Public transport for Lebanon?

Beirut’s notorious traffic jams are one of the first things visitors notice when they come to town. Gridlock also ranks high on the list of gripes among Lebanon’s own citizens. The country’s major cities, located along the 200 kilometer Mediterranean coastline, host about 60 percent of Lebanon’s inhabitants. With one main highway running parallel to the sea, and an ever expanding fleet of cars, the traffic problem is getting worse by the day.

But the creators of ELHUB are hoping to change that. They have proposed setting up a maritime transport system that would connect the entire Lebanese coast allowing passengers to travel the length of the country in two and a half hours. Using high-speed ferries, quays and a ticket system, designers say the boatline would drastically reduce commuting times, mitigate traffic snarls, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and create interactions between different religious and social groups.

NOW spoke to one of ELHUB’s architects, Frederic Karam, about the maritime public transport idea, and where it stands ten years after its conception.

ELHUB was not the first to come up with an idea of mass public transit for Lebanon, was it?

Karam: No, the idea [of public transportation in Lebanon] existed since before the civil war. Back then, they wanted to use hover craft, but then there was a civil war, so the idea of using the whole coast was cancelled.

If you look at the map, you see that the entire world is using [maritime public transport], and also, countries that have the same GDP as Lebanon, like Croatia and Turkey, are using it, so it is feasible. It’s not about not having the money.

What kind of response have you gotten from the Lebanese people about the project?  Graffiti of ELHUB’s logo is spray painted on walls and buildings around Beirut, so it is obviously popular.

Karam: A friend told me about the graffiti, so I was kind of amazed. The Facebook group is very popular. I had a friend who was in a service [shared taxi] and the driver was talking about ELHUB… Apparently, the idea is very well accepted by the population. We think [the lack of public transportation] is a real problem in the country. Everything is privatized. Even the beaches are privatized. So it’s good to see that this idea is popular, because this is the goal of it. It should be very mixed use.

ELHUB believes the idea of public transit can bring Lebanese people together?  Why do you think so?  Why are public spaces so important?

Karam: A public space is something that you always need. It’s an organ for a city. Just like you need shopping and you need housing, you need spaces where people can gather together. Someone who is wearing a mini skirt cannot go to where someone is veiled, and someone who is veiled can’t go to where someone is wearing a miniskirt. Since everything is privatized [in Lebanon], you’re not confronted with others. Everyone lives in a bubble. The only public spaces are shopping malls. If you want to see who the Lebanese people really are, you have to go to a shopping mall.

The idea of connecting the main cities by boat is a good one, but how will people access other neighborhoods?

Karam: A hub, by definition, is a locale for all different transportations. The way it would work is you could drive down to the hub, park your car, and either walk or take a service.Or you can go inside the boat with your car, but this takes longer, and the boat [that carries cars] is a bit slower. [The hub] will attract the taxis because they know they will find clients there, and it will attract clients because they know they will find taxis there.

According to your website, “ideas [on] urban issues are rarely taken into consideration by the governing sphere.”  Why do you think that is?

Karam: There is no urban planning in Lebanon. You don’t have strict laws, and the laws that do exist are not respected. In our country, money rules everything. People are ready to sell anything, just to have money at that moment. There is no long-term planning or care for the future. Everybody wants money now because people don’t know what will happen tomorrow. In this context, it is impossible to plan, but people will have to start looking forward.

What’s the history of public transit in Lebanon?  What about using trains for public transit?

Karam: A train is the best public transit system you could have. At first, we thought maybe we could re-build the train system in Lebanon. But there are problems with that. First, you need electricity for the train, and you know our issues with electricity. Also, a train needs more investment [than a ferry system]… to maintain the stations, cars, railroad tracks, etc. It needs a lot of maintenance and a lot of money long-term. As you know, we are not good in maintenance in Lebanon. Usually we build something and watch it die.

Also, in Lebanon, we are in a war-like situation. In 2006 [during the war with Israel], 90 roads and 70 bridges were destroyed [by Israeli forces], so adding a railroad is providing a target. You can shoot as much as you want in the sea. If you destroy one boat, ok, we have another boat. With the train, you destroy one station and the train doesn’t move anymore.

How environmentally friendly is ELHUB? 

Karam: The boats pollute a lot, they’re not eco-friendly by themselves, but they can carry 200 people, so compared to 200 cars, it’s less pollution. We are also removing noise and air pollution. It’s still better than the current ecological situation, but it’s not perfect.

What about the cost?

Karam: There are two kinds of boats, ones that are $5 million, others that are $28 million. But those [prices are for] brand new boats. Some companies are offering [ELHUB] secondhand boats.

So what are the latest developments with ELHUB?

