27 Mar 2018
Beirut, Lebanon
Sustainable Mobility

Runners in the 2014 Beirut Marathon were the first to notice the addition to their route: a white wall patterned with bicycles and, at the time of the run, a cheeky statement: if you rode a bicycle you’d be there by now. Today, that same wall — and many others across Beirut — continue to poke and prod at car commuters, urging them to get out of traffic and get on a bike.

This ability to prompt social change is one of the strengths of street art and its creators: the team at The Chain Effect, a Beirut-based cycling mobility NGO. The organization was founded by Zeina Hawa, Elena Haddad, Hadrien Bechara, and Nadida Raad after the Beirut Marathon mural went viral.

“It caught a lot of attention and we thought we could keep going with this,” says Hawa of The Chain Effect’s origins. Environmental engineers by training, Hawa and Haddad were interested in cycling as an urban mobility solution for cities. Both had lived internationally, in cycle-friendly cities like London and Aarhus, Denmark, and had seen the effects of bike culture firsthand.

Founding The Chain Effect was a way for Hawa and Haddad to bring the message of cycling mobility to the rest of Beirut. The medium for the message? Art.

Art as advocacy:

The decision to use street art for public advocacy was a given from the start. Hawa was a hobby street artist and loved the idea of raising awareness for cycling mobility in places where people were facing the gridlock of traffic and a Tetris game of parking.

“It made sense to do art in the streets, because that is where mobility happens,” Hawa explains. “If I see a wall that is provoking me while I’m in traffic then the message resonates more than if I were in a gallery seeing a nice photo.”

With exterior walls as their canvas, The Chain Effect could reach a larger audience, and was not discriminating against those who may not attend a conventional gallery exhibition. “You’re targeting residents in their neighborhoods, and city dwellers in their city,” she says.

Three years after their first painted provocation, The Chain Effect has created more than 30 murals around Beirut, other cities and towns in Lebanon, and one piece in Porto, Portugal.

Since 2014, The Chain Effect has also been sharing photos in a way similar to the popular Humans of New York project. Each photo is a portrait of a Beirut cyclist, accompanied by a short story. “It shows the diversity of cyclists that we have here,” says Hawa, adding that they want to normalize the activity among Beirut residents. “You have people from all socioeconomic backgrounds: the migrant workers who use bikes because it is the only thing they can afford, then you have the students, the hipsters, and the foreigners who bike. There are people racing nice bikes, and the businessmen on electric bikes.”

This Bikers of Beirut project garners the most engagement on social media, and Hawa suspects it is because it is a celebration of cyclists in the city, and something that pushes them to continue. “It is documentation not just of people, but of the presence of the bicycle in our city,” she says. The Chain Effect would ultimately like to create an outdoor exhibit of the images, and invite others to share their photographs of cycling culture.

Creating a city built for bikes:

As demonstrated by that photography series, it is not like people in Beirut do not bike. They do, but that is not what cycling mobility is about.

According to Hawa, there are many groups who rent bikes and organize cycling rides, but most are geared towards recreation and sports cycling. Cycling mobility is about shifting public perception, seeing biking not just as a fun activity, but as a viable and effective way to travel around a city.

Infrastructure is just one of the factors that affect this. Hawa is quick to acknowledge that Beirut is far from perfect, and understands people’s perceptions that the streets are neither safe nor equipped for cyclists. Much of the post-war road reconstruction was car-centric, and created busy road arteries that sliced up the city.

At the same time, Hawa argues Beirut is potentially ideal for cycling. “The structure of the city and its size means it has [the capacity] to be a good bike city. It’s compact, very dense, and the old neighborhood structures are still there.”

The next step is creating the navigational infrastructure Beirut cyclists need, to feel confident traversing the city on two wheels. “If you’re used to navigating the city by car, it can be difficult to navigate using a different form of transportation,” Hawa admits.

To ease that adjustment, The Chain Effect is creating a bike map of Beirut. The map will pinpoint such information as the best crossing points for cyclists, underpasses available for pedestrians and bikes, and routes that involve less hilly sections. Hawa and the team are in the data collection phase now, and plan to eventually create a printed version of the map, as well as a digital version that could serve as the bicycle layer on Google Maps.

A Beirut cycling map would also be a way for people to discover more about the city where they live. Take, for example, one of Hawa’s favorite cycling discoveries: a little tunnel that passes under a major highway in south Beirut. The tunnel connects cyclists and pedestrians with a neighborhood rich in history, heritage, and sense of community.

“Cycling was always a way for me to rediscover these new neighborhoods, and break the stereotypes people have about certain areas of the city,” Hawa says. “I live in the suburbs, but use my bike to get around Beirut. If I had to drive around the city every day I would have gone crazy. Cycling was a way for me to like Beirut again, and actually live here.”

In addition to the city’s navigational infrastructure, there is also the physical infrastructure. One of The Chain Effect’s recent projects has been to collaborate with a blacksmith to design functional and attractive bike parking that can be installed by municipalities and businesses.

The first of those bike racks was installed a month ago at Luna’s Village and Luna’s Kitchen, a large apartment residence and vegan restaurant in Beirut. The building is home to many students, young workers, and an international community. “We were parking our bikes in front of the building before, but it was not so safe, pretty, or practical,” says Heloise Delastre, the manager of both businesses, and a cyclist herself. Luna’s Village has brightly painted balconies, and the multi-colored bike rack from The Chain Effect follows suit. “They go with the vibe of the place,” Delastre adds.

The bike rack has been used every day since it was installed, and Delastre wants to encourage other businesses to follow their lead. “It’s really simple and doesn’t cause anything bad,” she says of the bike parking. “Even if you do it and people are a bit reticent to the idea, then slowly, slowly it will make its way into the minds of people, and they will use it. And it is super affordable.”


Bringing bicycle education to schools:

In its mission to increase cycling mobility in Beirut, The Chain Effect also recognizes the importance of getting cyclists hooked at a young age. Education plays a key role in the organization’s work.

The team facilitates school workshops about various elements of cycling mobility. In the past, that has included discussions about basic city planning, community-led bicycle maintenance lessons, and even an urban cycling tour of Beirut. “We get kids to think about their surroundings, and what makes a place pleasant,” Hawa explains. “Most of the time the conversation naturally leads to cycling.”

All activities are meant to expand students’ imaginations, and make them laugh or smile. Street art also comes into play as a community engagement tool, and kids are invited to help design one of The Chain Effect’s grand art pieces: a mural for the school or community. “Kids draw their own bikes or imagine their neighborhood. We take their work, extract some ideas, and integrate them into the mural,” Hawa says, adding that they have three new projects like this in the coming weeks.

While it is difficult to measure the exact impact The Chain Effect has had in Beirut since 2014, Hawa says there has definitely been one. She has personally accompanied many friends to get bikes, and has taken them on their first city ride. The Chain Effect also organizes Beirut’s Bike to Work day, the next of which is coming up in April. The event was organized for the first time in 2017, and The Chain Effect has worked with bike shops to provide rental bicycles for people who want to “sample” cycling to work.

The Chain Effect has big ideas and plans for the future, and is optimistic of Beirut being rebranded as a cycling city. As the organization’s name alludes, it takes just a few cyclists to get the proverbial two wheels rolling.



Find out more about The Chain Effect through their website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Photos: courtesy of Zeina Hawa and The Chain Effect.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
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