distant ones.

Electric buses offer several advantages over diesel in this environment. For one thing, the air is quite polluted in the densely-populated city, and zero-emission vehicles would be a great help. Lebanon generates quite a respectable percentage of its electricity through hydro-electric generating stations, so the pollution wouldn't simply be moved elsewhere. The rapid acceleration of electric vehicles is very valuable on steep hillsides, as you know if you've ridden trolley buses in San Francisco or Seattle. The ability to regenerate electric power while braking on down-slopes could save a considerable amount of energy - not quite enough to power the up-hill vehicles, but enough to help a great deal. Of course, the initial investment is high, but in a relatively prosperous, small, densely-populated metropolitan area like Beirut, it would not be an insuperable obstacle.

Unfortunately, the real obstacle is not so much financial as political. The deep, long-standing distrust between members of the different ethnic and religious groups in Lebanon pose a threat that would make it difficult for investors to justify long-term improvements in infrastructure. What a shame - Lebanon is a beautiful country with tremendous potential for success.

Amman, Jordan

I didn't spend enough time in Amman to make any meaningful observations, except that there are a lot of buses, large and small. Amman was the capital of the ancient Ammonites, mentioned several times in the Old Testament, and like most ancient cities, Amman's streets aren't laid out in anything resembling a grid. However, expressways have been built linking the neighborhoods together, tunneling through some hills and bridging deep gullies where necessary. This is a city where buses make sense, though electric (trolley) buses would be preferable to diesel buses if the capital investment weren't so high. I'm told that most of Jordan's electricity is generated with natural gas, so the overall CO2 would only be reduced a little, but particulate matter would be removed from the city. Probably not worth the investment until the cost of diesel skyrockets.


The Holy City is a dense, bustling metropolis with a lively public transportation network. As of April 2010, the only public mode is buses, but there is a wide variety of them. Egged, the Israeli public transport cooperative, runs lots of full-size and articulated buses, mainly from the German firm MAN. It's a bit startling to American eyes to be looking at a street which to us appears to be a narrow, quiet residential street, and suddenly see a huge, articulated bus come roaring along it, packed with people, both sitting and standing. In addition to Egged, there is a company called Puma that runs large buses, but they tend to be older and appear accustomed to hard usage.

An American woman, an acquaintance who rides the buses frequently, mentioned that she had gotten on one at about 10 PM one night to go home, and had ended up having to ride it for an hour and a half. Why? Because at one stop, about 40 orthodox Jewish men had gotten on the already well-patronized bus, and were squeezed into a solid mass in the aisle. For a woman to try to push her way through such a mass of Jewish orthodox manhood would be absolutely and totally taboo. So when the bus came to her stop, she had to stay on and ride it around its entire route.

Then there are the mini-buses. These hold 10-20 people and run from the city to the outlying towns. They appear pretty much alike, except that the ones going to Jewish areas have blue stripes, and those going to Palestinian towns have green stripes. Of course, there are also huge, luxurious tour -coaches, which aren't exactly public transportation, but which seem almost more numerous than their humbler public brethren.

Most interesting is the Old City. There is only one kind of transportation there: your feet. The Old City is a maze of narrow passageways, often roofed over, between shops, houses, monasteries, hostels, churches, mosques, yeshivas, more shops, and who knows what else. I went into the Old City a number of times, and when I went alone I never failed to get lost trying to get out. Fortunately, getting lost was more of an adventure than a problem!

The Old City's ways are paved with stones worn smooth by millennia of pedestrians. Many are steep and have steps, but these all have little built-in stone ramps just wide enough for the push-carts used to supply the shops with their goods. I was warned that if you hear a kid yelling behind you, it's best to move to the side quickly, since the youngsters employed to push the carts love to zoom down the hills scattering tourists and residents alike.

The buses run only in the newer parts of the city, which is growing in population and area. So, guess what? Jerusalem is building a light rail system! Several busy streets in the new sections are torn up to make way for the rails and stations, and there is a wonderful, curved suspension bridge designed by the renowned Spanish architect/engineer, Santiago Calatrava. SeƱor Calatrava took a practical problem - a confined, busy space for a tight turn - and created a work of art, a lovely flight of fancy. If more elevated railways combined beauty and utility this way, cities like Chicago would be a wonder to behold.