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Why on earth ride a bike in this city?
Let’s consider some of the benefits of cycling: cycling is healthy, promotes geographical and local knowledge, does create neither noise or air pollution, does not cost municipalities as much for infrastructure costs as cars do, takes a fraction of the space cars do on the road and for parking, cyclists don’t indebt themselves to buy their bike, lower maintenance and running costs and most importantly – sexy calves.
Siwar Kraytem (23) is part of the capital’s intrepid and growing community that braves the traffic by bicycle. For her final project in graphic design, she decided to create ABCycling – a printed guide and tool kit for urban cycling in Beirut. In order to print about 300 copies of the 65-page guide she is currently running a crowd-funding campaign on Zoomal.
“It all started 4 years ago, back in my second year of university,” Kraytem explained. “Faced with the catastrophic traffic of Ras Beirut, a friend of mine and I decided to dig out our rusty old bicycles in an attempt to get to class on time every morning. It was the best decision I have ever made! It turned my life around, and I have been commuting by bicycle ever since,” she underlined.
Seeing that the initial volume was a graphic design project, a lot of attention went into design, hence there are lots of illustrations inside and leaflets and pertinent posters but also inside stories. “The actual cover is screen printed,” Kraytem said. “I used screen printing as it is a manual process like pedaling is manual.”
“Beirut is full of surprises to me – riding a bike in the city. Even if you take the same road there will be something new, someone will tell you something, I wanted to translate this experience in the guide. Keep it animated like riding a bike in Beirut.”
With the help of the funding, Kraytem plans to incorporate more findings gathered over the past 18 months since completing her final year project and addressing practical questions she often has to answer such as for example what do you do in the rain? Are you safe on the road? How do you make yourself more visible? Where to find a bike? The book is mainly divided into three sections: equipment in general, types of bikes in Beirut, etc.
Kraytem’s relationship with bicycles is long-standing: she still recalls how her mother pushed her and her brother to start cycling as kids. As a teenager, she barely rode a bicycle. It was only in second year of her graphic design studies that frustration with public transport got her back on one of the old Chinese mountain bikes they had kept over the years – and into bicycle activism.
“By the time I had to work on my graduation project, it was obvious it would revolve around the bicycle,” she said. “After researching the cycling cultures of the world's cycling capitals, such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Portland, I turned to the Beirut scene and conducted surveys and interviewed cyclists in the city. I started by summarizing my findings and research into a paper about the emerging bicycle culture of Beirut.”
Especially over the past year, Kraytem has observed an increase in cyclists on Beirut’s roads. “I have even felt that people now see me biking on the streets as completely normal versus when I started cycling four years ago, I used to get more looks and comments.”
“Bicycle rides, activities and initiatives such as the Deghri Bike Messengers have blossomed and become much more popular than just riding on the Corniche, which is great.”
“The people driving it are the people who need it most, enjoy it most, and see the beauty of it, free young souls who love the city and want to live in it on their own terms,” she put forward. “That said, I think it is still growing and has so much more room to grow, it's up to us to keep the energy flowing.”
Kraytem concedes that it is not easy to bring about change in Beirut. “This is exactly why I resorted to the bike, because it is just such an easy thing that everyone can start on a small individual level and collectively it just becomes so powerful. It only takes a couple hundred dollars to own one, and it is very accessible so no one has an excuse!”
Kraytem uses her bike virtually every day, to get from Mar Elias to work in Gemmayzeh and then from there, either to Hamra or Badaro to meet a friend for coffee. She also uses her bicycle on weekends – no longer to ride on the Corniche but to Batroun.
ABCycling includes a section on gender-related issues as well as on safety. This pioneering guide is designed with people in mind who wish to cycle in Beirut but need a little advice and encouragement, and for those who are curious to know more about this small but vibrant subculture.
Anyone who has experienced the thrill – and Schadenfreude – of weaving through traffic jams, knows that the slow speed at which cars often have to go, allows cyclists to overtake them. It is nonetheless crucial to keep a watchful eye out for doors, that may open, pedestrians that may sneak through cars at all times.
Bicycle cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Portland emerged through civic movements and investments carried by municipalities – over decades. Kraytem though puts forward that Beirut has by far the better weather. “Beirut has such beautiful weather. In my research I was looking at Amsterdam and Copenhagen. They may be flat cities, but they get super cold and windy for an extended period of time and people still cycle. It is such a shame how people here are locked up in their cars.”
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