Tuesday 19 February 2013

Aboard the First Metro

(Published in The News on February 13th, 2013)

Public transport is an essential component of urban planning. All major cities in the world have some form of public transport system to facilitate the daily commute for their denizens. The various kinds of public transport systems include underground subway tracks, trams, designated buses and rapid transit networks.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, there is a serious lack of viable public transport in all major cities. Karachi, with a population of 20 million people, Lahore with almost half this population and other cities like Peshawar and Rawalpindi have no real (public) transport facilities for their residents.

A subway system for Lahore was planned by the previous provincial government but it had to be abandoned due to technical and political reasons. Our country does not have enough power sources to fuel a subway system efficiently. To counter the over-flooding of roads by vehicular traffic, political administrators across the country have used a similar but flawed agenda: build more roads.

In the last decade, Karachi saw its fair share of digging and paving of roads, resulting in a network of bridges, underpasses, overhead bridges and expressways. This planning was short-term and in a few more years, roads are going to be clogged again. Lahore has a different story to tell.

According to a survey conducted last year, only about eight percent of the population has access to a private automobile in Lahore. Nearly twenty percent of the city commutes by bus and 40 percent gets about on foot.

The report also highlights that collectively Lahoris take an estimated 9.8 million trips a day. For a city of nearly 10 million, this figure is less than half of other cities of comparable size. In addition nearly 65 percent of Lahore’s population lives in about 10 percent of its footprint (the areas north of GT Road and the railway station) and the remaining 35 percent of the population occupy the remaining 90 percent with a low-density sprawl.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to solve Lahore’s traffic problems. The widening of Jail Road and Ferozepur Road in the 1990s; the construction of underpasses and the widening of Canal Bank Road; and the construction of Ring Road.

All these efforts have resulted in temporary relief for a few years followed by a return of congested roads. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to improve the archaic public transport system or to make the city bicycle-friendly.

Against this backdrop, work on the bus rapid transport system on Ferozepur Road was initiated. After eight months of toil, we finally have a new transport route in the city. I attended the inauguration ceremony for the bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Lahore and got a chance to take a ride on one of the first metro buses.

During the inauguration ceremony, we were regaled with the usual technical details about the project, followed by a lengthy address by the deputy prime minister of Turkey.

It should be noted that the Turkish government helped the local government with the infrastructure for the project due to their expertise with similar projects in Istanbul. The ceremony itself was grand with more than 3000 participants, including politicians from different parties, civil society members, civil servants, vice chancellors, businessmen, members of the media and students. After the ceremony, a ride in the buses was arranged across the length of Ferozepur Road.

Despite my scepticism, I found the buses comfortable with a separate space for women and adequate standing and sitting space for male passengers.

Our buses were welcomed by cheers throughout the 27 kilometre long journey by not only the ‘PML-N faithful’ but also from people standing on rooftops and travelling in their own vehicles. I believe this is a step in the right direction and similar projects have to be started in other cities of Pakistan.

However, one of the biggest concerns with the project is the fact that people who already have vehicles will not prefer to travel on the BRT buses. There are no parking spaces near the stations and the number of people who will stop using their own cars to use this facility is negligible.

Thus, this system will cater to people who are already travelling via public transport. This hardly helps the situation since the idea should be to ensure a safe, cheap method of commute that all citizens can use.

And then there is the huge economic cost of the project. For a pilot project, the amount spent has been extravagant. Punjab’s overdraft limit has already been exceeded and after spending Rs6 billion on the sasti roti scheme and a 40 percent overdraft on the laptop scheme, this kind of spending is not advisable.

In conclusion? Whatever the merits of the BRT system, it is not economically feasible for the province. Now that work has been completed and the project has started, one can only wish it the best of luck and hope that it is successful.

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