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Bussing it for a change

January 02, 2013

290-BRT
Little Miss Mehru, as we affectionately call her, is my niece’s cherubic 13 years old best friend, who is currently confined to her bedroom in Lahore. Miss Mehru contracted acute bronchitis and pneumonia last month and is today almost skeletal and under quarantine. “The doctors say that there is so much air pollution in Lahore, especially the dust in the air because of all this construction that is going on, that she has to stay indoors until her immunity improves. She might catch some other respiratory infection going around,” explains Mehru’s mother. I had to go see her with a mask on and was tempted to keep it on after I left.

This December, as I noted on my short trip to Lahore, many people I encountered had a short, rasping cough – a byproduct of life in a crowded, growing industrial city. Lahore is where traffic jams have become the norm and where December is known for its thick blanket of smog. I live now in Islamabad, where the air pollution levels are much lower and it made me think about how my home city, the Lahore of lush gardens, has become one of the most polluted cities in Asia. In recent years, hundreds of industrial units have sprung up in Northern Lahore, which are spewing out toxins into the air. Experts measure air pollution by the amount of Particulate Matter (PM) that includes toxic metal dusts and fumes of lead, chromium, cadmium and zinc, which all lead to an increase in respiratory infections. A high tech air monitoring system installed in Lahore by the Environment Protection Agency recently shut down – it had shown levels of 121.85 micrograms per cubic meter, which is three times higher than the safe standards.

Over the years, the increased traffic congestion has led vehicles to stand idle in low gear, producing even higher emissions. In Islamabad, you can zip from one corner to another in less than 10 minutes while in Lahore it takes you an hour to just get to a market and back. In Islamabad, there are affordable taxis running on clean CNG everywhere, but in Lahore you have smoky rickshaws and speeding wagons running on diesel. Karachi, which has both the taxis and polluting rickshaws and massive traffic jams, is lucky in that it is a coastal city and the sea breeze ends up taking its air pollution out onto the open sea.

No city in Pakistan has an adequate public transport system and even those of us with cars now have to pay a price for this collective failure in our urban centers with a lower quality of life. However, there is a potential solution in the form of the BRT – the Bus Rapid Transit system that will soon be introduced to Lahore and Karachi. Both cities have allocated quite a bit of money to improve their public transport systems. In Lahore, work has already begun (hence all the digging and construction) on dedicated lanes for buses that will run on CNG and provide safe, clean and reliable transport. The first route will open from Kasur to Shahdara and will probably be ready in around three months.

BRT-2

Where the road is wide, as in Ferozepur Road, an uninterrupted bus lane has been added and where the roads are congested (near Data Darbar), overhead lanes have been constructed for the free flow of buses. Now work is going on to make proper platforms from where the public can catch these buses. The hope is there that the other transport companies will see the competition and try to improve their services as well or be phased out in the years to come. This has been done before – the first BRT system was installed in the relatively poor city of Curitiba in Brazil and today it is one of the best bus systems in the world. Istanbul also has a good BRT system and the Turkish government has even donated buses to the Punjab Government.

BRT in Istanbul.
BRT in Istanbul.

While the provincial governments are investing in the infrastructure itself (building the lanes and acquiring the buses), the UNDP-Pakistan is giving support in forming an environmentally friendly and energy efficient transport policy for Sindh and Punjab provinces. The idea is to spread awareness about the benefits of public transport and encourage the middle class to use these new buses and not drive their cars around. Transport plans are also being developed for Rawalpindi and Islamabad. There is even talk of constructing special bicycle lanes and pedestrian lanes to encourage Pakistanis to start cycling or even walking again!

Why is it that when we travel abroad we have no issues with walking from one part of town to another, but in Pakistan we won’t even go to the local corner shop unless we can drive there. In Lahore, a group called Critical Mass has been encouraging people to join their weekend cycle rides for some years now. In Scandinavian countries, cycling is how people get around in their cities. The whole idea is to promote practices in urban areas that are cleaner and healthier. From Sweden to Turkey to Brazil it is being done both by rich and developing countries alike – we really have no reason to doubt its effectiveness. The younger generation, including little girls like Miss Mehru, ought to have a better future in which they can at least have clean air to breathe in.

 


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The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at rinasaeed@gmail.com

 


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