The Lahore Transport Company (LTC) has announced that it will be launching a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Lahore. This is welcome news. However, the Government should proceed cautiously as the failure of this initiative may provide a massive setback in the drive to provide people mobility and accessibility.
A BRT system is a high-capacity bus transit system that provides levels of service at par with other, more expensive, mass transit systems such as monorails or underground subways. New technologies mean that BRT systems can now carry almost as many passengers as other mass transit systems but, since they use existing roads, don’t require most of the expensive infrastructure necessary of the latter.
Why the need for mass transit? Quite simple: As our cities sprawl outwards, as we continue to enforce rigid land use classifications, distances increase between homes and everyday destinations such as work or school or recreation spots. Mass transit provides accessibility and mobility, so that people are freed to carry on their lives unhindered. Of course, where cities preserve high-density, mixed-use growth and combat sprawl, mass transit is not as important as distances remain manageable.
BRTs have been successfully launched in Bogota in Colombia and Curitiba in Brazil and, less so in New Delhi, amongst other places. The need for public transport in Pakistan, not just in Lahore, is growing as its cities grow larger and larger.
According to the Preliminary Information Memorandum prepared by the LTC and the Transportation Department, in the past 15 years, vehicle registration has increased from 56 to 116 per 1,000 inhabitants and cars from 13 to 35 per 1,000 inhabitants. Expected population increase will only raise these percentages. Thus, the LTC sought private sector interest in the feasibility, design, operation and maintenance of a BRT along the Ferozepur and Multan Road corridors on a Build-Operate-Transfer basis. The major socioeconomic benefits of the project include savings in vehicle operating costs, decreased travel time and congestion, reduced accidents, smoother intra-city travel, preference of the use of bus over other forms of transport, increase in economic activities and employment and revenue from advertisements on the buses.
Mobility, the ability to get from A to B, I have argued before, is one of the Fundamental Rights protected in our Constitution. In practice, however, the concepts of transportation and the need for mobility get confused with infrastructure — the buses and bridges necessary to make things work. Infrastructure is crucial to mobility, but not that it’s not of the essence.
The essence of mobility is in the right to have options (called ‘modes’ in transport-speak) to get from one place to another. Modes include walking, cycling, using a motorcycle, taxi, private car, bus, mass transit system and event an escalator or elevator. When looked at this way, it’s clear, firstly, in Pakistan, our mobility options are limited. There are no sidewalks, cycling is perceived as dangerous, there is no proper public transport and there are not enough taxis and rickshaws servicing entire urban areas. Secondly, it’s also clear that mobility is unequally spread between city-dwellers. In the absence of public transport, our ever-sprawling cities exclude non-automobile owners. Non-motorized pedestrians simply do not have the same economic and social benefit rewarded to car-owners. This is clear in the case of Lahore.
According to the JICA/Transport Department transport survey of the city completed earlier this year, Lahoris generate approximately 9.6 million trips a day. For a city with roughly 10 million inhabitants, this figure is less than half the average of other comparable cities. What does this tell us? It tells us that lack of mobility options is effectively keeping people — women, children, senior citizens and the handicapped; nearly half the population of the city — confined within their home. With better public transport and better mobility, along with a recognition that the right to mobility is more than throwing money at infrastructure solutions, there will be immense growth in economic and social activity. That’s why the BRT is such a good idea.
What is of concern, however, is the limited scope in which the Lahore BRT project is being confined. The Preliminary Information Memorandum appears to describe Lahore’s transport problems as revolving around automobile use and population growth. It is not a plan for the entire city. It is not a plan to provide mobility. And this is where there is risk that, if the project fails, the Government of Punjab — the proud sponsor of this project — will not consider the BRT as a viable option in the future.
What is needed, amongst other things, is a better evaluation of how effective transport projects such as these are. At the moment, things are built then forgotten about. Consider how the widening of Jail Road and construction of underpasses on the Canal in the 1990s were hailed as the solution to traffic congestion; how the construction of underpasses along the Canal under the Pervaiz Elahi government was heralded as the solution to traffic congestion. How the Kalma Chowk overpass or the one over the Canal on Ferozepur Road are touted as solutions to traffic. Has anyone ever sat down to calculate whether or not the benefits, if any, of these projects outweighed their cost? The answer is no. Can we continue to allow billions of rupees be spent without proper review?
The Indian Institute of Technology, which was the brain behind the Delhi BRT, has published a Handbook on Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of Future Urban Transport Projects. The handbook lists the social and environment criterion applied to urban transport projects by the ADB, the World Bank and by other international agencies. It then proposes a framework within which such projects can be evaluated based. These include consideration of population characteristics and the impact on poverty, accessibility and mobility indicators upon which performance of a project may be reviewed all to evaluate the change the project has.
The Lahore Transport Company and the Government of Punjab are invited to frame their own assessment criterion. It would be interesting to see how it would rate itself. Such an assessment would provide an important overview of urban infrastructure projects, would aid in financial transparency and would allow the citizens an opportunity to be better informed about the choices they make.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2012.