“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” – Gustavo Pedro
Of all the milestones that defined my ‘coming-of-age’ in life, none were as transformative as the day I finally got a car. As a person who loves getting involved in multiple projects, meeting up with different people, and generally being in as many places as possible, it was incredibly frustrating to be driven around, and have to wait around for my next ride. There were endless arguments in my family about how often I was out, but no one was willing to give me (an admittedly not-so-great driver) their car.
Around the world, getting your own car is a milestone only in a certain number of countries. The common factor? Cities with limited or no public transport, and with large sprawling suburbs.
In a country like Libya, that suffers from the dual curse of subsidized petrol and low density urban planning, having a car is crucial if you want to live. The average Libyan in a big city lives in a suburban neighbourhood that most likely has very little available services in walking distance, and will spend at least a quarter of their day in a car. Much of that time is spent stuck in traffic with all the other Libyans who need to drop off their kids at school, buy groceries, or one of a million tasks that require an automobile. If you live on a main road, the sound of honking horns and the pollution wafting into your windows becomes commonplace.
So what happens when you don’t have a car in Libya? For the countless residents who can’t afford to buy a car, every day is a struggle.
Before 2011, there were at least some options for the car-less. You could get a black-and-white taxi who, for 2 or 3 dinars, would take you to most places in the city. At one point, the ’25 cent’ minibuses (حافلات ربع) became quite popular. As the name states, you could hail the minibus for a number of routes through the city, and it would only cost you 25 qroosh. And of course, you could walk, although outside of the city center sidewalks are very intermittent and – especially if you’re a woman – it’s not always a comfortable experience.
After the revolution, things became trickier. Taxi cabs almost completely disappeared in Benghazi, along with the minibuses. There’s a number of theories around this, with some saying that a lot of taxi drivers were intelligence officers in the Gadhafi regime. But the most probably reason is that there was a more lucrative way to make money after the revolution; joining a militia. Car sales also went up, as salary increases and new wealth distribution decrees (such as student grants) increase the disposable income of individuals. Regulations also allowed the importing of used cars, something heavily restricted under the old regime.
Whatever the reasons, traffic increased exponentially in Libyan cities, from barely legal drivers to the infamous Toyota pick-up trucks of militia groups. But a lot of people – especially non-Libyans – still needed to get around and had no car. The only reliable method of getting a ride was using a peculiar form of entrepreneurship that emerged before the revolution. Residents who were strapped for cash would use their car to drop people off, and it was known as sayara khasa (سيارة خاصة) or private car. If you were walking on a road and a car flashed their headlights at you, they were offering you a ride. Think of it as a grungy version of Uber but without the app.
I remember thinking that the idea of getting in a car with a random stranger who decided to become a private taxi was really weird, especially since it was an unregulated service essentially on the black market. Until I actually needed one.
Back before I bought my freedom of mobility with my cherished Hyundai, I broke the permanent retainer on my teeth and needed to urgently go to the dentist. The problem? My parents were both at my grandmother’s funeral, along with all my car-owning relatives. We lived on the Western side of Benghazi and the dentist was 20 minutes away by car on Dubai St. Everyone told me to wait until they could drop me off the next day, but the sharp bit of metal wire in my mouth said otherwise. Completely out of options, I got on the main road and hailed my first sayara khasa.
It was a thrilling experience, because suddenly I wasn’t trapped by geography or time anymore. I had this unexplainable sensation of control. My parents were mortified. No self-respecting Libyan family would let their daughter take a private car! Those things were for migrants and teenage boys going to the beach. They paid for my lessons at a driving school the next week.
Car-sharing services have evolved considerably in the past few years in Libya. With the advent of good mobile data connections, more and more apps have been popping up which essentially do what Uber and Careem and Bolt offer in other countries. One of the first to emerge in Benghazi was Rahal, an investment project by the Bank of Commerce and Development. Unlike the private car service, which is seen by the average middle-class Libyan as a less-than-prestigious option, these new apps are tapping into this market. They use high-end cars driven by well-groomed young men in business casual clothing. One service received backlash after posting a job ad for their ride-hailing service, which including the requirement of being “an engineer or doctor” from potential applicants (great use of a degree, bro). But the marketing tactic here is obvious. This is not your garbaja private car driven by a downtrodden citizen. It is a service for “عيال ناس” or respectable people.
