THE Peshawar BRT (metro bus) project is mired in controversy. In what is a ‘damning’ report (Dawn), the provincial government’s own inspection team has heaped criticism on the project. In the days since, several senior officials have lost their positions as the KP government struggles to complete a large infrastructural project already months behind its promised schedule.
If news coverage of the report is to be believed, some of its components are indeed damning. There was talk of billions of rupees lost to kickbacks and inefficiencies, as well as stories of make, break and remake. There can be little justification for the misappropriation of public funds in any project, let alone in something as large as the Peshawar BRT. Due process of law must be followed and those who made illegal gains punished.
However, other parts of the report demand that we seriously reconsider our understanding of cities and urban transportation. Concerns about pedestrian crossings and road width, and an outright recommendation for an elevated busway, are ill informed and almost absurd, pointing to poor understanding of mass transit and, particularly, BRT. Let’s start with the basic idea of a BRT and how it directly contradicts our imaginary.
Any good transit system, especially BRT, is defined by its integration with spaces and people along the areas where it is built.
BRTs emerged as low-cost alternatives to over- and underground rail systems that many developing cities could not afford. Instead of laying new corridors that trains necessarily required, a BRT allowed ordinary buses to utilise specially marked lanes on the same road. No longer did you need tunnels or overhead bridges to run an efficient urban transit system. The good old bus could come to the city’s rescue in an extremely cost-efficient way. By providing a cheap, reliable way for citizens to commute, BRTs could help deal with congestion and provide vital connectivity between people and urban economic activity.
And look at what we did. All of the BRT corridor in Rawalpindi is elevated, as are major sections in Lahore. And, it seems, KP’s inspection team wanted the same for Peshawar’s. Why are we so excited about pouring tons of concrete into elevated corridors when these buses can very well run on roads that we already have?
The inspection report has some clues to help answer this question. BRT stations and some other structures have reduced road space available to cars, it says. This will make traffic problems worse.
The simple fact is that there is no evidence from anywhere in the world to back this claim. Instead, data from cities around the world is by now clear: long run traffic congestion is not a function of road space or level of service. The evidence from the US is so strong, in fact, that it is now referred to as the ‘Fundamental Law of Road Congestion’: where roads were widened to ease traffic flow, congestion returned due to increased demand. Where roads were narrowed, and overhead bridges and highways removed, traffic disappeared and found alternative routes. When combined with alternative modes of transport (such as BRT) and adequate road use pricing, congestion can actually decrease even after reducing both number of lanes and lane width available to traffic.
This data suggests that our entire focus on big-ticket infrastructure projects under the garb of BRT is misplaced. The traffic always finds its way, and wider roads only bring more traffic out. The actual congestion problem is at bottlenecks — wide roads that suddenly become narrower — and not at roads that are narrow throughout. Different newspapers quoted the inspection report to claim that road width at BRT stations in Peshawar has reduced by an average of 40 per cent. Perhaps the width of the entire road should be reduced by 40pc to keep it consistent and make sure there are no bottlenecks.
Another problem that the inspection report highlights is about pedestrian crossings. It takes contradictory positions: zebra crossings near BRT stations will cause congestion, and not enough such crossings have been planned in areas where there are no stations. The contradiction is clear for everyone to see; what is worse is that focusing on traffic instead of pedestrians is self-defeating for any high-quality urban transit system.
Any good transit system — especially BRT — is defined by its integration with spaces and people along the areas where it is built. Our focus on cars and traffic congestion has meant that we have relegated pedestrians to the bottom of our priority list, where they must risk their lives or climb tedious bridges to cross roads. That these roads are akin to highways running through the midst of our cities makes it worse.
Such corridors, whether for buses or mixed traffic, are inefficient by design. They restrict the interconnectedness of businesses along their sides; by acting as physical barriers, these corridors create separate markets on either side that are inherently less efficient than one big, connected market. They are therefore isolated from their core social and economic functions and make for cities that are not safe, livable, or vibrant places. Where such a corridor is a BRT, it will risk facilitating economic activity only at its endpoints, without delivering much value to all the areas that fall along it.
The suggestion for Peshawar to demolish some shops or other structures to restore the road to its original width is therefore staggering in its ineptitude. Doing so would create no reason for car owners to use the BRT, meaning that existing demand for road space would remain as is. This would lead to failure on one of the most important objectives of developing urban transit systems: reducing congestion by forcing an adjustment of road demand.
Moreover, and perhaps more critically, it will directly contradict the principles of an urban transit system by destroying instead of creating and facilitating economic activity. A BRT is supposed to bring workers closer to their jobs; shoppers closer to retail centres; businessmen closer to businesses; clients closer to contractors. If it involves actively destroying the same businesses, Peshawar’s BRT would have lost its direction before its inauguration.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2019