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Getting there

March 04, 2013

THERE’S no denying that it does have a certain wow factor.

In a country where the solution to traffic congestion is usually found in an ever expanding network of so-called ‘signal-free’ corridors and roads that eat up more and more of cities’ open areas, Lahore has become something of a trail-blazer.

The recently inaugurated Metro Bus System, the only operational mass transit system in the country, is a testament to what happens when provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif decides that a project is worthy of his tender ministrations.

In the working class Lahori underbellies of the Ferozepur and Lytton road arteries, all the way to lower Mall and the GT Road to Shahdara, radical surgery has been undertaken. The 27 kilometres dedicated bus corridor, of which just over 8km is one bridge, is plied by 45 new articulated buses and connects two congested ends of the city.

The Ferozepur Road section is a sight to behold, with the bus lanes carved out between the lanes meant for ordinary traffic, replacing the erstwhile ragged line of stunted trees and railings put there to deter jaywalkers and nonchalantly twisted aside by the same. But the transit system truly comes into its own when it crosses Mozang Chungi and is elevated, effectively creating a sort of double-decker road.

The areas the bus-bridge traverses from here onwards were always densely congested, mainly commercial; the adjectives that spring to mind range from a forgiving ‘untidy’ to a more honest ‘ugly’. But from between the ragtag assortment of buildings kempt and unkempt now rise the still-white pillars that support the overhead corridor.

From ground level you can see handsome new buses, massive generators to power the stations and the escalators, still-intact railings and signs for underground pathways leading to the stations. If you allow yourself, you may well feel a flicker of that increasingly rare emotion — pride. The symbolism couldn’t be headier.

At the stations, though, you can see how the birth pangs of Mr Sharif’s new baby weren’t painless. Lahoris are always up for a free ride and once Mr Sharif announced in his benevolence that carriage would be free for a month, the system was inundated with would-be passengers, competing amongst themselves for space and concurrently spoiling the fresh-out-of-the-factory look of the infrastructure.

There were reports of doors and seats being damaged, paintwork scratched and walls scored; there were also a few stories about drivers announcing that the vehicle had run out of fuel in an effort to reduce the number of passengers crowding in on it.

A couple of weeks later, though — and the ticket price having been reinstated — the system is functioning with relative smoothness. While there are still complaints that buses don’t arrive promptly enough at the scheduled times, generally there is agreement that the situation for commuters has improved.

So was it worth it? Is it a model worth emulating in other cities? As always in projects where billions of rupees are involved, there are the critics. Mainly, they ask, did the provincial government get the best bang for its buck, or was this another example of the sort of boast-worthy mega-projects the Sharifs appear so fond of?

There is no argument that the city needed more buses. If a bus takes 40 passengers, the argument goes, that’s up to 40 vehicles off the road.

But for this argument to hold, wouldn’t it require that people who otherwise have the option of driving a private vehicle are lured on to the buses instead? As in many urban centres around the world, the transit system must prove a more efficient, cheaper and generally saner means of transportation as compared to one’s own vehicle.

But the average passenger on Lahore’s new system was in any case earlier dependent on public transport. It comes as a much-deserved boon for them, certainly, given that they had no options earlier other than to embark on one of the recklessly driven, privately owned wagons or buses that continue to ply the city streets, and that passed as public transport. But does it take vehicles off the road, thereby meeting the concurrent aim of reducing traffic congestion (the other being to facilitate commuters)?

The other reality I’m wondering about is that it is linear; it gets you where you need to go along that one route only. It facilitates workers who live in the western portions to get to the industrial areas, which are on the east of the city.

But I imagine that significant numbers of people need to branch off and travel to other areas that are not covered by this system — in which case they’re dependent again on the privately-owned wagons and buses, which in turn will keep these dozens of vehicles on the roads.

Many of the most popular and much-visited areas of the city, including major commercial hubs and venues (for example, Hall Road, Liberty Market and so on), are not accessible through the new transit system. Conversely, where’s the bolstering system that transports passengers to the metrobus stations? Mass transit systems in other parts of the world, where similarly linear, are bolstered by other, smaller lines that act as spokes of the wheel.

Still, it doesn’t do to be too much of a naysayer; it is after all the first serious effort to address the problem of city commutes and the provincial government has — with an election looming — put its money where its mouth is.

The Karachi Circular Railway, by contrast, has seen nothing more than good intentions for years even though the rails are largely already laid down. And yet, the thought remains: was it the best bang for the buck? What we need now is a survey to determine the extent to which Lahore’s transit system has improved commuter worries and traffic patterns. Then, other cities — many of which are in desperate need of mass transit systems — can judge whether or not it is a model to emulate.

The writer is a member of staff.