Beirut, Lebanon – While traffic in Lebanon has always been extremely chaotic, recent fuel shortages have led to dystopian scenarios: from people sleeping in their cars to buy petrol as soon as gas stations open, to horrific traffic accidents caused by disorienting long lines.
This added daily struggle has driven many to the brink of desperation, with some seeking alternative solutions to their daily commute.
“I receive at least three calls a day from friends and acquaintances asking me whether I know a place that sells cheap bicycles,” says Natheer Halawani, an entrepreneur branded the “Bicycle Mayor of Tripoli”.
He says the recent fuel fiasco has added to people seeking cheaper and less draining ways of navigating the city to get through their daily commute.
Even those who never considered it before are now convinced of its benefits.
“The cycling culture is growing big time in Lebanon,” says Mohamad Hawi from the capital Beirut. “I personally, considered a lazy dude, am going to get one.”
Melissa Khattar, who oversees the reconstruction of houses in Beirut, found an e-bicycle to be ideal to navigate the city.
“I often have to go from one place to another, overseeing places or sometimes even buying a specific item needed for construction,” Khattar says.
As she lives outside of Beirut, she drives her car to the city then switches to her Wave e-bike for the day, then drives back home in her car.
Because the e-bike does not require a lot of effort, she can cycle everywhere, avoid traffic, yet still look presentable.
Halawani was appointed Bicycle Mayor of Tripoli by the Amsterdam-based social enterprise BYCS, which is driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities.
Halawani still recalls the reason he bought a bicycle about 20 years ago. “Back then, as a young student I couldn’t afford to take a servees [shared taxi] to commute every day, so I invested in a really cheap bicycle. It was bright red and had ‘Coca Cola’ written all over.”
While Halawani felt self-conscious at first, as if he was doing something that made him look “poor”, he quickly fell in love with the feeling of riding a bicycle.
“I realised how important and beneficial it was for my body, self-esteem and my mental health.”
E-bikes make waves
Being Dutch, entrepreneur Jan Willem de Coo, was already aware of the benefits of riding a bicycle. After all, in the Netherlands, commuting this way is the norm rather than an exception, with even the prime minister known to ride his bicycle to parliament.
Living in Beirut, de Coo got so frustrated with his “completely unnecessary” daily 90-minute commute that he switched to a bike.
“I thought: ‘I can’t be the only one who’d love to spend that time doing something fun instead,'” de Coo says, chuckling.
Fully aware of the fact that cycling was not exactly part of Lebanese culture, de Coo and his Dutch-Lebanese team did extensive research, combining customer feedback with engineering expertise, before establishing Wave, a subscription-based service for renting electric bicycles.
With this model, Wave deliberately chose to deviate from other Lebanese sustainable mobility providers – such as Loop, an electric scooter rental company – which focus on one-off rides.
“Wave’s goal goes beyond merely making profit,” de Coo says. “We want to create a shift in culture.”
Wave launched in March with its initial 75 e-bikes fully booked by happy customers, and is now facing a growing waiting list that already boasts 200 eager future e-cyclists.
While sceptics have joked the e-bike must be the latest expatriate accessory, de Coo is quick to dispel that myth.
“Eighty-percent of our customers are locals, ranging from students to professionals in their 60s,” he says.
One of the reasons that locals are drawn to the e-bike is that Wave has managed to keep subscription prices reasonably low, despite Lebanon’s many economic woes.
Emboldened by its early success, Wave is already looking to expand to other countries in the region, starting with Jordan and Greece and aiming for Turkey and Egypt.
Wave has collaborated with The Chain Effect to create instructions videos, showing people not only how to ride comfortably but also how to safely navigate Beirut’s nightmarish traffic.
The Chain Effect is an organisation that focuses on creating awareness around sustainable mobility and provides solutions to facilitate cycling.
After their colourful graffiti murals awareness campaign promoting the joys of cycling garnered significant attention between 2014-16, their Bike to Work campaign to encourage people to cycle to their jobs grew significantly.
While The Chain Effect has had a significant impact – for instance, through a campaign that provided affordable bikes to those financially unable to commute because of the economic crisis and coronavirus crisis happening at the same time – it would like to see more concrete policy changes related to cycling.
However, even projects in the process of materialising have ground to a halt during the past year and a half, with the economic crisis and COVID-19, Zeina Hawa, one of its co-founders, says.
But serious involvement by the city government left a lot to be desired even before that.
“The municipality has a track record of spending money where it is not needed, with many projects perpetuating clientelism and being money-making opportunities for specific contracting firms that benefit off them,” Hawa says with a wry laugh.
While Hawa and her colleagues at The Chain Effect are motivated by a real desire for change, a lack of concrete support can be demoralising.
“What we’re trying to do is so much more in the realm of what the public sector should be doing. It’s a lot harder for us to push projects on our own without any support.
“At the end of the day, you need an active public sector to invest in mobility and improvements for people or at least give you a platform if not the funding.”
Dr Riyad Yamak, the real mayor of Tripoli, has fond memories of riding his bicycle to university when he was studying in Italy. “One of my main goals as mayor is to turn Tripoli into a cyclist heaven,” Yamak says.
After constructive meetings with the bicycle mayor and other parties, concrete plans were developed.
Yamak’s initial enthusiasm subdues when he sums up the many issues facing the country, but especially his city, the poorest in Lebanon.
“The main issue we face is that the government should have invested in us, rather than neglect us, when the country’s situation hadn’t deteriorated yet,” Yamak says.
“We are now dealing with over 50 percent unemployment and a burgeoning drug epidemic,” he adds.
Yamak says his hands are tied right now but as soon as the situation in the country allows it, he plans to honour the promise he made to build bicycle lanes around Tripoli.
“The plans are there but we need tranquility. And I fear that before we reach that stage, we’re facing an explosive situation.”
Despite the many hurdles they have faced in the past two years, de Coo and his team have high hopes for a flourishing cycling culture in Lebanon and the rest of the region.
“We’ve encountered a lot of cynicism, people saying that Arabs don’t cycle or it’s not in their culture,” he says. “But if we can put a Lebanese on a bicycle, anything is possible.”