Aside from the very problematic social justice issues at play here, what is interesting is that these middle-income families are using these services. Despite the average household having at least two cars, younger Libyans are slowly transitioning out of owning a car. There’s a number of factors which can be attributed to this. One is the actual expense of the car. Because the prices skyrocketed after the 2014 economic collapse, it took me two years of work before I could afford one. The second issue is that of driving and parking. As more and more motor vehicles clog Libyan streets, driving has become a nightmare. Traffic jams, endless honking, people violating traffic rules; driving in Libya can be terrifying. Despite the war, the number one cause of death in Libya is road accidents. I know many Libyans, both young and old, who refuse to drive to avoid the sheer stress of the experience.
This line of thinking has also prompted another new use of the car; deliveries. Rather than going out to get a pizza or shawerma, why not pay someone to bring it to you? This model has become extremely successful in the past few years in the big cities. Start-ups like Sofraji in Tripoli took off immediately. Delivery Benghazi came along a few years ago and offered not just food delivery but delivery of anything. Pharmaceuticals, makeup, and even groceries can all be delivered to your house in Benghazi with apps such as Spiza. Young enterprising Libyans are now coming up with a range of ideas for new car-based services and merging several options together. Mashwary recruits drivers with their own cars to offer drop-offs or deliveries, while Servo is trying to expand their range of services offered and become a one-stop shop for Libyans on the go. There are also women-only options for more conservative families.
Right now you’re probably thinking, if cars are the problem, then are alternative car-based services really the solution?
In some cases, having one guy deliver 40 food orders in a given neighbourhood is better than having 40 cars out in the street. But the issue of traffic jams during rush hour can’t be fixed with an app, which is why Rahal are planning to launch a school bus service for private schools in Benghazi. A new bus service recently launched in Tripoli called Alsahem. For 1.5 dinars you can ride on one of their 3 routes, which span quite a large distance. The buses are clean and well-maintained, but the services are still not very popular.
The challenge of public transportation in Libya isn’t just technical but cultural. Just like with private cars vs. ride-hailing apps, the type of transport that is used is determined by perception. As the War on Cars podcast noted, buses just aren’t sexy. And in Libya, this lack of sexiness is a real obstacle. Even a bus driven by an engineer or doctor won’t necessarily appeal to people the way a private car does. A bus is a social equalizer, giving people from different backgrounds the same services and treatment. In a xenophobic and socially stratified place like Libyan cities, this is a difficult product to sell.
So what kind of public transport is sexy? One of our governments believes that a metro is the solution. Last year, the GNA’s Minister of Economy announced a 10 billion euro plan to built a metro system in Libya to boost the economy and provide jobs. The downside to this announcement was that it was done in the middle of an active conflict in Tripoli, and was only met by anger from Libyans, particularly those who remember the failed railway project from pre-2011. But a tram or subway system might just be a game changer for Libyan cities. For the Libyans who travel abroad and use well-developed public transport in Istanbul or Europe, the idea could be appealing. And for disenfranchised groups such as immigrants who are unable to use the new app-based services due to their higher costs or exclusionary nature, having more mobility options could change their relationship to the city.
In a country where the road infrastructure can’t be built as fast as the neighbourhoods, where the airports are struggling to operate, and as war continues to make mobility one of the biggest challenges to daily life, all these things can seem like a pipe dream. But car culture will never be sustainable, and even a place like Libya is not immune to the problems of automobile-dominated cities. While I love my car, I’ve probably now put more money into maintaining it than what it actually cost me.
Small changes like pedestrianizing shopping streets during Ramadan, and more people walking or jogging as a form of exercise, demand a change in the way we plan our cities. Urban life in Libya has changed drastically in the past 10 years, and this presents a real opportunity to pioneer new transport changes, so we can finally be rid of our car dependency, and, hopefully, design more inclusive cities for everyone.
Special thanks to Wissam Salem for his help on writing this post.