Due to a lack of robust public transportation infrastructure, residents of Lebanon's capital city Beirut and the local government have launched a bike-sharing service to offer an alternative, sustainable transportation service. The pilot program is a collaborative effort by Jawad Sbeity, Wissam Shdeed, Gaby Tamer, and Issam Kaskas. It is supported by the Beirut Municipality Cabinet, which is headed by Jamal Itani. Sbeity founded the Beirut by Bike initiative for bike rentals in 1997, and together with his team, has implemented Bike 4 All, the first bike-sharing initiative in Lebanon. We talked to Sbeity about the program.
Nelly Baz: What is the difference between Beirut By Bike and Bike 4 All?
Jawad Sbeity: They're two complementary companies. They both have a fleet of bicycles and both do work on creating the cycling culture in Lebanon. Beirut by Bike is intended for leisure for kids, adults, and families. Bike 4 All is for commuting — it provides a solution to the traffic jam problem in Lebanon. The dream is to have Beirut by Bike as the start for kids to learn to ride bikes and then once they are university students they'll be users of Bike 4 All.
What was your inspiration for launching the program?
I started Beirut by Bike in 1997 while I was still a university student back then. It was the year I organized the first ride, and it became a yearly event until I established the company in 2001. Today, we are the biggest in the region with 20 years of experience when it comes to bikes.
Since I started Beirut by Bike, Bike 4 All was only the logical way to expand. We studied developing everything locally and after having met with technicians, we realized that the cost of doing everything here would be the same as getting the franchise from an established international bike-sharing system. We decided on the franchise because we wanted to minimize our challenges and thought it is better to learn from the experience of an already developed system rather than experimenting ourselves. We got in touch with several international companies, and settled on Next Bike, a German company. At the end, we ended up buying the franchise for Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.
What's your payment structure and how much does it cost for people to use it?
I wanted the rate to be cheaper than Beirut by Bike, which is 7000 L.L. ($4.60) per hour. We based the pricing now for 5000 L.L. ($3.32) per hour and the daily rate is 25000 L.L. ($16.60) without mentioning the prepaid cards, annual cards, and student's rates. After the buzz Bike 4 All created in the country, the reaction was that many considered the rates to be high. Of course the schemes are not yet developed but people got excited and we saw a high demand in the market.
Our main issue is having an expensive project initiated by the private sector and asking for support from the public sector — today we are still trying to figure out ways to share the cost and reduce the rates. Until now the pricing is not yet determined because it obviously needs to be reconsidered. For the first year, the service is free of charge for the first hour, and actually you need only one hour to go around Beirut. This allows us to buy time until next year to figure out our pricing schemes.
How are your stations distributed in the cities?
Starting with Beirut as an example, we realized that there are 23 universities in Beirut only without the surrounding areas. If we only add stations next to universities, we would cover the whole city. And based on the belief that the university students will be the first to adapt to the change and start using the service, we're going to have a 50 percent off for the students, and we will push for [rates] cheaper [than] car parking spaces on all Beirut entrances. Thus, the students who used to pay 5000 L.L. ($3.32) per hour to park next to their universities will have the option to pay much cheaper [rates] and without the hassle of being stuck in traffic.
What are your plans for expansion?
We are planning on expanding all over Lebanon in the next three years. Stage one includes the coastal cities with Tripoli, Batroun, Jbeil, Jounieh, Beirut, Saida, and Tyre. Then we move to cities like Zahle. It will take three to four years to complete this plan.
We are launching officially on April 22 in Jbeil and in Beirut on April 30. By July 2017, we'll be adding stations in Beirut. As for expanding outside Lebanon, now we are in Damascus already with a project similar to Beirut By Bike. Our company is called Damascus By Bike with 450 bikes. We are organizing rides every month.
In Jordan, we have partnered with Bike Rush, however, the landscape is challenging with Amman's seven hills. Despite having the expats in huge numbers, which is promising for the biking culture, Amman is still a long-term plan. Iraq will follow.
Are the roads equipped for bikers' safety?
Not yet, but together with Bike du Liban, an NGO established to pave the path for cycling initiatives in Lebanon, we are working on establishing bike lanes on the roads. It is challenging especially in some small streets, but there are many ways for road sharing that ensure the safety of the bikers. It is the major obstacle now. Plus we'll need 10 parliament members to sign the law of establishing bike lanes so this will be discussed after the elections. There will also be another stage for creating awareness and educating people to respect the lanes.
What are the challenges you've faced in implementing the program?
We were supposed to install the bikes last week in Jbeil prior to Beirut installation, but we got stopped due to a technical problem we had with the GPS SIM card installation, as the SIM cards from our local provider are an old generation that is not compatible with the ones used by Next Bike.
What motivates you?
You and people like you. When my son Jad calls me "bicyclette" and when he sees me leaving in morning and when my wife, Nadine, who's been by my side throughout my ups and downs always reminding me of the story of the "Frog Who Climbed The Eiffel Tower," and how I should not listen to pessimism around me.
Being here today, and being interviewed by you, ensures me that we have achieved something, and for us to keep on going, all we need is to hold on to the positive vibes. I believe that what we are doing today will leave a legacy, and I want to be the man who started something beneficial and helpful for my country.
All photos of the bike-sharing station in Beirut and city streets courtesy of Nelly Baz.