Spurred on by the Lebanese government’s promise to cut carbon emissions and start using renewable energy, the Danish embassy in Beirut decided to introduce some much needed green thinking to the land of Cedars.
Two weeks ago, the embassy shipped in from Copenhagen a 23-year-old environmental activist with a mission to brave Beirut’s nightmare traffic – on a bike. For a week, Jonas Stourup would be the embassy’s courier, delivering mail and picking up packages dressed in his fluorescent green Lycra outfit and matching helmet.
The embassy hoped this “green symbol” would inspire Beirut’s motorists to consider cycling as a worthy mode of transportation. Thirty per cent of the Danish population uses bikes to go to work. Imagine if 30 per cent of those passing through Hamra used bikes instead of four-wheel drives: you would have no traffic here,” explains the affable Danish ambassador, Jan Top Christensen, standing in this busy Beirut thoroughfare.
Though famous in Scandinavia, the concept of green couriers is unheard of in Lebanon, where bicycles are only used for recreational purposes. Kamikaze moped drivers wearing unbuckled helmets and talking on their mobile phones as they hurtle along are the preferred courier option.
When you think of it though, Beirut and Lebanon as a whole (a country no bigger than the state of Connecticut) would be an ideal place for cycling: distances are short and the coastal urban areas are fairly flat. The problem is that the Lebanese are just as enamored with their cars as Gulf Arabs, who can at least justify their SUV lifestyle based on the soaring temperatures.
There is also a social stigma attached to bicycles. Only the poorest – usually Syrian or Egyptian foreign workers who can’t afford any other means of transport – use bikes to get around the city.
Meanwhile, traffic is not getting any better, with a record number of tourists visiting the country. As the ambassador put it, “no tourist comes to Lebanon to spend endless hours in a traffic jam”. (Over the Christmas period, the gridlock was so severe that the interior minister famously got out of his car to direct the flow of traffic).
According to a report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), Lebanon produces 0.07 per cent of the world’s man-made CO2. For a population of four million, this is above the global average.
To decongest the city’s routes, the government would have to rethink the existing infrastructure and come up with serious alternatives such as reviving Beirut’s long defunct tramway. It might be costly and difficult, yet the Danish ambassador not only believes it can be done but is ready to help.
He is not the only one. The French Agency for Development just signed an agreement with Beirut’s municipality to build more pedestrian areas and cycling lanes. How about a Tour du Liban to popularise cycling?
After all, if there is one country in the Middle East that could follow the green model by investing in solar energy, building cycling paths, setting up a clean public transport system and developing eco-tourism, it would have to be that small country with a tree on its flag.