Karam: I met with the Council of Development and Construction. We’re still [in the stages of] trying to make ELHUB popular. It’s something that will take time.

  • tony.libnan

    Elhub seems like a good first step in solving the transportation problem but it won't be nearly enough. Think about how many boats you would need to replace even a tiny portion of the cars. It's a good first step, and combined with buses, bicycles, trams, trains and other public transportation, it would help. Here in NYC (manhattan is an island) there's plenty of ferries for transportation, but the vast majority of transport is subways, followed by bus. Fernand http://www.pinliban.com

    April 30, 2013

  • Sandra

    If ppl are ready to leave their cars for efficient and fast transport why not have bus lanes instead of car lanes and increase buses

    February 1, 2012

  • Jamal

    Mr.Karam your project is very good. Boots as transfer would be a fantastic tourist attraction which i do miss in Lebanon. When i lived in Beirut many years ago, i used to take the train and bus as many people did. Unfortuntely most lebanese are nowadays so snobist that i can't immagine them taking a bus or train, although they do that when they are in Europe since they are in these countries anonymous. So let our minisers be the shining example. Don't you think??!!

    March 22, 2010

  • f.

    George, yes i've seen some of the authorities, some ministers, and the council of development and reconstruction. Also ELHUB is supported by the ngo YEF (youth economic forum). The project is now in discussion; it has a heavy political implication so it might take some time before having a second step.

    March 12, 2010

  • Miumiu

    a quick & simple start for a longer solution is to come hard on double parking,Taxis/Mini vans driving behaviours (and of course other drivers),raise the driving age limit to 21, heavy fines on violators,parking spaces a must for ANY new buildings & existing building without parking facilities must have parking permits only & limited to 2 permit per flat....wishful thinking may be !!

    March 11, 2010

  • George

    HI Fred, Have you presented this priject to the authorities?

    March 11, 2010

  • f.

    @ Carla. The catamarans have a speed of 70KPH! This is necessary to make an efficient durable and feasible transport system. ‘Eco friendly’ boat can’t go that fast. Solar power is not enough it does not exist. We are talking here about big boats. Let’s think a bit… If we consider a consumption of 1.2L per person (European average) we can say that each catamaran represent the consumption of 168 cars. Also let’s compare the consumption per person of different means of transportation for 100km. A train represent more or less 2L per pers. A car: 4-10L per pers. A plane: 6-15L per pers. The Vessels are only 3-6L per pers. Even if they pollute there is no doubt for me, Catamarans are eco-friendly and this is why Norway (a pioneer in ecology) uses this system as well as turkey, Sri-Lanka, London, the states, etc… etc…

    March 9, 2010

  • f.

    @Roland. Thx for your interest. What you see in the web site is a glimpse of the complete study. All hubs on the entire cost are placed depending on the existing infrastructure of each city. As said by ‘f.’ hubs have proven to have great impact on an urban fabric. ELHUB cannot work if we don’t manage it s access in order not to have those bottlenecks, you’re right. This is why one of its first positive impact would be to give hierarchy to the fabric… A hub is not just a building… when we talk of impact we mean urban impact.

    March 9, 2010

  • s.

    indeed, trams, metros, sidewalks... are solutions. but again, they don't answer the same questions as elhub. they are small scale city projets. elhub does not claim to replace or adress the same issues as these projects. elhub is large scale, economic, touristic and marco-urbanism solution. a comparable project would be the railway, and elhub studies this solution and shows how it can hardly be implemented today in lebanon. thank you for your remarks and interest in elhub!

    March 9, 2010

  • 1984

    I agree that the boat system is slow and tedious in winds and rough waters. Also it is not eco friendly. I think it could be a good tool for tourism, but I don't see myself taking a boat every day. If it takes 2 hours to go from north to south- that's in 1 go. How many stops would there be? 1 per city? That would then be more than 2 hours. What about having trams? Especially for inner areas of Beirut. Imagine how much traffic they would cut. Check out the tram system we have here in Bordeaux: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tramway_de_Bordeaux. Bordeaux was a very old city with horrible traffic and roads. When they introduced the trams some years ago, they cut traffic, now most people go to work in the trams because it is quicker...there are trams every 6 minutes, with the option of also renting a bicycle.

    March 8, 2010

  • Roland

    Except as I mentioned before , few coastal points can accomodate such big hubs (according to the initial concept on the website).. Therefore you risk of running into bottlenecks. I see a concept but not a feasability study. You can't judge the viability of a project from a concept alone. Regards

    March 8, 2010

  • f.

