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Why we need more Metro Buses

Updated November 06, 2014

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The Lahore Metro Bus project has 27 stations along a 27km corridor that stretches from Shahdara to Gajjumata. — Photo credit: Shahbaz Sharif Facebook page
The Lahore Metro Bus project has 27 stations along a 27km corridor that stretches from Shahdara to Gajjumata. — Photo credit: Shahbaz Sharif Facebook page

Every other week, barbs are exchanged on TV and criticism is launched in print on the Lahore Bus Rapid Transit Green Line, or as it is commonly called, "Lahore Metro Bus".

It has been deemed a failure by the commentariat, a media with a class bias and a troupe of politicians that has no significant interest in and nothing at stake in public transit.

Let us take a holistic look at a project that has been deemed ‘unviable’, ‘running in deficit’ and ‘unaffordable luxury’.

Also read: Just how 'Fit for Purpose' are the Metro bus projects?

The Green Line BRT was inaugurated in February 2013. It has 27 stations along a 27km corridor that stretches from Shahdara to Gajjumata. The capital cost of the project was between Rs29 and Rs34 billion, an exact figure depends on what to include in the project cost as some elements were complementary.

It utilises 64 spacious buses, running on a dedicated right-of-way track (a busway), one third of which is elevated. The stations provide access for the elderly and persons with disabilities; utilise platform doors, GPS-based arrival timings, automatic fare collection and RFID cards to run a smooth system.

A 10km extension to Kala Shah Kaku has already been planned.

In the first year of operation, the total ridership was 43 million. A 42 per cent fleet expansion took place midway through 2013, increasing capacity. Peak daily ridership was 178,850 and the average daily ridership through the first half of 2014 was at 149,228 with a monthly average peak of 159,222. Buses are jam-packed and total ridership this year should be expected to hit 54 million, up 25 per cent, but having reached operational capacity.

A view of Metro Bus from inside the busway.

Operational cost:

The system has an operational budget of Rs2.56 billion. Of that amount, Rs953 million is recovered by the Punjab Metrobus Authority (PMA) from the fares it collects. It requires Rs1.65 billion support from the government, and this can be termed a subsidy.

The largest part of the expense is based on a Rs360/bus/km agreement that the Government of Punjab signed with an operator after a tendering process. The operating company is responsible for the maintenance, the employees and the contract requires high standards for operation to keep the system running well.

Operational cost for the under-construction Rawalpindi-Islamabad BRT is 12.5 per cent lower at Rs 315/km/bus. It could be argued that the government should have aggressively negotiated and kept the price lower, but since this was the lowest bid received, there is not a lot of room for haggling left. The contract is eight years long, with fuel and other cost adjustments, but the initial cost should be a fair benchmark to do calculations on.

Also read: Islamabad Metro Bus project cost may escalate to Rs50bn

Fare-box recovery ratio:

'Fare-box recovery ratio' is a term that refers to the amount of operational expenses that a transit system is able to recover from fares. The Lahore BRT Green Line has a farebox recovery ratio of 37.2 per cent.

When compared across projects and internationally, fare-box recovery ratios can often be misleading as many ‘successful’ transit systems, showing operational profits, generate large parts of their income through non-transit sources.

Delhi Metro for example, continued to generate up to 2/3rd of its income through real estate ventures till a few years ago, and lately generates a significant amount through consultancy on other transit projects in India, as the leading expert in the area.

Same is the case for Hong Kong MTR, which generates almost half a billion dollars annually through real estate.

In the 10 largest US public transit systems, fare-box recovery for bus systems stands at 26.7 per cent and for light rail (a Bus Rapid Transit competitor), at 27.2 per cent. The much respected New York City MTA has a fare-box recovery of 51.2 per cent.

Even for BRT systems, from TransJakarta to Ahmedabad BRTS, subsidies are provided as mobility is a fundamental right and in urban areas, public transit is a vital element in keeping cities livable and affordable.

Feeder routes that help transit become successful are often even free, to encourage people to ride transit. Here is a chart that plots fare-box recovery for the 10 largest US city public transit systems:

For the time being, the fare-box recovery ratio in Lahore is perfectly average, making the Lahore BRT more viable.


Making the Lahore BRT more viable:

  The Green Line BRT utilises 64 spacious buses, running on a dedicated right-of-way track (a busway). — Photo credit: Mehfil Pakistan forum
The Green Line BRT utilises 64 spacious buses, running on a dedicated right-of-way track (a busway). — Photo credit: Mehfil Pakistan forum

Potential advertising revenue:

Currently, the system has no advertising on-board or on the stations. Limited rental income is generated through small ‘tuc shops’, which were opened at select stations recently.

Of the 27km, two-thirds is on ground, fenced from the sides, and providing for a vital income source by being doubled as advertising space.

PHA currently charges Rs1,472,000 for around 180 sq ft of advertising on a moving transport vehicle and Rs1,328 to Rs3,163 per sq ft per month for ‘streamers’ – ads that are hung from poles.

