Every morning, Bayan Hamoui prepares herself for her daily journey from Jaramana, in the east of Damascus where she lives, to the centre of the Syrian capital, where her workplace is located. The distance of around 9 kilometres takes 30 minutes on her bicycle, and this is what she has been doing for three years now, since she decided to give up all kinds of public transportation.
“In 2014, moving around the city became something unbearable for many reasons,” Bayan said, explaining her decision to use a bicycle in a city where women are not used to doing this, and where bike paths do not exist.
In a city crammed with cars and divided by dozens of checkpoints, commuting in Damascus by public transport would take three times longer and would cause Bayan to be late for work on a daily basis. Taking into consideration increased taxi fares, the 32-year-old lady decided to buy her own bike for around 100 dollars, and join scores of other young men and women who were also sick of overcrowded streets, and happy to discover their own, healthy alternative means of transport, even if finding space between the thousands of cars was a struggle
During the past seven years of war that Syria has witnessed, the capital’s streets have changed dramatically. A multitude of security checkpoints spread all over the city causing terrible traffic jams. Sometimes drivers would have to wait for more than half an hour at each checkpoint, meaning that employees, students and workers needed to leave their homes one and half hours earlier than usual in the morning, in order to arrive in time at their destinations.
The cost of all kinds of transportation has been rising due to increases in fuel prices, car maintenance and spare parts. The Syrian pound has plummeted ten times in value since 2011, from 50 lira for each US dollar to around 500. This means that all prices have gone up around ten-fold, but most salaries, especially for those who work in the public sector, have not risen in a similar manner. At the end of 2017, the UN OCHA estimated that around 70% of Syrians live in extreme poverty.
Choosing between available transportation alternatives in Damascus is not a luxury, but depends on cost and time. Public transport in the city includes large buses, mini buses, cabs and “baxis”. The latter is a new public service, similar to bikes, that was launched by Damascus city council at the beginning of this year. Other options are cycling, driving or walking.
“Going by cab on a daily basis would cost me around 70 dollars monthly, which is half of my salary,” said Hussam Taleb, a 27-year-old private sector employee. Fares have increased many times over during the past seven years, and taxi drivers do not always stick to metered pricing, benefiting from the chaos spread throughout the country, and the weak control of policemen.
In the mornings, Taleb prefers to go to work on foot, instead of waiting for buses. It takes him 30 minutes to arrive, avoiding the endless waiting for public transport. “Finding a morning bus is like a miracle,” he adds. In the afternoons and evenings, he goes home either by bus, or with some friends in their private cars.
Official figures estimate the number of residents in Damascus and its suburbs to be 8 million, compared to 5 million before the war erupted. This increase is due to an influx of displaced people from areas that have been destroyed and are no longer habitable. More than 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, according to the UN. But then, not enough transportation exists to serve this increased number of the population. Damascus city council says there are about around 400 buses, 1,200 mini buses and 10,000 taxis in service now. These are insufficient numbers and need to be increased.
The baxi is a new transportation service that is now running on a small scale in some Damascus neighbourhoods. The name is a combination of taxi and bicycle, and the vehicle is an electrically powered small bicycle that is covered with a kind of umbrella, and which can move easily in crowded streets, driven by licensed drivers. The cost of a baxi ride is 30% less than a taxi, and it is even faster due to its small size that only accommodates one person. However, people say it is still not that practical a solution for the city’s transportation crisis, and brings to mind Egypt’s toktok, a popular but unsafe vehicle that is much prone to accidents.
Buying a private car is also not an option for most people. After 2011, importing new cars stopped due to a trade embargo. One can only buy used cars for prices far beyond the reach of most Syrians, starting from 4,000 US dollars, while the average monthly salary in the country is no more than 200 dollars.
All this leaves around a third of Damascus residents with no choice but to walk to their daily destinations, practising a compulsory sport. “The government is worried about our health, and is deliberately pushing us to walk, as preventative exercise to improve our well-being and make us stay in good shape,” Taleb bitterly joked.