LIFE IS A HIGHWAY

Lebanon 2014 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: ROAD TRANSPORT

Over the last two decades, the number of vehicles on Lebanon's roads has increased exponentially. Now, the government and development institutions are spending billions to bring the country's infrastructure up to date.

Travelers in Lebanon have born witness to a series of ambitious improvements of an infrastructure system battered by years of war and political instability of late. In the two decades following the civil war, between 1992 and 2012, $2.09 billion was awarded to infrastructure development, and according to the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), $847 million of that funding was still tied up in construction projects in 2013. The majority of the funding comes from the World Bank. Of the $11.42 billion total infrastructure funding awarded by the government between 1992 and 2012, 25%, or $2.86 billion, was awarded to transportation development projects.

Over time, the nature of transportation in Lebanon has changed as well. Cars have proliferated. In 1970, only 20% of Lebanese transport was in private cars, with service taxis picking up 72% of passenger activity and the other 8% travelling by bus. In 2009, service taxi rates had fallen to 18%, and private vehicles dominated with 80% of transport activity. Buses fell even further to less than 2%. These new circumstances meant that the number of vehicles on the road rose from 60,000 in 1970 to 1.2 million in 2009. That same year, over 50% of Lebanese households owned one car, while another 25% of households had two or more. In 1998, the traffic flow on the southern entrance of Beirut (in both directions) was 65,000 vehicles per 24 hours. By 2011, it had reached 110,000 vehicles. By 2012, Lebanon ranked 17th in global car ownership per capita, with 90% of the vehicles on the road being private cars. Looking to the future, annual traffic growth rates are expected to rise by at least 3% through 2020, and stay well above 2% through to at least 2045. These significant changes in transportation habits will necessitate adaptive road development well into the future. In response, Lebanon is rolling out a slew of projects intended to reduce congestion and facilitate transportation throughout the country.

A major component of the CDR's development program is the Urban Transformation Development Project (UTDP), which is designed to improve the operational and economic efficiency of Beirut's urban transport system and facilitate the flow of traffic. The project involves a high-tech monitoring and management hub, which is connected to 120 traffic lights with DSL technology. Over 45 kilometers of fiber-optic cables will connect the center with traffic lights and traffic monitoring cameras, enabling technicians in the center to tackle congestion in real time. A further 10 intersections will be installed with cameras used to enforce compliance with red lights, as improper observance of traffic signals is a major cause of congestion and accidents. The UTDP will also feature an on-street parking management program with 7,500 parking slots. The program will also introduce technical assistance for transportation planning, public transportation planning, air quality management, and transport feasibility studies.

Lebanon's government is opening its checkbook for other development projects as well. These projects fall into two categories, those already funded and in motion; and those projects expected to take place between 2014 and 2018. In the former category is a $19.2 million construction project on the southern highway near Deir al-Zahrani. Another $5.89 million, contributed by the Arab Fund and the CDR, is being spent on road works near Hbariye-Chebaa and Zaghla-Chouba-Chebaa, which are slated for completion by the end of 2014. Another road project, funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) from Bir Hitt to Sawana is being completed at a price tag of $8.85 million. Further in the future, the Qalamoun-Deir Ammar highway project, also funded by the IDB to the tune of $70 million, is scheduled for completion in 2018. A slew of other road travel developments, adding up to over $813 million, are set to be finished between 2015 and 2018.

Lebanon's significant investments are already paying off. According to the CDR, the average speed of vehicles on the northern entrance to Beirut was only 15 kilometers per hour, but by 2013 speeds had increased to 35 kilometers per hour. New traffic systems should also reduce ambiguity on Lebanon's roads, which in turn should reduce accidents and congestion. These are timely developments, as road congestion is estimated to cost Lebanon $2 billion per year.