Looking at outdoor advertising rates, and since any ads along the busway will not be at the ideal location that billboards occupy, rates can be expected to be around Rs1,000/sq ft/month. On the fence of the 19km on ground busway section, if 500 advertising spaces of 15x5 ft are leased out at this rate, it will generate Rs450 million.

Ads on buses and stations and more advertising along/under the overhead section, or increased advertising density along the busway, can bring an advertising income of Rs500 million or more easily. This alone will reduce the subsidy by nearly 30 per cent.

Currently, fares are at Rs20. A 50 per cent increase sounds high, but Rs10 is a modest increase on a low fare. Combined, these two will add at least Rs950 million to the revenue and bring fare-box recovery to over 70%. Such a figure should be quite satisfactory.


Design Issues

Like any transit project, there are pros and cons, options to be weighed, and complicated and preferential issues at stake.

Lahore’s Green Line BRT has had many issues too, not least of which was the lack of public engagement in planning, which is a product of bureaucratic mistrust of the people and the 'all-knowing benevolent ruler' governance style.

Even the project’s most enthusiastic supporters have valid criticisms.

The design of the stations and elevators could have been better. Some are not happy with a planned LRT line being converted to a BRT one, even with the government's promise that it may be converted to light-rail one day.

The government should also increase the number of vehicles on the line, perhaps even doubling it, for the near-capacity ridership suggests there is room for expansion.

Another critical issue has been lack of effective feeder routes, something the LTC can provide for.

Moreover, park and ride lots need to be added to critical stations. But these are criticisms aimed at improving a well-functioning system, not half-baked rejections of proven transit solutions or politically biased mudslinging.

Lessons learnt have already been incorporated in the new transit lines planned, with Multan’s planned system consisting of two corridors from the get-go; with ability to have more than two routes on it, and far better designed stations too.

Lahore has plans for multiple BRT lines, at least 2 heavy rail metro lines and plans for an overhead monorail as well.


Misguided criticisms

Some of even the criticism was off the mark, though.

Some people compared costs of widely different projects and missed some points entirely. The capital cost for the line in Lahore was on the higher end because one-third of the track is elevated – a necessity. It was impossible to go through Ichra and other dense, old parts of town at ground level and not eliminate necessary vehicular lanes.

Similarly, the Rawalpindi-Islamabad BRT has a high capital cost because of the extended overhead section and due to future-proofing it for a shift to light-rail use.

Also read: Metro Bus concerns

Some projects like Ahmedabad BRTS are not considered good BRT projects (bronze rated) because they suffer from ‘BRT creep’; where essential elements of a BRT system such as dedicated busway/right-of-way is lost to mixed traffic or fare collection is not off-board. These and other aspects eliminate the crucial aspects that make BRT competitive with light-rail in terms of passenger capacity and speed.

Lahore’s Green Line does have limited mixed traffic issues at a bridge-crossing and the extended portion, where an ITS-signalling system gives the buses priority. But by and large, it meets the gold standard for BRT and is bound to cost higher than ‘cheaper models’.

Many people are comparing a single transit line’s ridership to the city’s entire needs and suggesting that the project is a failure. That is wrong because more than five lines are under plan and on completion, will be carrying significant numbers of passengers.

Some critics did not even bother to read up on the issue before proclaiming that elevated or partially elevated BRT lines do not exist anywhere in the world, and it is only trains that are so. Actually, Xiamen, Chengdu, Amritsar, TransJakarta Corridor 13 and Bandar Sunway’s Sunway Line are all existing or planned BRT lines with completely or partially elevated tracks.

In the case of Rawalpindi-Islamabad, the cities are interconnected, yet broken apart. Islamabad works by utilising the lower middle class and poor people living on its outskirts and in Rawalpindi. And for this workforce, transport options for reaching business areas and offices in Islamabad are terribly limited. Outside of institutional transport in the form of buses provided for employees, there are only wagons; no suitable transport option.

Also read: Islamabad Metro Bus project — where does it stand?

With the dharnas, work on the final terminus of the planned BRT line remains suspended and a vital part of the corridor stands affected. When it opens next January, the BRT line will not end at the planned terminus of Pakistan Secretariat, which employs thousands of lower middle class administrative staff who live in Rawalpindi or in Islamabad’s sectors that the BRT line is going through, but one stop short.

 Inside the bus. — Photo credite: Mehfil Pakistan forum
Inside the bus. — Photo credite: Mehfil Pakistan forum

Clearing up some misconceptions

The value of transit projects:

Only 19.5 per cent households in Lahore have access to cars. A further 44.8 per cent have access to a motorcycle. 40 per cent of trips made in Lahore are exclusively pedestrian. Mobility is extremely low compared to other large developing Asian cities, especially for females who make one-fourth the same amount of trips as men (JICA study). Female sections in public transit, just as the existing Green Line has, will free women in the most literal sense of the word.

