Lebanon and China: Electrifying Solutions to Beirut’s Traffic

by Adnan Nasser

Traffic in Beirut, Lebanon

When the people of Beirut wake up every morning, they encounter heavy traffic as a constant reminder of the failures of previous governments to modernize their public transportation system. The neglect of the city’s transportation infrastructure is due to the lack of will and vision to revive it by the political establishment. On September 10, 2021, after 13 months of squabbling over who controls specific ministries, the elite in Lebanon finally formed a new government with the promise of political and economic reform. The Lebanese are all too familiar with pledges that fail to manifest; if this new government wants to prove itself to the people, it should begin by resolving the traffic crisis in Beirut.

The high volume of cars on the roads of Beirut has been a problem for decades, but it was not always this way. In the 1960s, people in Beirut had access to tramways that would carry them up to 12 kilometers (or 7.4 miles) throughout the capital. Indeed, such a service brought people from different sects and communities together on their daily commutes. The tram was first built in 1908 by a Belgian company and eventually closed in September 1965 due to high demand and popularity of cars. Family members, including my dad, would often tell me stories about how the tram could take them practically anywhere in the city. Now, a new way of convenient traveling must be invented for the people of Beirut: the solution lies in a public-private cooperative initiative sponsored by the government, along with financial and technical assistance from the international community.

Children selling newspapers near the tramway in Beirut, February 4, 1956

Reform of Beirut’s road system is possible, and the first step to accomplish it should be the acquisition of electric buses from China. Ties between the two nations did not officially begin until 1971; however, in 1956, China opened its first business office in Lebanon. In other areas of cooperation, the relationship between China and Lebanon has grown, but not to its full potential. China, for example, has expressed interest in welcoming Lebanon into its Belt and Road Initiative and sees the northern port city of Tripoli as the ideal docking location for reconstruction investments in Syria. Lebanon and China already share a positive history, and with 1.3 million EVs on its roads, China is a natural partner in the pursuit of a sustainable solution to Beirut’s congested streets. This idea is not unprecedented; back in 2018, China and Egypt signed a deal for 15 EV buses to be utilized in the even greater congested capital city of Cairo as part of a wider government strategy to bring Egypt into the “green tech” age. 

Wasting hours on the road trying to get to work or deciding it’s not worth driving out of fear of an accident ends up hindering economic productivity; the answer therefore lies in developing a high standard public transportation service. The plan to build an environmentally driven and affordable public bus program would require the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to contact its Chinese counterpart on engineering a “Beirut Bus” transit system. This will provide the Lebanese with two things that were previously unavailable to them. The first is a safe and comfortable alternative to the risk of getting in their cars with a potentially tragic outcome. The second is a dramatic improvement in air quality thanks to less fossil fuel vehicles on the city’s streets. 

Having EV vehicles take a share of the responsibility for commuting passengers would further help Lebanon’s declining health service, which was once renowned as the best in the Middle East. Having fewer people driving cars reduces the chances of accidents happening, which means fewer injuries that have to be treated in hospitals. But it’s not only a question of reducing the percentage of car collisions. In fact, air pollution itself in Beirut is so severe that it actually negatively affects people’s health. For years, specialists from the medical sector warned of the dangerous consequences of traffic jams. The toxicity accumulated from CO2 emissions is not only causing mortal damage to the population, but is also a sign that the Lebanese state is violating its global responsibilities to the planet. An important point to remember is that China and Lebanon are signatories to the 2015 Paris climate deal, which obligates them to seek alternative energy sources. This year, Lebanon submitted its national climate pledge to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), marking its renewed commitment to the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement that promises to advance universal climate actions to lower the temperature increase to under 2 degrees Celsius. Lebanon vowed to have 30% of its electricity generated by renewable energy sources, and this can include electric vehicles. 

When people travel less in their cars, it of course substantially benefits the atmosphere by lowering levels of CO2 emissions, and also prevents people from wasting time as they search for scarce fuel supplies. Most of the vehicles on the roads of Lebanon, both for business and personal use, are gas guzzlers. People overheat in their cars waiting in long lines at petrol stations and in some cases even die. By the time they arrive to pump their cars with fuel, the owners will inform the customers they have run out. Citizens are calling this phenomenon waiting in “the queues of humiliation and shame.” There is no more time to be wasted—Lebanon needs to enter the electric vehicle age now. 

Inside a taxi in Beirut, November 19, 2016. Photo by Cyprien Hauser

The charging station infrastructure for a fleet of electric buses is currently nonexistent. Indeed, Lebanon’s public sector for transport has depleted severely over the years because of systematic neglect. This is where China has the greatest influence. It can send a team of engineers to work alongside those in Lebanon to lay the groundwork for designing stations needed to power and charge the buses. But first, the government must make the call. 

The new prime minister Najib Mikati, who has served as the head of three different governments now, says he seeks “quick fixes” to the country’s woes. On September 22, the Chinese ambassador to Lebanon, Qian Minjian, said China is eager to pursue “friendship and cooperation”with Lebanon. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the nations. Mikati followed the ambassador’s words by expressing his aspirations to achieve greater practical collaboration between the two countries. In that case, he should speak openly about building a new EV bus system and act quickly to execute it.

I am not usually optimistic when politicians make promises. However, because of recent international pressure and years of failure that have worsened the social conditions, the elites are forced to fight for the common good and welfare of Lebanese people for their own survival. According to the World Bank, Lebanon is in the worst economic depression since 1850, and it must find an exit strategy from this dismal state. Recent data shows Lebanon’s annual inflation rate is the highest globally, surpassing Zimbabwe and Venezuela.  It is not possible to solve decades of incompetence and systematic corruption in a few years. But the government officials who contributed to these problems cannot further delay action, costing even more Lebanese their lives. Investing in an efficient and environmentally sound public travel system is a positive change that will ultimately set the precedent for demanding more in the future.  

Adnan Nasser is an independent analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He has been published in The Diplomatic Courier and studied International Relations at Florida International University.

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