Million Dollar Metros and Migrants in Taxis: The Need to Rethink Libya’s Transportation Planning

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Benghazi’s street grid system. While the city center is a dense network of roads, the system hasn’t been able to grow fast enough outside this core. (Image generated by City Roads via OpenStreetMaps data)

“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.

Cars gridlocked during a celebration in Benghazi, 2013

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?

Private school bus service (Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/RahalApp/)

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.

Streets and Statues: Political Symbolism in Benghazi

The downtown center of Benghazi and the city’s nearby historic Birka district is connected by a 3.3 km arterial road. This street has gone by several different names in the past, depending on who is power at the time, but for local Benghazi residents, it’s known as Jamal Abdul Nasser St., named after the leader of the Pan-Arab movement that captivated Gadhafi. This passion for Pan-Arabism extended to most of Benghazi’s streets, with the main highway connecting Benghazi to East and West Libya named ‘Arouba’ (Arabism) street, and most members of the Arab League will find a road in Benghazi with their name, from Yemen to Sudan to even the historic Andalus. However, the only name that stuck with the locals was Jamal Street (the highway is known as Tripoli Road).

The naming of streets in Libya is serious political business. During the 2011 revolution, there was conscious willingness to rename all the streets and plazas and pubic buildings from symbols of Gadhafi’s Fateh revolution, with the new names representing the new era of Libya. This occurred throughout the region, with multiple ‘freedom squares’, ‘martyrs plazas’ and ‘revolutionary roads’ appearing across MENA cities. The 2014 civil war, which saw a shifting of political alliances, meant that names had to be changed yet again. The people of Benghazi, who could understandably not keep up with these constant changes, eventually reverted to the pre-revolution names.

Jamal Street retained its name in all this turmoil, despite losing the eponymous statue which marked its Western entrance. One year after the revolution, a group of “officials” ordered the statue to be torn down. News reports claim that the reason was unclear for bringing down the statue, but everyone in Benghazi knew why. After certain political groups co-opted the revolution, they began doing what Gadhafi had done before them; remove all symbols of past power.

The now demolished statue of Jamal Abdul Nasser
Photo credits: http://wander-wege.blogspot.com/2010/08/brief-history-of-benghazi.html

This is a trend that seems to be particular to Benghazi; it is one of the few cities where history is difficult is commemorate spatially. Gadhafi had a field day ordering the removal of any public icon that wasn’t linked to his ideology; the shrine of Omar Mukhtar was destroyed, the ‘souq al-thalam’ in the downtown demolished, the King’s Parliament building razed into a parking lot, the lion statues on the corniche mysteriously vanished overnight. What couldn’t be removed was left to decay. Piece by piece over 42 years, the landmarks of the city were erased, perhaps his own attempt at trying to control a disgruntled city that never really recognized his authority.

And after the revolution, this mindset of erasure was inherited by the winners; the statue of Jamal taken down, the ‘revolutionary bases’ burned to the ground, and new statues put up. Among the very grotesque and aesthetically horrifying symbols was an abstract mini-replica of the Benghazi lighthouse, a strange 10 meter skeletal box (?) with a neon hand and the words ‘God is Great’ written over it, and a particularly hideous clock with the colours of the flag placed on the face of the lighthouse itself, which elicited much rage from the architect community. Among less hideous statues were the fighter jets and tanks placed at various roundabouts, commemorating the Libyan air force and military.

The burned out ‘mathaba thawriya’ (revolutionary base) in central Benghazi

Other symbols were instead appropriated, such as the ‘pipe roundabout’ which was a celebration of the Great Man-Made River project. A grouping of several large, dusty white pipes, they were given a new coat of colourful paint after the revolution, and again re-painted after the war in the shape of book spines. I think the aim here was more about rejuvenating the spirit of Benghazi after a particularly difficult historic period (something difficult to appreciate when you are stuck in the traffic of the roundabout and yelling at the guy who just cut you off).

Because of the lack of any real pedestrian routes in the city aside from the city center, these statues invariably are placed in the city’s numerous roundabouts. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a roundabout in Benghazi that doesn’t have some icon in the center, including in some cases the burned out cars of notable fighters during the war, statues representing rural life such as jars and wells, and of course more fighter jets.

A small model of the Omar Mukhtar shrine during a cultural parade in Benghazi, in which various historic symbols of the city were recreated

These symbols, while failing to actually reflect anything symbolic, instead offer some insight into the various power struggles; of religious ideology, military force, and the confusion that many of the local artists and residents have about what the city truly represents. Benghazi is more than revolutions or wars, and yet we don’t have anything to prove it except faded memories. It is a city that is doomed to repeat its own history because it can’t hold on to it.

The only way to live through the city’s past is through old photographs and memories of the people. It’s an invisible city, one that is superimposed onto the real one but which can only be viewed through the eyes of its residents. That’s where the Italian theater used to be, this is where the Benkato mosque once stood, here’s the building I once took classes. A city that ‘used to be’.