[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium held at University College London on 12-13 June 2019, as part of the panel on "Methodological Approaches." Click here, here, and here for articles based on other papers presented at the panel.]
Denial, madness, and delusion are tropes that musicians and writers commonly use to describe Beirut in music and literature. The city’s history, and its perpetual equilibrium between fragmented realities, certainly contribute to its struggle for self-reflection. But in a country where history books go no further than 1975, the difficulty to acknowledge often hides a refusal to acknowledge. This refusal is an active process of filtering historical, socio-economic, or urban realities. Lebanon’s bus system has borne the cost of this denial of reality.
The Lebanese state owns only thirty-five buses, which means that the overwhelming majority of the country’s bus network is privately operated. The network is the only shared transportation available and affordable for many in Lebanon. Yet, many public and private stakeholders and citizens make the bus network invisible and delegitimize it. They do this by either closing their eyes to its very existence, or by imagining or stigmatizing it as chaotic or unplanned.
A bus ticket in Beirut costs a thousand Lebanese pounds (sixty-six US cents). Comparatively, a service (shared taxi) costs two to four times this price when going the same distance. This makes the bus the transportation mode of choice for the poorest classes in the city. Most (but not all) of Beirut's passengers are riders of necessity, who use the bus because they do not have any other option to navigate the city. Passengers are often Syrian refugees or migrant workers. While this private bus network represents the majority of buses and minibusses in the city, it operates in the shadows. Until very recently, it was not uncommon for state officials to say that no public or shared transportation exists in Lebanon. This delegitimization and invisibilization manifests in several ways.
Class Disgust and the Construction of a Middle-class Ethos in Lebanon
During a 2019 fieldwork interview I conducted on bus line 15, one of the bus owners revealed to me that Syrians account for ninety-five percent of his passengers. While we should consider this number very cautiously, it reveals that the invisibilization of the buses affects residents who are already mostly absent from the mainstream representations of the city. Asked about their refusal to use buses, many non-users mention, with varying degrees of subtlety, the social composition of passengers as one of the reasons. During my fieldwork, I noticed a divide between the discourses of richer and poorer non-users. Non-users from higher classes tend to simply close their eyes to the bus network, or think of it as diffusely dangerous. However, the lower the non-users’ income was, the more violent and spiteful their discourse towards the buses became. This echoes Bourdieu’s affirmation (quoted by Lawler, 2005) that “social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat.” The middle class constructs their ethos, in Lebanon and elsewhere, in opposition to working-class practices, which accounts for the refusal of many lower-middle-class residents to use the bus.
Nostalgia and Futurism
When I asked them what they thought of Lebanon’s transport system, a quarter of the non-users referred to the time when Beirut had a tramway and a railway. The city dismantled the tramway in 1968, often long before the interviewees were born; they are therefore mobilizing a discourse rather than a remembrance. The non-users invoke the past at the expense of the bus network, which they denigrate or do not mention. This shows that nostalgia can quickly slide from a comparative historical anchorage, towards an occultation of the present which mystifies past realities. Another evasion from the present reality comes in fantasies about hyperloops, and other hyper-futuristic transport modes, that planners often evoke when considering solutions for Lebanon’s transit system.
Informality, Uberization and the Public Production of Space
A key notion for understanding the marginalization of Lebanon’s bus network is informality. Informality, according to Roy(2009), is inscribed “in the ever-shifting relationship between what is legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate, authorized and unauthorized.” In Lebanon, these “informal” sectors and practices are an integral part of residents’ lives. They include, for example, the provision of illegal electricity through generators to compensate for cuts in daily electricity; waste collection; the supply of water by actors not mandated by the state; or the majority of buses operating across the country. The press, public authorities, and academia describe these sectors as “informal”; the operators and users of these networks do not.
Due to the vagueness of its definition, informality often constitutes an elastic category that authorities use to label certain urban realities as less legitimate. This makes it easier to evict residents, or to erase or destroy communities. The elasticity of “informality” is evident in public authorities’ different treatment of buses and ride-hailing apps, namely Uber and Careem. In Lebanon, some Uber and Careem vehicles operate without a red plate. Red plates are mandatory by law for shared-transports in Lebanon. We can thus consider these ride-hailing mobilities to be informal due to their semi-legal and flexible operating mode. However, public authorities and some residents recognize them. This inconsistency seems to fluctuate depending on the social class operating and using informality. This context also exacerbates the competition between informal buses and ride-hailing apps.
We can frame the questions which this asymmetry raises into a broader agenda; on 11 April 2019, Uber issued a declaration of intent to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, in which the company declared the replacement of public transport by Uber buses to be its long-term goal. For the last two years, Uber's activities have intensified in the Middle East. In 2019, the company bought its rival, Careem, for 3.1 billion dollars—the biggest acquisition of a Middle-Eastern technology company to date. Uber's ambition is to gradually replace public transport, including informal bus networks—in which it has demonstrated a growing and persistent interest. The company, its former competitor Careem, and this author were present at the first working group organized by the International Public Transport Union (UITP) in April 2018, entitled “Formalization/corporatization of informal/individually-operated public transport.” At the end of this working group, an Uber representative asked me for advice on approaching informal bus operators in Lebanon. In Cairo, since 2018, the situation has accelerated: Uber are testing their own buses to replace the informal bus network of the city.
However, pointing out the asymmetrical attitudes regarding both forms of informality that constitute Uber and buses in Beirut should not lead to a misleading opposition to the former. Considering informal buses to be the resilient and authentic reverse of a wild and technological “Uberization” can very quickly slide towards a romanticization of the bus system. Buses are not the opposite of Uberization; on the contrary, we could consider them an earlier version of mobility-as-a-service. In some respects, the operating conditions of these two modes of transport are similar: profit dictates what area they cover, and drivers work in precarious conditions, paying the price for the network’s resilience and flexibility. The issue remains that of class bias, which results in the categorization and delegitimization of certain practices. Public authorities, and some residents in Beirut, praise and co-opt one type of informality, and include it in a brandable “smart city” discourse. This smart-city discourse values high tech resilient and creative urban practices designed by and for the connected middle-classes of the country. One the other hand, they denigrate another informality, and exclude it from what they deem to be public transport. This raises questions about the interests behind the delegitimization of certain urban informalities on the margin of the city, which are more vulnerable and dependent on the tolerance of the Lebanese state. This active labelling that deems informality as unrepresentable, unmapped, and chaotic is a key way through which public authorities marginalize and filter these urban realities from mainstream narratives and representations of our cities.
Questioning the discourse surrounding buses in Beirut triggers a reflexivity on some tropes and dichotomies that permeate the ways we think of our cities, particularly the informal vs. formal, and the public vs. the private. Beirut buses show that not all resiliency and creativity are wished to be integrated into the smart-city, as inventive and creative as these practices might be. However, as pointed out above, buses are far from symbolizing an opposite to the Uberized smart city. The analysis of the discourses surrounding informal practices can be a lever for questioning the myths that feed and legitimize the smart city, precisely because informality does not represent its opposite.
 Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction. Critique Sociale du Jugement (Paris : Les Editions de Minuit, 1979), 672.