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Beirut’s seaside boardwalk known as the “Corniche”

The Mediterranean nation of Lebanon is renowned throughout the world for its rich history, archaeological treasures, outstanding cuisine, and vibrant nightlife. In an area just 4 times the size of Orange County, Lebanon features 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and countless other amazing destinations to discover.

Just like Southern California, Lebanon hails itself as a place where one can ski in the mountains and swim in the sea on the same day. Lebanon and Southern California in fact have much in common: nearly identical climates, picturesque mountains that tower over 10,000 feet, abundant natural wonders, and diverse populations.

Lebanon and Southern California share something else in common — societies dominated by a highly pervasive car culture.

Becherre, the hometown of world-renowned artist, poet and writer Khalil Gibran, most famous for “The Prophet”

During a recent trip to Beirut, the bustling capital city, I remarked that I did not recall having ever even seen a bicycle during any of my prior visits to Lebanon. Very shortly thereafter, I encountered my first:

While walking in the labyrinth of streets in East Beirut, I was shocked to witness a fellow pedestrian get struck from behind by a biker.  The pedestrian was walking downhill in a narrow one-way street because no sidewalk was available there, and the biker had just been racing recklessly downhill against traffic.   The biker didn’t even attempt to stop or avoid the pedestrian, and he collided into her from behind despite my warnings!  I intervened to help the pedestrian.  While she was quite flustered from the incident, she appeared fine and only suffered minor cuts on her arm.  We addressed the biker, and his half-hearted apology that he simply didn’t use his brakes dumbfounded and further upset both of us. I also pointed out that the biker was riding the wrong way on that one-way street, but he argued that this rule only applied to cars.  Fortunately, the pedestrian was OK and she went on her way.  Unfortunately, I doubt that the biker learned any lesson from the incident.

Driving through the historic Shouf region with the Mediterranean in the horizon.

After leaving the scene, I contemplated the fascinating complexities of the ancient city of Beirut.  Thanks to its cultural monuments, world-class cuisine, energetic downtown, electrifying nightlife, and impressive resurgence after a long civil war, the New York Times in fact ranked Beirut as its top place to visit in 2009.  However, this metropolis is also notorious for a chaotic network of narrow roads, urban planning challenges, frequent traffic jams, lack of respect or courtesy on the roads, and constant road rage. The unruly way that most Lebanese drive makes for a striking contrast to the warm hospitality the Lebanese are otherwise known for. Getting around much of Beirut can be so frenzied that it makes New York City look like, well, Orange County.

Biking is certainly an option along the city’s famed Corniche, a beautiful boardwalk that stretches along the Mediterranean coast, as well as along the bike trail recently built in the new Waterfront District. Biking is also possible in Lebanon’s spectacular mountains just outside the city, where several tour operators actually host cycling expeditions.  Lebanon’s mountains — home to ancient monasteries, charming villages that transport you back in time, the famous cedar trees that symbolize the nation, magnificent caves that can be explored on foot or even by boat, and other natural wonders — are definitely worth discovering and my personal favorite places to visit. However, other than a few places along its coast, biking in the city of Beirut is simply a recipe for disaster.

Views of one of the many waterfalls of Jezzine, about an hour southeast of Beirut

Adopting a prevalent culture of bike safety in Beirut would require revolutionary steps: completely revamping the already developed infrastructure and enlightening the Beirutis to adopt, consider, and respect rules of the road. Given that most of the 5000-year old city is already built out and that the city faces more pressing other problems, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Driving and walking where practical will remain the preferred and safest options.

The view from Harissa, an important Christian pilgrimage site in Lebanon, facing south towards Beirut.  The Basilica of St. Paul dominates the foreground.

Returning home to Newport Beach, I looked forward to getting on my bike and enjoying a ride along the beautiful Pacific. I certainly appreciated the wide open spaces and long bike trails. However, other than the relatively safe Back Bay and the Oceanfront, Newport Beach poses bike hazards of its own for the casual rider and the avid cyclist.

Safe options for families seeking to ride from their home to the beach are limited. Bikers riding along Coast Highway face dangers not only from motorists who wrongly assume that they have more rights to the road than bicyclists and yell and honk at bikers accordingly, but also from the constant threat of dooring as well as negligent drivers.  Average vehicular speeds in Newport Beach, particularly along Coast Highway, Jamboree, MacArthur, and Newport Coast, are much higher than those on the narrow streets of ancient Beirut. And much more than in Beirut, there’s a real threat of being harmed by drunk drivers and drunk bikers.  Bikers are also guilty of not respecting the rules of the road, such as when they refuse to stop at stop signs, weave between cars in traffic, ride on sidewalks, or ride at night without safety lights.

Enhancing bicycle safety in Newport Beach certainly faces obstacles of its own. However, my recent visit to Beirut with its non-existent bike culture reminded me that Newport’s challenges are clearly surmountable. Unlike Beirut where aggressive drivers generally have little regard for other drivers, Newport Beach already has a relatively well-established culture of mutual respect and courtesy between drivers which has resulted from the long-term adoption and enforcement of motor vehicle laws. That respect and courtesy will need to be extended between motorists and bikers through a program of fundamental education, outreach and police enforcement, as our car-dominated culture gradually becomes a more multi-modal society. Infrastructure improvements must also occur in order for our roads to become safer for bikers, and I am confident they will occur over time.  The Newport Beach City Council’s July 10 approval of sharrows on Coast Highway in Corona Del Mar is a great step in the right direction.

Michael Alti, pictured here above the village of Douma, is a member of the 2012 Newport Beach Citizens Bicycle Safety Committee and an Orange County attorney.  He is also a Top Fundraiser with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Bay to Bay Bike Tour raising money to fight MS.

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