Urban planners, transport specialists, environmentalists, property developers and the common citizens of Lahore should welcome the city’s first-ever Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, but with caution. Why?
Rapid urbanisation and a sharp increase in motorisation have resulted in serious traffic congestion in Lahore. Professor Vuchic Vukhan in his book Transportation for Livable Cities argues that congestion is a consequence of inappropriate policies and inadequate planning that failed to consider the long-term relationship that exists between a city and its transport network. Therefore, the solution to congestion problems demands a holistic approach to urban planning, beyond any single transport project.
Urbanisation is not necessarily a bad phenomenon. The important point to consider is the part of the city where population growth is occurring and where it is actually supposed to be occurring. Traditionally, Lahore manages population growth by developing hundreds of medium-to low-density housing schemes at the edge of the city. This type of population growth demands heavy investment in road infrastructure, which is evident from the construction of underpasses, flyovers and the Lahore Ring Road. These housing schemes and the road infrastructure make Lahore accessible to private vehicles only, which has subsequently led to a sharp increase in motorisation. The percentage of total trips made by private vehicles has doubled from 24 per cent in 1991 to 46 per cent in 2007.
On the other hand, the percentage of total trips made by public transport vehicles in Lahore have either remained constant or are declining, instead of mirroring the increase in population. This indicates that people do not find the available means of public transport an attractive way to travel. Therefore, in the presence of poor quality public transport, people belonging to the middle income group use either motorcycles or cars. There is an argument that public transport trips have not increased due to the aspiration of people to own private vehicles. This is true to an extent but the lack of investment in decent public transport in Lahore is the root cause behind people choosing not to make use of public transport. Therefore, the construction of the BRT should be warmly welcomed regardless of political biases.
However, investment in the BRT should be made in conjunction with new policies and zoning regulations for transit oriented development (TOD). TOD can help increase employment, housing density and mixed land usage along the BRT routes in general and the BRT stations in particular. This could attract private investment in new housing estates as happened in Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, which could in turn lead to the development of new population growth centres in Lahore. TOD is an approach that can link the BRT investment with 21st century housing development, ultimately achieving high economic growth, less transport energy consumption and better urban environment. Professor Robert Cervero in his book Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry argues that TOD leads to shorter travel distances, promotes walking, cycling and public transport, reduces traffic congestion and makes cities liveable.
What is required for linking the BRT investment with TOD policies is institutional strengthening at the local level — making the City District Government, Lahore functional and upgrading the Lahore Transport Company to the Lahore Transport Authority.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2012.