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Beirut’s Budding Bicycle Culture

By Nathalie Rosa Bucher

 

Given the number of automobiles, one could be mistaken to think that Beirut was built for cars rather than people. Motorists tend to be aggressive and use hooters, rarely indicators or hands, to communicate, which can have fatal consequences, especially at intersections or traffic circles.

They furthermore do not consistently stop at red lights and often squeeze ridiculously big cars into small, gridlocked streets – while Whatsapping, smoking or applying make-up. Pedestrians generally jaywalk. Added to this the roads themselves are in terrible shape.

Though by and large labeled non-bikable terrain, an increasing amount of bicycle commuters are claiming Beirut’s roads.

Text  by Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Photos by The Chain Effect and Nathalie Rosa Bucher

 

Despite the lack of designated bicycle lanes or parking facilities, reckless and careless drivers, a growing amount of cyclists – for a variety of reasons and from different backgrounds and cultures – do an increasing amount of trips in the city by bicycle. WE Magazine asked some of them to share their insights and tips on how to experience Beirut by bike.

 

“I have been cycling for 20 years, since I was 13,” Mohamad Cheblak, media and communication officer at Oxfam Lebanon, explained. “And since then I have noticed that the number of bicycle commuters – people who use a bicycle as a regular means of transportation – is increasing especially among young people and mostly male migrant workers.”

It’s rough but you can bike it

 

“In Beirut, like all big cities, people can be rude to cyclists,” Sacha Robehmed, Middle East Project Coordinator for Refunite, pointed out. “But I remember one woman in Ashrafieh calling out “Bravo alayki” as she pulled alongside me going up a hill.”

Robehmed is part of this small but steadily growing and certainly intrepid group of modern-day Sancho Panchas on single speed, mountain, city, racing and vintage bikes. “Beirut has a growing bicycle culture; it might have been slow in the making but in the present time it’s growing faster and getting bigger,” bike messenger Zein Soubra suggested.

“I wouldn’t say that Beirut has a cycling culture yet,” Cheblak objected. “But I would say that it’s work in progress.” Similarly, Robehmed argued that the city fell short of a bicycle culture and lacked special bicycle infrastructure. “Other road users fail to recognize cyclists or share the road with them. I still feel like when people see me I’m a novelty. It’s not “normal” to see cyclists, as there are so few of us.”

“The biggest challenges for me personally are the bad streets like holes and sewer system that can ruin my bike,” Soubra confirmed. “I can manage idiot drivers and all the traffic stuff but the bad streets kind of oblige me to stop often.”

“There are the ‘magic doors’,” Nour Domloje, administrative assistant at the American Community School (ACS) Beirut, added. “I try to be aware of my surrounding with my eyes rolling around to make sure I’m safe. I’ve also been trying to make people more aware while riding.”

 

So why would anyone ride a bike in this city?

 

“I cycle here because I cycle everywhere!” Robehmed underlined. “It’s the quickest way to get around a compact city and beat the traffic. Having the ability to go wherever I want, when I want, for free, is a freedom that is incomparable.”

“It’s free and gives me a chance to exercise,” Tess Stucke, project coordinator for Public Internet Design (PID) concurred. “It also ensures zero harassment. Additionally, if it’s late at night, I find it a lot safer than getting in a car with a stranger.”

Cheblak rides for similar reasons: “Beirut is a relatively small city, with a lot of traffic and population congestion, which give the bicycle the advantage of maneuvering and going in between heaps of locked traffic. Also, cycling gives me the power of choice and the autonomy to select my route and how I want to run my errands. Oh, I love cycling, it’s never-ending fun!”

“I’m an active person, my bike keeps me going,” Domloje put forward. “It releases my stress but it also adds to it sometimes because of our streets and the “no culture”…”

Regarding this “no culture” or anarchy on the roads, Soubra stated that for him, it was precisely the randomness and the lawlessness that was enticing. “For me it makes riding in Beirut fun, specially when riding as a bike messenger.”

