Citizen design maps Lebanon's bus routes

It's no secret that Lebanon offers little to no public services in getting us from point A to B. 

The national bus system is one of the least understood concepts in the country. While citizens from first-world states are sipping on mojitos and browsing Snapchat on free wifi from their first-class rail carriages, we're laughing off the tourists who ask us how to catch a bus to Zahle.

Though it sounds trivial, one of the main reasons the middle class has notoriously avoided using Lebanon's bus system is simply a matter of labels and maps. Where does this one go? Where are the bus stops? The A4-Times New Roman printout shoved onto the rear windshield simply isn't enough.

What's admirable about Lebanon's millennials is that they aren't naive to expect too much from public bodies and tend to proactively find alternative solutions. One of the most recent examples is the Bus Map Project, a grassroots initiative to map Lebanon's routes. The team have taken the liberty to produce maps for us on their own... and alas, citizen experience turns to citizen design. 

It's not the first initiative of the sort, either. The Lebanese bike movement has been on fire as well, with designer Siwar Kraytem penning the complete guide to understanding the bike-scape in Lebanon, and The Chain Effect spreading pro-bike street art around the country.

Read more on what the Bus Map Project is up to, and check out some of the user-submitted maps designed by LIU Beirut students. 

Can you tell me a bit about the Bus Map Project and its objectives?

We've been describing ourselves as a platform and a catalyst, but at the root of it, we're simply a small bunch of bus riders who happened to think the same thoughts at different times and different places, and were eventually lucky enough to find each other.

Since launching the project last summer, our immediate aim has been to design a map of Lebanon's formal and informal public transport system, starting with buses, but later to include vans, service-taxi hubs, etc.

We are basing these maps on GPS data we're gathering route by route, to allow for maximum accuracy and re-usability. This approach allows us to create both static and dynamic maps, for online and offline use. Around this core objective, we're building up partnerships with different groups (university lecturers, photographers, etc) to make these transit systems even more visible, beyond just lines on a 2D surface.

We want people to know what's out there, but also, appreciate their unique rhythms, habits and vocabularies. This is because our biggest aim is best expressed by the category we gave to our Facebook page from day one: "community."

Our ultimate goal is to build up a community of bus riders and transit enthusiasts who work together to win their right to good transport infrastructure. Mapping is simply a tool to start that process.

bus map project Alaa Mehyeddine
Alaa Mehyeddine

Why do you find bus route mapping important?

We have big aims, but our decision to start small was deliberate. As bus users and activists who have been active with pro-transit NGOs, we have noticed that there are big gaps in knowledge about Lebanon's public transport system. Bus users don't know the full extent of the network, since most people stick to one or two routes, but more worryingly, many car drivers simply assume that public transport in Lebanon went extinct with the death of rail. Those who are aware of some bus routes assume that they are completely inefficient, lumping all routes together with dismissive words like "chaos" and "mafias."

We think this produces a stigma that not only attaches itself to the people who run the system, but also, to those who rely on it every day to get around the country. This attitude is not just mean-spirited or elitist; it is also incredibly lazy and unimaginative, especially if we are seeking something better than what we have.

It's very easy to say "we need modern buses" or "we want more regulation," but it's much more useful to come up with specific solutions that can be implemented gradually. Things like: "a bus shelter here would encourage passengers to stand closer together," and "coordination with that route manager would help improve efficiency," etc. This level of "emergent design" thinking* can only be reached once we know how the system already functions.

*Shout out to our friend Celine Khairallah who first got us interested in this concept!

bus map project lebanon Nancy Bou Diab
Nancy Bou Diab

What makes the perfect map?

In a word? The perfect map is the map that gets you from A to B. That sounds simple enough, but the keyword here is "you," not an idealized "map user."

Too often, transit enthusiasts will rush to design a map that looks "professional" (meaning: "looks like a Tube map"), but that isn't well adapted to their local context. These standardized design languages rely on a stability of 'stops' and 'stations' that isn't available in Lebanon. Even when you know that a bus route passes through a certain area -- say, Sassine Square -- an overly schematic map will not show you where to find it. This is why we are designing our map in phases, and will be deploying it different formats, online and offline. We want to test out different combinations of geographic and schematic representation, while also giving people options. The point is to get people on the bus, after all.

Yolla Basma

bus map project Hawraa Atwi
Hawraa Atwi

Bus Map Project Hussein Mohsen
Hussein Mohsen
Amani Abed Al Samad bus map project
Amani Abed Al Samad

bus map project lebanon Somaya Kamareddine
Somaya Kamareddine

Are you planning on publishing the maps in print?

Yes. We also want to develop an online platform that people can contribute to, to keep these maps up-to-date.

Can anyone contribute their own map?

Absolutely! In fact, we highly encourage it!

One of our first partnerships was with students in LIU Beirut, who made some truly unique representations of routes they're familiar with. The system-wide draft we're working on now (and we will always call the maps we produce "drafts") is based on GPS data that we will make available for anyone to re-use -- so if any designer out there wants to take a crack at visualizing Lebanon's transit system, please get in touch!

Do you see improved public transportation in Lebanon's future?

A lot of municipal campaigns are talking about public transport, so the picture today is a much more optimistic than it has been for many years.

But no matter what happens on the level of policy and governance, we believe in bottom-up change, and so, we want to encourage people who seek improvements in the sector to think of themselves as central to that process. Change can't wait for perfect solutions. Take a bus. Talk to a driver. Explore a new region. Form a balanced opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of what exists today.

And if anyone reading this is really eager to push things forward, consider joining our team to help us expand our efforts outside of Beirut, so that we can piece together a more complete picture to build on.

Stay up-to-date with the Bus Map Project on their Facebook page.

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