One of my school-friends has spent the last few years working for Jesuit Refugee Service, dealing with the mass exodus of Syrians fleeing the Civil War. Her most recent posting was Beirut, and she’s been saying for ages that I should come and see Lebanon for myself – while she’s still there to steer me clear of Hezbollah. And a month ago, she told me that she was being re-posted elsewhere.
So I almost-immediately booked a ticket for a long weekend in Lebanon. Followed by a week in Greece. Because if one is going to go and look at a country with a refugee crisis, then one ought to pop across the Mediterranean and see how the Euro crisis is going. And, er, the beaches. And the cherry harvest in late spring. Yes.
The travels of the last two weeks have been a time of blogspiration. I have new lists of things to write about; all of which I’m provisionally tagging under the title “The Travelling Economist” – because I seem to have stepped over into that crazy twilight zone where one can only experience the world through work-eyes.
And I’m starting the series with this post about the completely free market that is Lebanese driving.
Lebanese Traffic “Rules”
Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport is a trifling 9 kilometres from the City Centre. There is a highway that runs up from the South of Lebanon, linking the cities of Tyre and Sidon with Beirut, and then on up into the North to Byblos and Tripoli. This highway runs directly past the airport, and takes you straight into the centre of Beirut.
I landed at Rafic Hariri at about midday on a Thursday. My friend/tour-guide/itinerary-planner had left her downtown apartment, in a taxi, about 15 minutes before I landed. At midday on a working Thursday.
In the time that it took her to reach me, I had:
- cleared immigration and customs,
- collected my long-haul luggage,
- exhausted my full 30 minute allocation of free airport wifi,
- bought and activated a SIM card, and
- spent 40 minutes standing outside the airport terminal, feeling generally fragile after 16 hours of Qatar Airways and their “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have sparkling wine – we only have champagne. Would that be alright?”
I make that at least 90 minutes of 9 kilometres.
Then I got into the taxi, and spent the next hour or so being amazed.
Some initial notes:
- Reversing on Lebanese highways: completely acceptable.
- Parking on Lebanese highways: completely normal.
- Potholes on Lebanese highways: completely widespread.
- Lanes on Lebanese highways: divide by two, add one.
- Right of way belongs to whoever has nosed ahead.
- That rule applies in all situations unless there is a pretty woman in the vicinity. In which case, they have right of way, and other cars may voluntarily stop and reverse in order to give them right of way, while whistling.
- Pay no attention at all to the cars behind you. What they do is their problem.
- Your job is to worry about the cars in front of you. And the cars immediately to your left and right; unless you’ve managed to inch ahead of them – in which case, they are behind you, and you are now their problem.
That was only the first taxi ride.
Which was deeply troubling. Because:
- I had never driven a right-hand-drive vehicle before; and
- I had agreed to do the driving in the rental car that we were collecting the next morning. Also,
- In my fragile state, the phrase “fiery baptism” kept floating past with bilious regularity.
Later that night..
I caught a taxi home, and shared it with one of the new Lebanese people that had joined us at dinner (the Lebanese crew seemed very concerned that I would feel like I hadn’t experienced Lebanese hospitality – so I experienced lots of it, continuously). Obviously, I’d spent most of the day being amazed by the traffic, so we spoke about it on the drive home.
“Yes, they introduced rules for driving in the last month or so. We’ve never had rules for driving before.”
Now that I’m back in regular internet contact, I can confirm that. New Lebanese traffic rules were introduced at the end of April this year (read this entertaining article about it from the FT).
But rules and enforcement are not the same thing. And I saw none of the latter. Not a whisper.
The next two days
So I drove in Lebanon. I did the north road up through Jounieh to Batroun. I went to the Jeita Grotto (which everyone should do at least once, I feel). And I drove over Mount Lebanon, down into the Be’kaa/Beqaa Valley, and then back to Beirut along the highway to Damascus.
The entire time, I continued to be amazed – or, more accurately, aghast – at the willingness of Lebanese drivers to overtake on blind rises and hairpin bends.
Here is a map of our route to the famous Cedars, and then over to the Be’kaa valley:
We are talking about compounding hairpin bends, where the hairpin bends have hairpin bends. On blind rises and around mountains where there is nothing but open cliff face on one side of you and open air on the other.
In the incident that stands out from all other incidents, I was stuck behind a large truck on a steep and narrow mountain pass, approaching a hairpin bend to the right, where there was no possibility of seeing what was coming at you from the other side of the bend.
I then watched multiple cars come up from behind me, flashing lights in irritation, and overtaking both my rental car and the truck. My jaw dropped – dropped – because in my world, there is just no way that you would do that. It was like the driving equivalent of playing Russian roulette with seven of the eight cylinders loaded. You just don’t. Not for the twenty seconds that you’d save. Because why.
I watched the truck realise that its turning circle wasn’t wide enough to make the turn. So it swerved into the oncoming lane in order to make it. Still completely blind as to what was coming.
My response was hysterical laughter. Because I’d realised that the reason you overtake on a hairpin bend is because it’s safer than staying behind the truck.
So at the next blind rise, I cast my rented Nissan Micra into the hands of fate.
This Is The Outcome Of Free Markets
When I wasn’t driving in Lebanon, and I was no longer being generally exhausted by all the attention that I had to pay while simultaneously trying to recall that I was driving on the opposite side of what I’m used to, I kept thinking: this is what happens when you let the market be completely unregulated.
Because the transportation system in Lebanon is a proper free market. There are no rules being enforced by a governing authority. There are just resources (roads), being used by drivers as they see fit. If you want more of the road, you have to be rich enough to hire an entourage with sirens (because those are simply a question of wealth, I’m told). If there is a space, you can fill it. Driving under the influence is completely within the realm of possibility. Traffic lights are quaint and colourful side-shows. And there is no real attention paid to improving infrastructure – because that is not how free market agents work in this particular setting.
Sure – you could argue that the free market agents here aren’t being as efficient as they ought to be (in theory). I mean, you’d hope for some sort of self-order to spontaneously spring out of the chaos. Like:
- People won’t park on highways because that clogs up traffic and makes it slower for everyone – so if people wants the highways to be free-flowing, then they won’t park on them. Or
- Overtaking on hairpin bends and blind rises results in lots of deaths and maimings, which is pretty undesirable – so free market agents will naturally do the sensible thing and not overtake on them. Or
- Drunk-driving will result in deaths, high vehicle and insurance costs, and general societal shunning – so people won’t do it if given the freedom to choose not to.
None of those seem to be happening.
And if you really want to push for a free-market interpretation of the facts, then you’d be forced to conclude that:
- Lebanese people prefer congested highways;
- The Lebanese aren’t that offended by the deaths and maimings that come from dangerous overtaking; and
- People are would rather pay the high costs of drunk-driving than pay for a taxi.
Of course, the transportation system does work in its own way. You can still get places. But I’m not sure that anyone could describe this as an “optimal” solution. Not when you can go to other countries, with higher car densities, where the driving is safer and faster, albeit more regulated.
I can’t help but think that this is one of those situations where a little regulation might go a really long way to making everyone’s lives a bit better. Because who really benefits from roads filled with semi-organised chaos? No one that I can see.
Just a not-very-Libertarian thought…