    I think the elhub project is a very good initiative. If you read the web site like you should, the project is thought in steps. It s not a new system implemented in one time and this is very clever in such a country. A hub proved to be something very positive for their developments. Taxis, busses and services, instead of cruising around in the city to find passengers, and add traffic at the city scale, will be more concentrated where they’ll find their clients: the hubs. Hub’s becomes a new center, with an impact to the city. We need cars to be able to go from one city to another. To be able to think of sidewalks, (which will not resolve anything to traffic) we should use less cars, and to use less cars we need a public transportation. Trains? No; and it’s well explained. Boats yes; they are parallel to the coastal highway. Having the hub means more pedestrians, means an impact on the cities, means a reason to really build sidewalks and have a real reason for such investments etc….

    March 7, 2010

  • Roland Tannous

    @S : I beg to differ about the humid soil issue you've mentioned while talking about the metros. This does not necessarily cause the type of problems you have inferred. A simple example is the city of london. As for the ElHub idea: - I've seen a similar thing on a Lebanese TV station News ,2 months ago. Is it the same group or are we having two different groups working on the same idea? - The main drawback of ElHub is "Bottlenecks".. Yes Bottlenecks. Most of the lebanese shore is already exploited . Therefore fewer are the spots from which potential clients can ride those ferries. This can eventually cause bottlenecks , i.e points after which capacity maxes out at boarding stations and might eventually cause severe traffic jams in surrounding areas due to clients driving their cars to the boarding stations if capacity is nearing its maximum. Regards Roland Tannous

    March 7, 2010

  • Carla

    "The boats pollute a lot, they’re not eco-friendly by themselves." The initiative is really important but why would you do something at half measures. If you are going to do this , why not bring eco-friendly boats and then start an ecological revolution that would REALLY reduce pollution in Lebanon. With your project, you would probably reduce the congestion on the Jounieh Highway, but you would create a new problem. Instead of coming up with new polluting ventures, focus on urban planning a little bit, make sure we have sidewalks for people to walk more, and if you want to have a public transportation system, at this point it is really unacceptable to have anything but eco-friendly boats.

    March 6, 2010


    Maritime transport is a great idea if convenient, safe, connected to hub areas and parking. A long-term transportation solution critical for Lebanon to regain its role as regional headquarter of multinational firms (after Dubai shakedown) requires: 1. Monorail system from Tyr to Tripoli (at $20 million a kilometer the cost is $3 billion or less than 5 years of UNIFIL budget or one-fourth of the $12 billion cost of Hizbollah’s 2006 War). Guideway will use local concrete and labor force, and carry fiber optic for high-speed DSL. 2. Multimodal feeder bus, trolley and free bike hubs using public-private partnership 3. Interceptor parking garages at outskirt of major cities linked to transit hubs 4. Limiting truck operating hours and expanding auto-free zones. 5. Pathways for walking/biking, access management and strict enforcement of rules 6. Managed lanes on main highways (automated tolling during rush hours) 7. Implementation of intelligent transportation systems and adaptive con

    March 6, 2010

  • micho

    "The Facebook group is very popular." wow 514 fans thats a new record

    March 5, 2010

  • s.

    (continued from previous post) As for the winter/waves issues, there are approximately 4 days a year during which the boats will not be able to navigate. The boats are catamarans, the same used to navigate on the north sea in Norway, one of the most agitated sea!!!! whereas the waves rarely exceed 3 m in Lebanon. Plus, the boats are equipped with what they call motion damping system. Hope this answers your concerns; and feel free to discuss other issues here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/elhub/181187458275?v=app_2373072738&ref=ts, on facebook, so everyone can profit from them… thanks!

    March 5, 2010

  • s.

    Omar, To answer your doubts, a metro could be a good idea (and has been discussed for a long time in lebanon, but does not address the same issues as the boatline in general and elhub particularly. A metro is a small, city scale planning. In addition, metro needs stable electricity supply and organised continuous maintenance (which we know is not the what Lebanese do best…). Finally, elhub tries to address public space issues, which are not really implementable for the metro, which is more an individualistic, underground rat type of symbolism. In contrast with the open/wide/pleasant/peaceful symbolic of the sea. The other point, is specific to Lebanese geography, I am not a specialist but it’s hard to imagine digging 20 meters away from the shore… the soil is humid, subject to flooding… it sound like an engineering warfield… (continued on next post)

    March 5, 2010

  • Omar Abou Sallman

    This is a great initiative, but concentrating only on maritime transportation can be a drawback. What will we do during winter or rough seas? In case of an emergency, do we really have the capabilities of rescuing a sinking ferry? I would suggest a metro system for Bierut, i know it's expensive, but in the long run there is nothing more practical! There is a facebook group called All for Public Transport in Lebanon already coming up with great ideas!

    March 5, 2010