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.

Benghazi’s Neighbourhoods and Their Ideologies

Most big cities around the world are organized based on a system of streets and districts. Neighbourhoods are often formed on the periphery of busy commercial centers, in quiet residential areas where familiarity between people doesn’t extend beyond physical recognition and a formal head-nod.

But of course, Benghazi breaks that tradition. Rather than adopting big city idiosyncrasies (impersonal, enormous, chaotic), it has instead developed a hybrid of urban culture and small town quirks.

Take, for example, the layout of the city. Benghazi’s core is its downtown, located on a jut of land overlooking the Mediterranean, since the city’s economy was historically dependent on its sea port and salt trade. Later, Greek town planner C.A.Doxiadis drafted a vision for the city to promote a concentric-circle plan, with the downtown being the core. The concentric circle design is a standard template in urban planning, and is beneficial for cities experiencing rapid growth.

But while Benghazi’s downtown is (or, was) a commercial center, it never quite shook off the neighbourhoods that had existed in the area. These include El-Sabri, Sidi Khraibeesh and Souq El-Hoot, districts that once housed Benghazi’s oldest families and contained a medley of architecture styles and landmarks that extend as far back as the Ottomans. (If you notice a switch in my use of present and past tenses, I still have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve ostensibly lost our downtown in this war).

Most of the old families had long moved out of these areas, but the buildings they left behind still bore their names. The Kanoun building, the Benkato mosque, the Kikhia house, etc. all form a downtown that is familiar in the minds and hearts of Benghazi’s older generation. My favorite part of walking through the downtown with my parents is hearing them reminisce on old memories. My father riding his bike around the Silphium plaza or haggling with Jewish merchants in Souq El-Jareed, my mother studying in the Manar Palace (temporarily used by the university) and eating lunch with her friends beneath the horseshoe arches of the terrace.

Benghazi expanded to the North, South and West, but the traits that made up the old neighbourhoods did not dissipate. Instead, they moved with the families, creating neighbourhoods across the city where people know each other intimately, where strangers asking for directions are invited inside for food and tea, where a wedding or funeral tent is set up in the middle of the street and no one complains, because the neighbourhood celebrates and mourns together. Some say that, because the people who came to Benghazi broke away from their tribes and became part of the diverse social fabric of the city, they recreated the tribal system they were familiar with. In Benghazi, there isn’t much that separates family, friends and neighbours.

Today, the neighbourhoods in Benghazi can roughly be described as “upper” or “lower” class, although the description isn’t universally accurate. Gadhafi’s systematic destruction of the city created an even playing field, economically speaking. That is to say, lower class ‘sha3biya’ areas can house university professors and other intellectuals, while many upper class areas have no working sewage system.

El-Wahayshi is considered Benghazi’s “slum”. Containing mostly old housing developments, the area has a high drug-trafficking rate, and many immigrants coming from impoverished countries live there. Tabalino, on the other hand, is considered a “rich suburb”. A relatively new area, most of the houses are impressive marble-encased villas surrounded by high walls. But aside from the houses, the districts are almost imperceptible from one another. Both have the same small shops selling vegetables, cigarette kiosks and mobile phone stores. Both have public schools with the same architecture and the same level of education. Both have potholes that fill with rain water in the winter.

I remember reading an article that described the Hadayek area as “affluent” and laughing at the description. Hadayek is a relatively nice area, paved streets and sidewalks and trees (the name translates to ‘the Gardens’), but it doesn’t contain any features that make it particularly affluent, or distinguishes it from ‘less affluent’ areas. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long, but the shabby facades and accumulated dust and debris from years of neglect have made all the districts in Benghazi similar to me.

The neighbourhood mindset has had a certain degree of effect in the current war. I’ve seen many articles analyzing the political, cultural and economic factors that have come into play, but I have rarely – if ever – read an analysis that including the anomaly of Benghazi’s urban composition.

For example, when the war begin, one of the first districts to be liberated was El-Selmani. Selmani is an old, high-density area comprised of a maze of narrow streets. It isn’t so much a large swath of houses as much as it’s one house, with children and women and men walking the narrow streets like hallways to play or borrow ingredients or just to stand on the corner and chat. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Selmani who didn’t know their neighbours in at least a four street radius. And so, when the war began and the extremists began fighting army members for access to various districts, the people of Selmani instinctively knew who was whom. And due to the Selmani residents’ overwhelming support for the army, the extremists were weeded out and fighting stopped in the area after three days.

But in Laithi it was the opposite. Laithi is another old neighbourhood, expanding across much of West Benghazi and containing a mix of new and old buildings. Before the war, the district was humorously referred to as “Laithi-stan” due to the overwhelming number of people who were pro-Ansar Shariah (dark humor, I know). When the war began, the men of the area closed off the main streets, snipers were positioned in key locations and those who supported the army inconspicuously left. When the fighting began, all their strategizing was put in motion and it remains a site of continuous battle to this day.

