Metro Bus concerns

May 15, 2014

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THERE is little doubt that we need Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) systems for our major cities. With an ever-growing population, increased urbanisation, and the decreasing space for further expansion of intra-city road networks, the need for MRT will greatly increase in the years to come. As such, the initiatives by the federal and provincial governments in recent years are indeed a welcome sight.

Given our limited financial and physical resources, however, governments must opt for MRT systems that are efficient, sustainable, and environment-friendly. In terms of efficiency, projects must be cost-effective, while offering the widest possible coverage to the public.

An excessively costly MRT will invariably mean that commuters will end up paying higher fares. At the same time, the projects must have support from the local public to ensure long-term sustainability.

A project that is forced on a city without public discourse is less likely to sustain itself in the long run as compared to one that is developed with broader public consensus. Not least, learning from the senseless road expansion of the last two decades, and keeping in mind the ever-increasing pollution in many cities, governments must ensure that MRTs do not cause unnecessary environmental damage.

In this context, the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus Project is an example of how not to build an MRT. The Islamabad section of the project has been started in haste without seeking any input from the local people. As a result, the shortcomings are evident.

The proposed route conveniently ignores the bulk of potential commuters along the Islamabad Expressway and Kashmir Highway. The Metro Bus project is reported to cost around Rs44 billion. In comparison, a 2012 feasibility study by the Asian Development Bank gave an estimate of Rs4bn for a bus-based metro project in Islamabad. The proposed project is, on the face of it, highly inefficient in terms of coverage and cost. The only beneficiaries are likely to be the private contractors involved in the project.

When protests started against the proposed project, the government, rather than initiating public debate, simply increased the speed of construction. This raises questions not just about the transparency of the project, but also about its long-term sustainability.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the CDA, the statutory body responsible for development work in the capital, has been completely sidelined while the project is being supervised by its Rawalpindi counterpart. Exactly who will be responsible for running the project after its completion is unknown.

Another major drawback of the project is the environmentally reckless manner in which it is being constructed. The Islamabad master plan envisions green belts along the sides of the major roads to provide crucial breathing spaces for the city. This green belt feature is an integral part of Islamabad’s character and defines what the city means to its residents.

Despite that fact that bus lanes were incorporated on all major roads during 2004-2005, the government seeks to eat up the green belts housing thousands of trees to make new lanes for the Metro Bus. Interestingly, the government did not even bother to undertake a proper environmental impact assessment or clearance from the EPA before initiating the project.

An alternative to the Metro Bus envisions the running of fast-moving buses along the Islamabad Expressway (Rawat-Faisal Mosque), Kashmir Highway (New Airport to Bani Gala), and Jinnah Avenue (F-11-Parade Ground) by converting the existing left-most lanes into dedicated bus lanes, dotted with minimalist-design bus stations. The passengers between Rawalpindi and Islamabad could switch at the Faizabad Interchange.

In the second phase, the routes could be extended to include the Ninth Avenue (IJP Road to Shaheen Chowk) and Seventh Avenue (Aabpara to Daman-i-Koh Chowk). It does not take rocket science to figure out that such a grid network would offer better coverage at a low cost, be more sustainable, and cause absolutely no harm to the environment, all the while remaining within the limits of the master plan. In the long term, the buses could eventually be replaced with fast moving trams.

This is just one of the several alternative proposals that exist. More important than a particular proposal is the right of the public to debate the efficiency, sustainability and environmental friendliness of any MRT system. Sadly, the government does not agree.

Perhaps this is why last week, Asad Umar and Mushahid Hussain, two opposition parliamentarians, had to approach the Supreme Court on behalf of the residents of Islamabad. One can only hope that the government will review its decision and encourage public debate before initiating such important projects.

The writer is a legal affairs professional based in Islamabad.

Twitter: @SyedUmairJaved

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2014