Whenever a car driver sets out from his or her home, they are using roads paid for by the entire public at large. Land acquisition for these roads; construction; operation and maintenance; never ending expansions and resurfacing; cost of a traffic signalling system; traffic police; carbon emissions and externalities in the form of environmental pollution causing lung related illnesses; reduced productivity; eventually reduced life expectancy and even the urban island effect they create (causing higher energy usage to keep living areas cooler) are all subsidised by the public at large.

Expansive ‘boulevards’ that connect gated housing schemes (DHAs, Bahrias and such) to the city and business districts are developed at an expense to the public, not to mention the urban space they take up, causing socioeconomic and living standard issues.

In comparison, transit brings with itself unparalleled economic revival in the struggling areas it goes through. It creates a boom in commercial, residential and business activity. This is not a claim but a well-established truth.

Also read: Metro Bus or Mars: The problem with our priorities

What you should know about subsidies:

Across the globe, cars and highways are subsidised far more than transit projects. The public does not usually recognise these subsidies and rather reacts with anger at subsidies provided to mass transit. Nominal tolls on highways and motorways, or annual car registration taxes don’t cover costs, but give the driver a false sense of doing so. It is not convenient to ask every car driver to pay a toll for the exact capital and O&M cost for their drive everyday. Yet, we expect transit riders to pay the entire operational expense of their commute at the gate.

Punjab collected just over Rs9 billion as Motor Vehicle Tax last year and another Rs1.3 billion in highway tolls, but had to spend over Rs33 billion in maintenance and construction of roads in the province. There is additional federal highways and motorways spending in the region and significant spending by local authorities (LDA, RDA, FDA, other Municipal Corporations and TMAs) to keep the roads maintained. Even provincial spending alone would suggest a comparable ‘fare-box recovery’ of 31 per cent, and a real figure would be around 10 per cent or so.

Transit recovers a greater share of operational expenses directly. Upfront capital costs can be daunting, but often not too high in comparison to highway projects.

For a comparison of capital costs, the planned Malir River Expressway is estimated to cost over Rs60 billion (as of two years ago). While it will provide heavy traffic to bypass the city, primary beneficiaries will also include car-dependent residents of DHA City, Bahria Town and other suburban housing societies that are being developed in the north.

The existing BRT line in Lahore is getting subsidies that are perfectly in line with global averages. It’s reliance on the public kitty can be reduced by utilising advertising potential and raising the ridership numbers even more. But it is critical and perfectly normal for publicly run mass transit systems to expect a significant support in recovering operational cost.

Pakistan has always subsidised its salaried class in everything from housing to gymkhana clubs to specialised higher education. Petrol remained heavily subsidised until very recently, and the working class wasn’t burning petrol in their non-existent cars. Piped gas is still not available to all. Electricity subsidies have been reduced only in the last five years. Energy subsidies in the hundreds of billions annually largely went to the upwardly mobile middle classes.

Today, the government continues to provide subsidy to the amount of Rs2.5 million per medical student, only to be helping add ‘value’ to the marketability of girls as wives in some cases (patriarchal culture and society being responsible).

Subsidies for the working class should not even be controversial, especially when it’s equal to 660 female medical students not joining the workforce after studying on the public kitty (there are over 18,000 medical college students in Punjab, 12,000 of them females, with the vast majority in public colleges).

In comparison to car drivers, transit riders in the developing world tend to the working class, the poor who have limited commute choices. Their economic opportunities remain confined due to many factors, mobility being a primary one. Unlike white-collar upper middle class persons living in an affluent suburban housing scheme, the job option for the working class is often limited by place of residence and inability to reach areas where they work.

You can't pick-and-choose when serving the working class:

When working multiple jobs a day, this becomes even more problematic, especially when industrial estates are not linked via public transit.

Reliable transit that connects dense residential areas to commercial, business and industrial areas provide these people with the ability to provide for their families. They are able to go out further and become employed at places they could not have reached before.

Education and health are of course important. But this is not a pick-and-choose, either/or issue. It is important to provide better education, effective healthcare and ensure livable cities at the same time. These choices are not made in isolation. Sure, transit projects or infrastructure development shouldn’t be prioritised above all other things, but neither should they keep getting ignored and the working class left to fend for themselves.

It takes two hours for people who have been relocated to Surjani Town (for construction of the Lyari Expressway in Karachi) to reach areas where they often work. Their struggles and destruction of life goes ignored. If financed through government-to-government or IFC equivalent loans, these projects are extremely affordable over 10-15 year payment periods, with their benefits far outweighing and outpaying the costs.

Pakistan will continue to see increasing urbanisation. The larger cities are seeing sharp population increases. In order to cater for such large urban areas, the only solution is effective public transit. There is no space to spare for cars or even motorcycles anymore.

Transit, on the other hand, will enable larger cities to become livable and adapt for a future before the future becomes unbearable.