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Bussing it for a change


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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.


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.


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


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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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

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (37) Closed

Md Imran Jan 02, 2013 12:16pm
Lahore is building a metro which will be bigger than London tube or NYC subway inshallah
KH Jan 02, 2013 02:01pm
Karachi and Lahore lies on the fault lines of the tectonic plates and very prone to earth quakes. With the shaby rescue infrastructure we have, I hope they never build undergrounds there.
KH Jan 02, 2013 02:02pm
Its Boris Bikes named after the mayor of London
G.A. Jan 02, 2013 03:00pm
By the way, some of Pakistan's 'smaller towns' are the size of Scandinavia's largest cities. It would be unfair to compare Scandinavian cities to relative giants like Karachi or Lahore. Beijing would be a better comparison.
faisal Jan 02, 2013 12:02pm
put cut onion in miss mehru room, this is a good therapy as onion are good in catching batceria, the rest u can check it out in google, is true so give a try
A R Khan Jan 02, 2013 04:03pm
Inshaallah indeed.
Cyrus Howell Jan 03, 2013 08:46am
The Barclays bikes idea actually began in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Khan Jan 02, 2013 03:32pm
Before you open your mouth, think and look around before you speak. Ever been to London or NYC? Guess not! otherwise you have not said that. Simply by putting In sha Allah at the end of your statement does not add value to your statement. Allah also wants you to use your brain and only helps those who help themselves.
ADI Jan 02, 2013 12:06pm
all is to improve transport system .. we are undergoing with all this but for a better tomorrow. , we are lucky to have a CM like Shahbaz who is atleast working on different domains.
Hamza Jan 02, 2013 09:28am
That is so wicked man
akbari Jan 02, 2013 02:28pm
I am not interested in any political party, specially those in Pakistan as they all are corrupt in their blood. However, if any party or any person accomplishes something sensible needs to be praised because it is his / her right. PML (N) has done something great for Lahore, specially under the able leadership of Sahabaz Sahrif as Mustafa Kamal of MQM did wonders for Karachi. As compared to these two persons what has any one of PP or any other party done. No accomplishments on their account. Mustafa Kamal would have done more for the infrastructure of Karachi had he been still there. Now Karachi has been left aside.We need him back, not necessarily with MQM. Let us hope that some mafia, like that in Karachi, does not penetrate in Lahore and spoils the endeavor of Shahbaz Sharif. May God bless you Shahbaz Sharif ! Please pray that Kamal comes back and lifts up Karachi again. Persons like Naimatullah Khan, Mustafa Kamal and Shanbaz Sharif, separate from their parties, are the hope for Pakistan.
Raj Jan 02, 2013 05:43pm
Bigger then Pak Railway you mean !!!!!
dave Jan 02, 2013 11:23am
I certainly agree with the author, as in London the Barclays bikes as they are called are extremely popular and used in the centre of the City, by most people. I guess with pakistan, it's the culture and attitudes, which will be needed to changed and general awareness and benefits of using alternative transport systems and methods, which are cheap and better for the environment. But pakistan is stook in the Day's of the Raj period, especially the rich and elite, whom seem to think it would be demeaning to ride a bike or be seen running or walking in Pakistan, but when they are oversea, they will follow these aspects. I guess they can't let their public image down in pakistan. Most important start planting tree's and get people to use the environment. But the problem then is public safety from lunatic drivers with any regard to general public on the roads and terrorists, who go around randomly blowing up people for fun. 'though it is a dream , to see pakistani's being able to use other mode of transports and their bodies without being hurt'
Rehan Jan 02, 2013 12:33pm
i have no doubt in my mind that it is a good project , but its better to have underground train then this . Any way we will have it in next PML (N) trun.
Sami Awan Jan 02, 2013 04:24pm
But i really believe without the Rapid Transit Underground System the project like Lahore Rapid Bus is only a short term solution. Lahore is rapidly expanding and every massive city in the world have Underground railway system and Lahore have to have develop a Rapid Transit system as well in the long term to cope with the transport problems like now. Also I think on weekends Lahore Rapid Bus track can be used for Cyclists and Punjab government can arrange a Bicycle race every weekend on this 27 Km track and that would be great.
Sami Awan Jan 02, 2013 04:28pm
Sir do you know Whole of Japan and even Major cities of Europe lie on Fault lines so does that means they stopped thinking and stopped developing.?. Now the world have progressed a lot and modern underground systems can sustain upto 9 Richter scale earthquake and your argument is totally unfounded. I think that is the real fundamental difference in Pakistani thinking and the rest of the Developed world is that we are hopeless all the time and we cannot think in an innovative manner at all like you are suggesting not to think about underground railways at all
G.A. Jan 02, 2013 01:28pm
