Escapades on Lebanon’s North Yungas Road
This road offers a classical example of urban planning gone wrong and a real life illustration of the intricate relationship between the evolution of road infrastructure and that of society as a whole.
The 40 mile North Yungas Road in the Bolivian Andes is arguably the world’s most dangerous. It kills well over 100 people every year and 25 years ago, 100 people died in a flash as a bus plunged off its cliff.
My version of that road in Lebanon is also one that does not forgive. Nor does it spare; if you are an 80 year old driving without a renewed license, an underage driver out on a Sunday drive, a reckless drunk taking advantage of unenforced laws (sadly, all these are possible in Lebanon) or an under the law citizen simply commuting to or from work, you could, in any second, fall victim. It is one of many dangerous roads in the country, but for me it feels the worst simply because I, along with my family and friends, drive on it more than we do on others. What makes this road between the coastal town of Antelias and the village of Bekfaya so frightening? It is a classical example of urban planning gone wrong and a real life illustration of the intricate relationship between the evolution of road infrastructure and that of society as a whole.
First, some history and background: the road was described to me as once (before the war of 1975-1990) being made up of merely 2 lanes that cut through woods not so different from the many covering Mount Lebanon. However, as the cement machine started taking its toll, this section in the predominantly Christian Metn district was one of the first to be attacked given its close proximity to Beirut and the migration of Christians from other more diverse regions during the war. Today, as you drive up, you pass by as well as cut through the posh neighborhoods of Rabbieh (translated: the overlooking hill) and Nakkache (a family) and the less chic communities of Mazraat Yashou (translated: the farm of Yashou), Beit El Kikko (translated: house of the rooster) and many others. The view from the neighboring Keserwan Mountain is there to prove the dense and ugly urbanization that has been instilled on this mountain stretch.
The road has become the most used link between the coast and the various towns in the much more populated Metn compared to the Metn of the pre-1980s. From it are exits to various towns of different ages. The road ends in the village of Bikfaya where it forks out into various other less trafficked roads that take you to the higher Metn and to neighboring districts (Keserwan to the North, Bekaa valley to the East and Southern Metn to the South). Of course, that is if you actually reach Bikfaya.
Given I only occasionally go to Lebanon, I won’t have as many horrid stories of driving on that road as the actual residents. One is simply unforgettable to me: on the last day of 2012, I was driving up on the road when a man on a scooter tried to pass me. He was so adamant on racing that he was willing to take all risks necessary. I slowed down out of fear of instantly crashing him to death, but I still worried that by doing so I would risk being hit in the back. Twenty seconds passed resting on a delicate balance. Then I made the decision of speeding away and losing him (an effort that would, why not while at it, inevitably bend his unyielding stubbornness). How treacherous an ending of a year would it have been had the smallest mistake been made I thought while shaking my head in disgust. I also look back at my own reckless adventures on the roads (now diminished but not entirely nonexistent). They were times of mostly experimental driving – and of being a risk to everyone – when I often took decisions that I retrospectively believe I shouldn't have: the passing on a lane technically belonging to those coming from the opposite direction, the unnecessary racing with friends, the passing of a car from the right side etc.
What further exacerbates the danger on the road on top of irresponsible driving that is common in Lebanon as a whole really is the lack of what normally festoons dull roads in terms of lights, road signs and road drawings. There are no lights directing right or left traffic, no speed limit or stop signs and no lanes that are clearly drawn. There is no service lane for shoppers separated from an express one. Nothing. It is an arena of no laws ruled by bullies.
This death machine must be stopped today. The solutions rest in two buckets: the one of quick fixes and the one involving larger investments.
The quick fixes include:
1) A separator between both directions, discontinued at certain main intersections where left turns are necessary and where traffic lights take control
2) Lanes drawn clearly highlighting where it is permissible to pass other cars
3) A minimum amount of signs such as speed and stop signs
4) Last but not least, ensuring nonstop lightening in a country where 24 hour electricity doesn't exist could be too much to ask for, but it is absolutely necessary on the main roads such as this one.
Longer term changes include:
1) A gradual division of each direction between an express lane and a service lane;
There is an almost continuous set of small, multi story, and open air shopping centers on each side of the road (best compared to the strip malls so common in North America) and people often take right and left turns to park in front of such centers (and almost on the road itself given the lack of adequate parking space). A service lane will help decrease traffic as it allows entry and exit at only major intersections.
2) The widening of the road where possible should at least be investigated (will undoubtedly prove to be troublesome once the quarrel begins over land ownership and the split between what is private and public)
3) The building of tunnels on major and much congested intersections
4) Diverting trips by heavy vehicles to less main roads (or even new dedicated ones in certain sections)
5) The carving out of bicycle lanes from the main road to encourage this alternative mode of transport for at least the local commutes
There are two main reasons that have been hindering such initiatives: the division of power over these roads between the various municipalities and the ministry of infrastructure and the lack of funding. Legislation is needed to ensure clarity is reached when it comes to the former and local and government level budgetary support are required when it comes to the latter. Infrastructure investment is slow and gradual in Lebanon and primarily benefits Beirut, the capital. As this area of close proximity to Beirut becomes more populated, it will soon be hard to differentiate it from what is currently dubbed "the greater Beirut area". There is no point in romanticizing about the days of when the road was surrounded by forests and greens because urbanization has simply been inevitable. What is crucial now is getting our act together and managing this urbanization process before more lives are lost.
1. Picture - Bold vs. Beautiful: Top is of Beit-Chabeb, my village viewed from the road (source: Facebook Group) and Bottom is of a neighborhood along the same road with the Keserwan mountain in the distance (source: http://souwar.yaacoub.com/details.php?image_id=12137)
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