This excerpt is adapted from a post originally written for my personal city-themed blog as a rationale for Bus Map Project. You can see how the project has progressed since then at BMP's blog. Scroll to the end for further reading.


...explaining why we're doing things the way we're doing them—why we're insisting on keeping the process of gathering support at the center of the project, as opposed to preparing a map somewhere 'backstage' and only talking about it when its 'ready'—seems to be half our battle. People tend to expect projects like this to be primarily channeled through "registered" or "recognized" structures with clear funding streams, whether for- or non-profit, but never on an "individual" basis. When we describe Bus Map Project as a 'catalyst' or a 'platform,' people ask us about our 'action plan,' as though the work of gathering support is preparatory, as opposed to being the plan in action, a plan that can only congeal into different levels of definiteness through their active participation.

The approach we're taking may seem like we're juggling too many watermelons at once; if our goal is to help the non-riding public become familiar with Beirut's bus system, why don't we just focus on making the tools they need ourselves?

Firstly, I should make clear that we are indeed working towards a funded and more traditionally-structured campaign. At this stage, however, it's important to keep the horizons of the project (where it goes, what it prioritizes, how long it lasts, etc) as open as possible. Not only will this make the project more responsive to immediate needs, as partnerships are formed over specific tasks that people feel directly invested in, but it will get us closer to the larger purpose behind trying to get people familiar with the existing system: getting bodies inside buses is only one of our goals. The larger goal is to encourage activists to think beyond the traditional avenues for social change like lobbying, awareness campaigns, funded research, or commercial ventures.

If that bigger picture is kept in mind, it's easier to see why we're being a little stubborn in our approach. If we want our partners to take part in the co-production of existing urban systems, why would we design a project that does not invite them to take part in that co-production straight away? If we are urging pro-transit activists to move beyond traditional planning paradigms towards more socially-engaged, participatory models, why would we channel our efforts through structures that turn them into passive consumers of our work? In other words, the process of engaging people with the idea of public engagement is a fundamental part of this project. It's not an introduction to the project, or a pitch about the project; it is the project's most important feature.

A bus stop in Hamra

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So much for our methodology. Here is Bus Map Project's central thesis, broken down to a six-point argument:

  1. most pro-transit activists in Lebanon have an overly narrow definition of public transport;

  2. this narrowness makes it difficult for them to see the existing transit system as public transport;

  3. this, in turn. encourages people to believe that public transport (in any shape or form) does not exist in Lebanon;

  4. which is dangerous, because over-zealously advocating for change without appreciating what is already there can have unintended consequences for the people who depend on the system today;

  5. hence, one way of building bridges between those who want more and those that make do is to promote more interaction between them;

  6. one concrete way of doing this is through a collective mapping project, in the vein of the Digital Matatus project in Nairobi, or the World Bank-led initiative in Cairo.

Making this case involves convincing people that the existing system is worth taking seriously, while at the same time reassuring them that this does not mean being blind to its problems nor accepting all its present-day features forever. What this does mean, however, is a more realistic appreciation of how certain ends can be reached in our society. Knowing what's really going on on the ground not only allows us to identify specific problems and areas of convergence with wider social issues (i.e. helps us move beyond the simplistic blanket concept of fawda or 'chaos' which is neither accurate nor helpful), but it can mean that many of our existing mobility needs can be met today.


This is why we have been sharing what we already know while drumming up support for a more comprehensive, collective mapping effort. Here are some of the basic features of Beirut's transit system that can be of immediate use to those looking for non-automotive ways of getting around the country:

  1. Major Hubs:

There are three major transit hubs for getting in and out of Beirut from their southern and northern corridors. The most well-known are Cola and Dora. Cola is the node for all routes to the south and Shouf region. Dora is a node for the North and rest of Mount Lebanon. Charles Helou Bus Station is the more formal of the three, with routes to the North and beyond Lebanon's borders.

  1. Key Nodes:

There are also areas that tend to be either very well known, or lie in-between, at intersections and bypasses, making their significance to Lebanon's transit network not that obvious. Popular places include Hamra, while liminal spaces are also important.

  1. Popular Routes

And of course, what would a bus map be without its bus routes? The Number 5 and the Number 22 are our regular go-to modes. Sometimes these numbers are incomprehensible for non-riders, but the system is very easy to learn.


[...] Once we gather enough up-to-date snapshots of the system's features, the aim will be to compile them into one open-source map, that can give us a better sense of how this tangle of informal networks fits together. Not only would this make more areas more accessible to users and non-users alike, it will also expose the gaps and inefficiencies in the system more easily. We'll finally be able to differentiate between 'chaos' and 'order,' without resorting to crude simplifications or dismissive attitudes.

* * *

From this quick survey of our rationale and output (so far), we can already see that making Beirut's transit system more legible will involve learning from our city in different ways. This means re-thinking how cities are organized, what maps should look like, and how knowledge is produced. It also means re-defining what it means to do politics in the city. That's a lot to juggle, for sure, but I believe that we should keep these questions at the heart of any project seeking urban change. That's the only way to ensure that the ends don't obfuscate the means, and that, in this case, more convenient/sustainable/pleasant transport doesn't come at a social cost that only some of us will have to pay.