I think bicycle routes would be an excellent idea and should be encouraged. Prime Ministers of some Scandinavian countries go to work on a bicycle. We talk about Scandinavia all the time but in smaller towns in Pakistan bicycle is the mode of transport.
Aasim Jan 02, 2013 04:49pm
Great article. I have been to Istanbul many times and have seen these BRT buses in operation. Subway is a good idea, but it could be very expensive and could take quite some time to get the system running. So, in the meantime and in order to addresss the traffic congession issue now, installing a BRT is a good option. In Europe, bus lanes could just be marked on normal roads (thanks to the public's good discipline), but in our country violations will not be uncommon thereby making the BRT less efficient as a fast and convenient way for moving around in the city.... Look forward to BRT operating in Lahore and Karachi!
jan saab Jan 02, 2013 04:53pm
we dont need to worry about earthquakes disrupting undergrounds - we should worry about our extremist mullahs carrying out an attack as they did on the london underground (all those involved had pakistani connections as is the norm with most terror activities).... however most of our people will deny this and blame CIA, Mossad, KFC and McDonalds
Rina Saeed Khan Jan 02, 2013 04:57pm
Underground system is not feasible right now - it is extremely expensive and requires constant maintenance. The Bus Rapid Transit system is relatively low cost and has worked well in other cities in developing countries. Trams could be a possible option too in Karachi and Lahore
Kabir Jan 04, 2013 11:33am
Is it so I am working in transportation and student of Urban planning, Indian roads seems to be very adequate for it and Delhi High Court has asked for the rigorous implementation of it.
Tariq Jan 02, 2013 06:38pm
People should be encouraged to ditch their a/c cars and get on their bicycles and or BRT whether they're rich or poor! The local authorities should provide provisions by way of dedicated cycle and or bus lanes. Apart from not adding to the pollution they will be getting the much needed exercise that most of our urban population needs. As people prosper they want a/c cars but this prosperity has brought about so many illnesses as people do not get the necessary exercise their body requires!
Nilesh Jan 02, 2013 06:48pm
In my country India, narrow roads in addition to high population density makes it impossible to introduce BRTS . But pakistan's cities have got enough road width to make a succesfull BRTS. Lahore ,Islamabad and Karachi can emulate cities like Bogota, Istanbul which have one of the best BRT systems in the world. Perhaps, if Pakistan successfully introduces it, India may follow!
Tariq Jan 02, 2013 06:48pm
BRT is a very short term answer. What our sprawling urban cities require are under ground systems like the Merto or similar, as a long term solutions. Planning should be afoot now with the view to start work within the life cycle of the next government! Before other services go under ground (electric, telephone and water/sewerage etc) which will drive up the cost many folds!
Md Imran Jan 02, 2013 07:28pm
Rina, our neighbouring India has built subway systems in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and now in Bombay too. Anything they can do,we can do 10 times better.
Taha Lateef Jan 02, 2013 08:19pm
Agree with you.
THR Jan 03, 2013 10:25am
Lahore Metro Bus transport system is near completion; let us see its effectiveness and convenience to the public and then comment.
amir Jan 03, 2013 03:05am
with Barclays written over them,
Concerned Engineer Jan 03, 2013 03:14am
This so called Lahore Metro Rapid Transit system is being built without any in-depth planning and feasibility by Engineers. I have noticed lots of flaws. At certain locations there will be rubbernecking due peak rush hours. If someone among the bigwigs thinks that this is the most viable solution for the volume of traffic.It is a laughing stock. The quality of construction is very mediocre. I hope this would be a sort of good learning learning curve for the solution of traffic problems in other cities in Punjab and elsewhere.
Karachiwalla Jan 03, 2013 04:02am
Underground traffic system is too costly to be possible. That type of construction is very uneconomical. Bus system appear practical and economical does not need building tunnels etc.
Kandan Venkataraman Jan 03, 2013 04:30am
Please explain how to ride bicycle while wearing a burka
klipsch2010 Jan 03, 2013 05:24am
dream on!
BRT Jan 03, 2013 06:07am
Yaar first ask them to complete this on time...then lets go on the metro side which requires a lot of capital..
Vatsyayan Jan 03, 2013 06:57am
Everyone is talking about NYC or LOndon. why cant you just look at New Delhi Metro which recently completed its 10 years. Lahore and delhi are more geographicaly cloure to each other. I ve my freinds visiting from London and sayiing that Delhi Metro is even better than London tubes as they are more latest
Cyrus Howell Jan 03, 2013 07:26am
"...many people I encountered had a short, rasping cough..." One of Humanity's finest traits - is sharing. I escaped Guang Zhou, China after 11 months, when Hong Kong was being handed over to Beijing. There was so much construction going on that every single day the air over the city was brown. My girlfriend threw up from the exhaust fumes every time she had to take a taxi. The developing world is developing rapidly and everybody wants to make a buck.
Cyrus Howell Jan 03, 2013 07:31am
That sucking sound you hear is the money flying into the pockets of politicians passing out rapid transit construction contracts.
roquefort Jan 05, 2013 02:22pm
What r u talking about ...riding cycles? A country where one can't even walk on the footpaths particularly women.I am really wondering about the cleanliness of these buses n the attitude of men towards fellow female passengers.