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Notes from Big Ben …

Beirut isn’t Just Another Pretty Face ... Or Can Technology be ‘Pushed’ too Quickly?

By Peter Guest

I recently went to Beirut for the first time in seven years. It’s interesting to see the city and how things are moving forward. The juxtaposition of 21st century architecture and bullet-riddled buildings is just a little surreal.
About 10 years ago, I was working there for the government and came up with a proposal to sort out the parking problems. They were not up to dealing with high-tech systems, and the coinage is wrong for parking payment. I thought that it would be a decade before they could handle technology, so I suggested a soft takeoff dealing with one problem at a time.
First, deal with obstructive parking; next, show people where they can park. Then introduce stay limits and charges using scratch cards (low-tech, easy to buy) to help make this work. While all this was happening, build some garages, funded by the parking fees, since the only modes of transport then were cars and taxis, and if you control the streets, you have to have somewhere for the cars to go if the economy isn’t going to stop. By then, they would have a knowledge base and experience and could make the transition to a modern technology-based system.
The World Bank came in with a consultant who had different ideas. My ideas went, and they decided to go straight to the technology option. Well, 10 years later (see above) and they have just got the meters up and running. In the local press, a government spokesman thinks they are great and makes extensive claims about how they are revolutionizing parking in Beirut.
Trouble is, they have no build-up of knowledge, so it rather seems that they are being installed on a “suck it and see” basis. Main streets are controlled, but the side roads remain in a state of anarchy. Schemes are put in and then changed when they don’t quite work, and although the city has built no major off-street facilities, as far as I could understand they claim that the all-day worker parking has vanished. I wonder where?
Because of the limits of the coinage, they have had to use credit cards and stored-value cards, and this has allowed one innovation that I have long called for but never seen before. Drivers can pay their parking fines right at the meter. If you get a ticket, you just go to the meter, press a few buttons, pay the fine and the job’s done. This just makes so much sense for uncontested penalties that I do wonder why it doesn’t happen everywhere.
I am that good
Why was I in Beirut? Well, an old friend had got me out to look at a shopping mall car park that they were having problems with. This scheme has had the gestation period of a very slow elephant, and I have looked at it and doodled on various schemes forever. It has come alive again with some new investors and a new design. But they had designed a car park and just couldn’t get it to work.
Anyway, the phone rang on a Thursday; Friday morning I was on a plane to Beirut, and by Sunday afternoon, we headed off for a pizza with three viable designs on the table. I wouldn’t say that any of them were finalized, but they were all viable.
One issue that concerned everyone was the information that we had about traffic flows and demand data from the investor’s big-name traffic consultants. They showed me the Traffic Impact Study, and I almost fell off my chair. This is downtown Beirut, and the consultants (I can’t use the word that I would prefer to describe them) had predicted the traffic and parking demand using ITE data.
There is no questioning or caveats; these data are presented as if on tablets of stone. They use a 2010 design year for a building that is unlikely to be even built before 2012, and propose traffic mitigation that would leave most junctions in the area with a Level of Service of D, before taking account of any other developments or traffic growth post-2012.
I cannot see any way that, if the project goes ahead on the basis of the current traffic studies, it won’t open to major traffic problems and run out of parking within a few years. Inevitably, if I am right, the traders will quickly move out to a site that can be accessed and the project will become a ghost town.
Same car park, different day
I think I mentioned that, at the start of the year, I was a judge in the British Parking Association awards and did the new car parks bit. One entry was for a car park in Liverpool. A lot of effort was put in to making it look good with some fantastic architecture; the trouble is that it just doesn’t work.
My fellow judge visited, and whilst he was looking round and taking a few measurements, he was besieged (the man with the clipboard) by angry drivers who couldn’t find the way out and thought he had something to do with running the car park. He duly completed his work and tried to drive out. When he finally made it, he crossed the site off the short list; it was that bad.
The strange thing is that the same car park has just won the European Parking Association award for the best new car park in Europe. I spoke to one of the judges, and he murmured that perhaps it would be a good idea, in the future, if the judges drove the car parks, rather than just look at them.
I also spoke to one of the design team, and when I told him what had happened for “the Brits,” he started to explain to me why it was indeed difficult to find your way around in parts of the car park. No, wrong! Don’t tell me why it’s bad; design it so that it’s good ... but then I would have nothing to moan about.
Peter Guest is PT’s correspondent on all things European and Middle East. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from November, 2009




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