By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BEIRUT: With the summer approaching, 26-year-old Rayya is keen to hit the beach with friends. But for many, the joy of a day by the sea is marred by the long hours spent in traffic trying to get there.

Despite government promises to improve the country’s notorious congestion, Lebanon’s roads remain a chaotic maze of slowly moving cars, blaring horns and exasperation. “I love to get out of the city on the weekend but more and more I can’t bear to leave Beirut because it means spending hours on the highway, sitting in the heat in endless traffic,” Rayya says. “It’s too draining.”

After enduring years of taxing commutes and lost work hours, one man has put forth a proposal to end Lebanon’s traffic woes: water taxis. The Beirut Water Taxi Project will also help reduce Lebanon’s carbon emissions and reduce stress levels among commuters, says its creator Dr. Khaled Ahmad Taki, who heads Franchise Business Consultants.

The project, which is currently being studied by the Lebanese government, would see the commencement of commuter and private ferries between Beirut and Tripoli, Byblos, Jounieh, Damour, Sidon, Tyre and Naqqoura. With hundreds of kilometers of coastline, a ferry system seems such an obvious choice for Lebanon it’s surprising it hasn’t been thought of before. “Part of the beauty of the project is that you don’t have to convince people” of the need for a dramatic change to Lebanon’s transport system, Taki says. “To date there’s been a lot of interest in the project.”

The establishment of mini-malls at the ferry ports will help keep commuting costs to a minimum, Taki adds. For instance, a 55-minute journey from Beirut to Tripoli will cost around LL5,000 – the same as a service ride between the cities. Three types of Australian-made vessels will be offered: shuttle vessels capable of carrying 150 people, Clipper boats, as seen on London’s Thames River, which can carry over 200 commuters, and pre-booked “water taxis” which can carry up to 16 people.

Besides providing a reliable and alternative means of transport to commuters, the Beirut Water Taxi Project would also help stimulate the nation’s economy by creating some 15,000 new jobs, Taki says. He admits it won’t be easy to end Lebanon’s love affair with cars, but says the practicalities of the ferry system should eventually win the skeptics over. “People are attracted to their cars because it is a sign of prestige. But it is now a headache to drive.” The ferries, which will boast roomy leather chairs, “will help save Lebanese the leisure time they cherish.”

Implementation of the project would also allow the government to connect to the younger and more socially aware generation of Lebanese, Taki says. He has plans to make the project as democratic as possible and is organizing open forums across the country so members of the public can voice their suggestions and concerns. Could the end of Lebanon’s congestion nightmare be in sight?