Does Lahore need high-capacity rail transit? The answer is an unequivocal yes

While Lahore needs more transit infrastructure, its construction and finances should be made transparent to the public.
Updated 25 May, 2018 11:07am

Lahore and Toronto might be thousands of miles apart, but they enjoy similar traits and concerns. Both are home to over six million people and gridlocked with traffic exceeding far beyond the designed capacity of the road networks.

Lahore and Toronto are also struggling with controversial plans for rail-based urban transit, known as subways in Toronto and Orange Line Metro in Lahore.

In Toronto, concerned citizens and transit experts question whether a nearly $4 billion subway extension in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, is the best use of money.

They argue that better service and accessibility can be provided by cheaper alternatives, such as Light Rail Transit (LRT) that runs on the surface on a dedicated right-of-way.

In Lahore, where urban transit is far less developed than in Toronto, similar concerns have been raised about the almost completed Orange Line Metro system, which is a 27.1km-long elevated rail transit with a 2km underground track and services 26 stations.

Media reports and litigation in superior courts have raised several concerns about mass transit in Lahore in general and the Orange Line in particular.

Given that most discourse on such a technical matter has either been in the hands of untrained yet well-meaning individuals or partisan surrogates, one needs clarity on matters related to mobility and public transit.

With general elections around the corner, where transport infrastructure development is now deemed a controversial subject, putting urban mobility in a proper context should help inform the electorate.

I attempt to answer the concerns and questions raised about the Orange Line and public transit. I do so by highlighting important facts about transit planning, relying on my experience as a former professor of transportation engineering at McGill University.

Fact 1: Urban public transit is inadequate in Lahore

And it’s not just Lahore. Urban mass transit is of poor quality and insufficient in all major urban centres of Pakistan.

Given the demographic footprint of large urban centres, the number of buses and other paratransit falls horribly short of the demand.

How much transit does one need? I would argue that in the absence of a comprehensive rail-based urban transit operating on its own right-of-way, urban mobility needs require roughly one bus per 1,000 people.

The World Bank’s Urban Bus Toolkit recommends anywhere between 0.5 to 1.2 buses per 1,000 people.

For instance, consider Shenzhen in China, a city with 13 million people, where the entire fleet of 16,539 buses has been recently switched from fossil fuel to electricity resulting in 1.3 buses per 1,000 persons.

With 11 million people residing in Lahore District, we would require roughly 11,000 full-sized buses at one bus per 1,000 people, or 5,500 buses for one bus per 2,000 people.

However, these numbers are roughly four to eight times higher than the 1,574 buses mentioned in the eight-phase plan outlined by Punjab Mass Transit Authority.

The population breakdown in the latest census can help determine the mass transit needs at the tehsil level.

Consider that in Lahore Cantonment alone, where 1.6 million people reside, 1,600 buses are needed at one bus for every 1,000 residents.

If one were to argue that the affluent parts of the city are more auto-dependent and one should use 0.5 buses per 1,000 people for Lahore Cantonment and Model Town, and one bus per 1,000 persons for Lahore City tehsil, Raiwind tehsil, and Shalimar tehsil, the number of buses needed is around 9,000.

Hence, let there be no doubt. Pakistan’s urban transit is severely undersupplied. This is partly the reason that motorised transport has increased significantly over the years.

Fact 2: Lahore has the required density to support Metro

Many in Pakistan argue that Lahore, unlike Karachi, does not have high-rises, hence it lacks the population density to support higher-order mass transit.

This leads to three important questions: What is the population density in Lahore? What density thresholds are needed to support public transit? Does one need high-rises for high population density?

A 2014 report estimated Lahore’s population density to be 5,583 persons per square kilometre. However, the population density is much higher in central (urban) Lahore.

The one million residents in Data Ganj Bakhsh are living at densities of 31,000 persons/sq km, while a million residents of Samanabad live at 28,000 persons/sq km. The density in Cantonment is around 8,700 persons/sq km.

Urban Lahore, excluding Wagah and Nishtar, reports population densities that are much higher than densities of cities with sophisticated public transit systems.

As for the need for high-rises, one must look at central Paris, a city of 2.3 million within an area of 105 sq km, where the average population density is 21,500 persons/sq km.