 

Women cyclists claiming Beirut’s roads

 

Domloje strongly denounced rampant sexism: “I don’t think it’s the bike, people over here never change whether they see you on a bike or walking – I can never stay mum.”

“Women face double the challenges on the roads: first by being cyclists and second by being women breaking stereotypes (challenging the popular association between a woman riding a bicycle and loosing her “virginity”, for example) and they face harassment,” Cheblak said.

“Being a woman can have a positive effect,” Stucke suggested as drivers granted them more respect. “Also I like that other women see me cycling, as it makes it more socially accepted and that if one person is doing it why can’t another?”

Wearing bike shorts in Sidon or Tripoli Robehmed was more aware of being a woman on a bike. “But I have found that I was welcome and that it’s totally fine to be a woman cycling. I was, however, treated with condescension, as though I didn’t know anything about bikes, when I went into one popular bike shop [in Beirut].”

 

Be the change you want to see

 

For most cyclists, the bicycle is a lifestyle and reflects a concern and awareness about social and environmental issues. Like the majority of cyclists interviewed, Domloje does not own a car, only when necessary does she rely on “service”, buses or friends.

“I sometimes use the bus to take my bike to Tripoli so I can ride with my father.”

As a result of daily commutes, ranging between 5 to 20km, cyclists have good local knowledge – and they are acutely aware of the challenges on the road. “I’d like to see motorists with much less road rage, who understand the threats that cyclists face and act accordingly while driving, sharing the road with others and not claim it theirs. After all, one more bicycle is one less car in traffic!” Cheblak argued.

Rayya Haddad who has cycled Beirut for years and Stucke who has lived in Beirut for just a few months, both wished for bike lanes on the main streets and increased road safety for every road user. “In an ideal world, some of the narrow streets in Beirut would be car-free, bike and pedestrian only,” Robehmed commented. “Think how pleasant and popular the “car-free” days are!“ 

“Once people are more considerate about their fellow human beings and surroundings–  that’s when we should speak of infrastructure,” Domloje countered.

 

Cycling in Beirut – get started

 

“It’s totally doable,” Cheblak underscored. “Beirut commuters are not superheros/superheroines but you will face many challenges. Be visible, learn to read the traffic and motorists’ actions and how they drive. Be assertive yet flexible and negotiate your presence and space on the road. Rather than a mountain bicycle, get a road or hybrid bike and work on your braking skills to be able to stop at any second.”

“Be very careful and wear a helmet,” Haddad urged. “Always try to make eye contact with your surrounding drivers so you can trust they see you on the street,” Soubra added.

Newcomers should start riding on Sunday mornings in a familiar area and join other riders. The former helps in building confidence, the latter will help in discovering new routes and more safety as traffic responds differently to two or more bikes than to one.

Every last Saturday of the month, cyclists meet at Martyr’s Square for Critical Mass Beirut, claiming the streets of the capital and then gathering for a meal and there is a highly responsive Beirut Cyclists Whatsapp group.

Since Karim Sokhn (see next article) established Cycling Circle and the Deghri Bike Messengers, there are a large number of regular rides organized in and outside of Beirut and Deghri messengers are a fixture on Beirut’s streets, covering “Dahiye to Dbayeh”.

Graphic designer Siwar Kraytem chose to do her final year project on Beirut’s bicycle community and created ABCycling in Beirut, a comprehensive guidebook for cycling in Beirut.

After three years of spending his days on Beirut’s roads, working as a bicycle messenger for Deghri Messengers, the first bike messenger service in the Middle East, Soubra, however, lamented that, “the only difference I see is more people cycling but no big difference in traffic or people respecting cyclists.”

Robehmed said that: “when I’m biking around Beirut it’s great to overhear a kid say with excitement to their mum, “bicyclette!” when they see me go by. I hope that he’ll keep that excitement into his teens and adulthood and be the cycling community for the future here.”

Read more : WE Magazine issue #15 

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