COMMUTERS in the federal capital have waited long for an effective mass transit system that plies on all critical routes. Despite the successful execution of the Islamabad metro, the city desperately needs a transportation system for the city’s blue-collar workforce and an expanding citizenry.
Islamabad used to have a distinctive modern urban structure; it was a planned city with ample green spaces and roads. But this is now limited to only a few sectors. Like all other cities of the country, Islamabad too has expanded. Barakahu, Simly and Banigala form the city’s northern outskirts, Latrar is in the east, while Pir Wadhai and Tarnol are particularly congested in the south. Only the western approach was saved for a time, but now the D sector is built there, right under the Margalla hills. With the city’s population currently at 1.8 million and expanding at the rate of four per cent a year, the demand for intra-city travel has increased substantially.
The existing mode of public transport comprises a privately-run network of dilapidated wagons. There is no regulation of these wagons or their upkeep by the authorities. The wagons ply only on a limited number of routes, the fare is not adjustable, while the drivers and conductors misbehave with the public on a routine basis.
Islamabad needs an efficient public transportation system.
Given these deplorable conditions, many students and office workers rely on private taxis or ride-hailing services, which are heavy on the pocket. While the well-to-do commute in their vehicles, the lower-income groups have to make do with an inefficient public transportation system.
Severe weather conditions only add to the miseries of the commuters in the city. Taxis charge more than usual, peak factors in ride-hailing apps drive up the fare considerably. At the same time, drivers of wagons plying on routes leading to nearby urban areas often refuse to carry passengers.
The only government-provided mode of transport in the capital city is the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metrobus connecting the twin cities’ business zones. However, it is availed by a fraction of the population since Islamabad’s business zone is located on its eastern outskirts.
Hence, transportation becomes an expensive affair for middle- and low-income families as they spend a considerable chunk of their income on commuting expenses.
Meanwhile, the lack of safe and affordable public transportation makes commuting for women even more arduous. Moving around from one sector to another is a bigger problem than moving around the outskirts. The lack of adequate seating capacity and a generally uncomfortable environment for female commuters compounds the problem. As a consequence, women become less mobile and remain disenfranchised from society. Though ride-hailing apps are popular, they can only be availed by the higher-income groups, while residents of lower-income households use public transportation for 75pc of their journeys.
In Pakistan, the urban transportation ecosystem is usually a mix of formal and informal modes of transport. While these services are deregulated and, to some extent, also multimodal, the transportation space is governed by different service providers working within their constraints. The equilibrium or competition among these service providers defines the overall public transport landscape of the country’s cities.
Regulatory and demand-related constraints need to be addressed urgently in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. There is no blueprint for the regulation of the transport sector. The capital city does not have a modern transportation station like the Victoria Terminal in London or a body like the New York Port Authority with a central conclave and bus boarding bays. One wonders what would the future prospects be of a society that remains oblivious to its visible needs.
In this scenario, a proactive approach by the authorities to reduce barriers for the regulation of existing modes of public transport is critical for equitable urban mobility. Even the Capital Development Authority, in a recent report, has acknowledged the commuting woes in the federal capital and promised to launch a bus service to mitigate the situation.
However, in this respect, an innovative and cost-effective method of intra-city transport would be more beneficial to people instead of large-scale mass transit projects. Given the present government’s policy of promoting electric vehicles, an intra-sector electric or solar shuttle service would help the public effectively move from sector to sector. Though there are bureaucratic barriers and questions of capacity and upkeep, it would be a small feat compared to building a multimillion-dollar BRT project. Islamabad’s transportation crisis is dire indeed, but it can be resolved with imagination and far-sightedness, which seem to be at present missing from our administrative leadership. n
The author is a lecturer at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2022