Paris achieved high population densities without having the need to build high-rise buildings. The city owes its urban form to the famous architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who ensured that buildings were no taller than five to seven stories.

If Paris could serve as a prototype for density, Lahore can operate higher-order public transit without having the need to erect high-rise buildings as long as the city is able to maintain population densities of around 10,000 persons/sq km.

Fact 3: Public transit system follows a hierarchy

When it comes to capacity, public transit systems follow a hierarchy. Buses operating in mixed traffic are at the bottom, and rail-based metros operating in their own right-of-way are at the top of this hierarchy.

Buses operating in mixed traffic can carry anywhere between 1,500 persons per hour per direction to 3,000 persons per hour per direction.

Articulated buses where two or more buses are linked and driven by the same driver can carry even more passengers.

When buses operate in their own right-of-way, often referred to as the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), they can achieve higher throughput capacity of over 5,000 passengers per hour in the peak direction.

In Pakistan, where crowding in public transit is accepted, the throughput transit capacity could be even higher.

A five-car metro train operating in its own right-of-way can carry as many as 1,200 passengers per train.

Operating at a two-minute headway — the time between two successive trains — these trains can carry up to 36,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

While the above are theoretical capacities, these numbers can fluctuate depending upon population and employment densities along the transit corridor, feeder routes to augment the high-capacity train and transit fare.

Fact 4: High-density employment corridors require high-capacity transit

Given the high demand for mobility along the primary commercial arterials, such as Ferozepur Road, high-capacity public transit is better.

Unlike the downtowns in cities in Europe and North America that have high concentration of employment, South Asian cities instead have employment concentration along major arterials, which makes it difficult to serve these cities with high-capacity transit.

Still, corridors like Ferozepur Road and Multan Road are strong candidates for higher-order public transit systems because the transit demand they generate cannot be efficiently served by the regular bus service.

Fact 5: Visual encumbrance and elevated tracks are common in New York and Chicago

Even in New York and Chicago, cities much wealthier than Lahore, elevated rail tracks can be seen in several neighbourhoods.

Though these tracks are a permanent source of visual encumbrance, they are much cheaper to build than the alternative that involves tunnelling.

Since urban Lahore is already built-up at moderate to high densities, rights-of-way are not readily available to build and operate rapid transit.

Tunnelling will prove too expensive given the consumers' lack of willingness-to-pay and the political leadership's lack of willingness-to-charge.

Fact 6: Ridership depends upon fare

Urban transit differs from intercity transit in many ways, including fare and revenue.

Consider that when an intercity bus leaves the terminal in Rawalpindi for Lahore, the expected revenue per seat is generated by the same passenger. Why? Because we do not expect the same seat to be occupied by more than one passenger during the same trip.

It is quite a different story with urban transit. One designs the transit fare in a way to maximise the throughput capacity so that the revenue generated by one seat relies on it being occupied by more than one passenger during the run from one terminus to another.

If the fare is too high, ridership will be low as passengers will use the alternative modes.

If transit fare is too low, as is the case with a Rs20 fare, the ridership will still be lower than the optimum ridership because the seats are likely to be occupied by passengers who travel the greatest possible distance.

This implies that the BRT on Ferozepur Road will have the buses fully occupied by passengers boarding at Shahdara and heading to the other terminus at Gajjumata.

A preferred option for structuring transit fares is to avoid blanket subsidies that subsidise all passengers. Instead, only low-income passengers be subsidised to prevent leakages in the subsidy regime.

This can be achieved by integrating smart mobility cards with other government interventions, such as the Benazir Income Support Program cards.

Furthermore, fixed fares must be replaced by zone-based fares to promote transit ridership.

Does Lahore need high-capacity rail transit?

The answer to the above question is an unequivocal yes. The high-capacity transit systems on Ferozepur Road and Multan Road must be complemented with bus-based feeder networks.

Thousands of additional buses plying in mixed mode traffic are needed to make transit a viable option against motorized two-wheelers and cars.

While Lahore needs more transit infrastructure, its construction and finances should be made transparent to the public.

It is not obvious from the conflicting statements whether the Orange Line is a gift from the people of China or a loan from the Chinese banks.

A lack of transparency becomes a breeding ground for conspiracies and reduces trust in public institutions. Public transit should be built to improve mobility and trust in democratic governance.

Illustration by Zoha Bundally

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