Now, what makes a neighbourhood predominately pro-Ansar or pro-Army? It’s obviously not just a coincidence that people with similar ideologies happened to live near each other. As mentioned previously, neighbours are akin to family for many people. People who grow up next to each other are bound to have their beliefs influence one another. What’s become apparent in this war is that many families with those who have a member in the fight will ferociously defend that side, and so the same seems to go with neighbours.

Another anomaly in the war is the fact that we have military bases located in residential neighbourhoods. The February 17th militia base is across from the university quarters and the Rafallah Sahati militia base is in Hawari. Not surprisingly, these areas have been evacuated (or people were forced to leave under threat of violence). The number of displaced families has reached a little over 46,000 registered IDP families, and the relocation and humanitarian assistance for these families has proven to be one of the biggest problems in the crisis. The psychological damage of the displacement is probably the worst. There are fears also that the ideological reasons for the war and the tribal elements are tearing apart the social fabric of the city.

It’s this humble (sort of) blogger’s opinion that this last fear is not as worrying as it would be if we were talking about a city other than Benghazi. Our society is, if not many other things, at least resilient. This is not the first war or the first crisis that we have ever faced, and while tensions may be high now, I don’t believe (or hope, at any rate) that we’ll see any lasting damages.

When Architecture Suffers From Identity Crisis

“You used to live abroad, didn’t you?” I had become used to my professors eventually asking this question, and despite four years in the department, the same inquiry still pops up.

“Yes, I did. Did my accent give it away?” I grinned sheepishly. I still get uncomfortable when people bring it up, and the faint lilt in my Libyan accent always gives me away.

“A little, yes. But I noticed it in your designs.” I was slightly taken aback. I knew that my designs were a little different, but not that they reflected anything about my personal life.

“Haha, yeah, I guess I was really influenced by my childhood.” I felt myself entering dangerous territory. I didn’t want to be accused of lifting designs from the internet, what the students call their source of ‘inspiration’.

“Yes, it’s apparent. You try very hard to make them Middle Eastern, but it looks like an outsider’s interpretation. I admire your effort to return to your roots, though.”

The project that we had this conversation over was a landscaping task for a small house. I had initially begun with the aim of giving it a Spanish Colonial Revival feel, because I found that style comfortably familiar. Mediterranean-meets-Middle East, if you will. Spain’s architecture reflects it’s mesh of East and West very organically.

This might explain why I was attracted to it, but the resulting design was neither Spanish Colonial or Middle Eastern.

32You’d be hard pressed to find a house that looks like this in the Middle East. This screams middle class white neighbourhood, but the architecture of the house and the privacy afforded by the clustered trees hint of something else.

That ‘something else’ was my attempt to design something that was both climatically and culturally Libyan, while staying in my comfort zone. When I look at it, I don’t feel that it’s ugly or repellent. But there is something off, not quite right.

The other students reveled in the options afforded them by Middle East design, with tiles being the dominant ground cover, palm trees and water features in every nook and cranny, and a sterile white colour palette.

The next project was a small park in the middle of a busy district in Benghazi, and at that point I abandoned all pretense of designing something Middle Eastern. I read up on the urban landscaping revival in the West and the standards they had set.

Middle Eastern cities are the anti-thesis  to Western cities. The former focuses on privacy, the latter revels in public space. Arabs try to shield themselves from their weather while Westerners invite it into their homes.

So a Western design in an Arab city is perhaps an invitation to folly, but I had had enough of faking different styles and attempting to do something I was uncomfortable with.

Prefinal poster copy

I was much more satisfied with this design than the previous one, and interestingly enough, my professors also responded more positively than before. I guess all those adages about being ‘true to yourself’ are more than just sappy self-help quotes.

For my neighbourhood design (urban planning course), I decided to attempt a balance, by utilizing my (Western) style, but adding the primary concepts of MENA design with a twist, to make it fit together.

Final2 copyFor the airport design, there was very little room to add a distinct style, as successful airports are dictated by their functionality and economic standards. Overall, I’m really satisfied with the development of my work this semester, though I could still improve my time management when it comes to deadlines.

Like writing, I have found that designing helps me articulate my personality, and understand myself better. I need to avoid the pitfall of trying to mash contradicting principles which result in a design that gives the impression of cognitive dissonance. Architecture is problem solving among other things, and a non-orthodox approach does not condemn the proposed solution to failure.

Whether you’re influenced by the East, West, or another direction entirely, it’s important to be sincere with yourself and with your client. No matter how much you try to dress up or photoshop your design, nothing can truly disguise dishonest architecture.

A good example of this is in Dubai. The skyscrapers and impossible innovation are interesting if you observe them in a vacuum. But for these things to be in the middle of an Arab city, in our climate and culture, reeks of inconsistency. The struggle to bring the region up to modern city standards is admirable, but importing foreign designs and ignoring the surroundings never bodes well.