Is the Lahore Metrobus a folly or far-sighted?

Published: April 21, 2013

Shahbaz Sharif is a true Lahori, theatrical in his very essence. All his work is imbued by immense drama.

The first thing you will notice is the eerie quiet after the doors shut. There are perhaps a few whispers, a cough, the humming of the air conditioning, and the pssst sound every time the driver applies the air brakes.

It is actually a reverent silence, the silence of the people of Lahore traveling in the brand new Metrobus. I experienced it on a late winter afternoon as I headed to meet a friend for coffee. Since I didn’t have a travel card, I got a token from the self-service ticket vending machine at the station, and walked down to the platform. I looked up at the LED information board — the next bus was arriving in one minute. A red bus pulled up. People queued. The bus docked, its doors opened simultaneously. Two women walked out, the rest of us shuffled in. The doors shut behind us. And then there was silence.

Shahbaz Sharif is a true Lahori, theatrical in his very essence. All his work is imbued by immense drama. He dreams up grand projects, and executes them at lightening speeds. By the time the opponents grasp the idea of his latest fancy and start protesting, the project is up and running. The Lahore Metrobus has been no exception.

Reactions to the Rs30 billion project, like any big-ticket number, have been polarised. Opponents have called it a wasteful political gimmick, a blot on Lahore’s beauty and insensitive to the city’s fabric and heritage. It has been oft-compared to the Berlin Wall for its ubiquitous iron bars. Opponents claim it has divided the city between the haves and have-nots and done little to relieve traffic congestion.

The Metrobus has also been termed an unjust expenditure, with the 27-km line costing more than allocation to any other sector (including education, health, water) under the Punjab Annual Development Programme 2012-13.

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Barring self-praise from the provincial government, there are few vocal supporters. Most opinion leaders have avoided a dispassionate review that a project of this size and impact deserves. Which one is it? A case of political folly or far-sightedness?

Tyranny of geography

In sprawling cities, the tyranny of geography is unleashed on the most disadvantaged residents. In developing world cities such as Karachi and Lahore, for millions of working class citizens jobs and homes are set miles apart. Access to personal mobility — a motorcycle or car — is a distant dream. For them, a disproportionate part of the day, and a large share of their wage, is spent commuting to and from work.

Karachi, to state very generously, has a semblance of a ‘bus network.’ About 18,000 disheveled buses, coaches, wagons and mini-wagons ply hundreds of routes on an arbitrary number and naming scheme. For a city of 18m, that’s about one bus per 1,000 people. There is not a single map, however basic, that charts any part of the network, and navigating it, therefore, is a job for the seasoned, or the needy. No one ‘chooses’ this mode of transportation. Of course, strikes, shutdowns, celebrations and official holidays bring the entire network to a shuddering halt, leaving those who depend on it stranded.

Lahore, a city roughly half the population, never truly bothered with mass transit, until now. According to the Lahore Transport Company, there are 650 buses on 30 routes, with plans to add 2,000 new buses and realign the entire route network. That’s roughly one bus for over 3,700 people.

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Rickshaws and taxis are increasingly unaffordable, even for the middle class. With CNG shortages and escalating fuel prices, the regular fares for a 10- to 15-km journey easily hits three figures. Most labourers and low-paid workers, therefore, use bicycles, and the bulk of the labour force opts for motorcycles. The rest, who can afford them, have cars.

The only answer, it seems, is to start thinking seriously about an efficient, dependable, and respectable mass transit system.

Why mass transit?

The conventional wisdom goes that as cities approach the one-million population mark, the administration needs to invest in a mass transit system — to move a large number of people back and forth. Unfortunately, that conventional wisdom eluded Pakistan’s city managers. They decided to restrict themselves to building roads, and let the private sector handle transport.

The love affair with asphalt — roads, expressways and flyovers — was ground in the belief that they would magically resolve congestion. The experience of South East Asian capitals — Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila — was lost on them. These cities built expressways upon roads upon expressways throughout the 1990s, only to realise that their cities were choked by the turn of the century. More asphalt led to more demand and in the absence of mass transit networks, it only worsened congestion and air quality. They went back to the drawing board, and drafted mass transit schemes.

Flashy trains?

The phrase mass transit conjures images of modern trains seamlessly transporting hundreds of thousands deep underground, or on elevated tracks. The former Punjab government, under Musharraf’s rule, claims it had a similar vision for Lahore. They have, however, possibly spent more on recent advertising bemoaning the scrapping of their vision by Shahbaz Sharif’s administration in favour of the Lahore Metrobus, than the planned system itself.

There is one small glitch: rail-based transit systems, elevated or underground, are stratospherically expensive. Subway lines, on average, cost between $100m to $250m per kilometre. The upcoming phase of Delhi Metro would cost $163m per km. Assuming that it would cost $150m per km, how much would the 27-km Lahore Metrobus have cost if it were rail-based? Rs405 billion.

So if we want to drastically transform our cities, and do it cheap and fast, the option we do have is the Bus Rapid Transit, or the poor man’s subway.

‘Surface subway’

Jamie Lerner, three-time mayor of Cuiritiba, in southern Brazil, came up with the idea of the ‘surface subway’ in early 1970s. A subway should have speed, reliability, comfort and good frequency. Lerner strived to have all these conditions on surface — hence the term ‘surface subway’ for the world’s first bus systems with dedicated corridors, off-board fare collection and the look and feel of a modern subway.

Today, 75% of Cuiritibans get to work by a bus in the morning, and 2.3m passengers use the BRT system every day. Other cities, including Bogota, Lima and Sao Paulo, replicated the BRT. The previously crime-riddled neighbourhoods, notorious for their drug cartels and high homicide rates, are now safer, more accessible. A large part of that success is attributed to BRTS.

Since 2000, 14 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, have built around 500km of BRTS. India is following suit, with five BRT systems, including Delhi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Pune, six under construction and eight in the pipeline. Jakarta has been implementing a massive system since 2004 by the name of TransJakarta. As of February 2013, TransJakarta has 12 corridors, totaling 172km, served by 520 buses that carried 310,000 passengers per day in 2011.

Pakistan’s debutante

Pakistan is a late entrant to the BRT club, with its first line opening in Lahore in February 2013. Within a few weeks though, it was carrying over 140,000 passengers a day.

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The corridor, when viewed independently, is well designed, and meets criteria laid out by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. It has barrier-controlled, automated off-board fare collection, a service interval of less than 2 minutes in peak hours, a segregated right-of-way, modern stations with well-designed signage, information systems and a precision bus docking system synchronised with sliding, automated glass doors that give it the look and feel of a subway station. The stations allow you to park your bicycle as well, a facility that may appear wasteful now, but will come in handy later.

On the flip side, while the single corridor may not have rid Lahore of congestion and transformed lives instantaneously, it most certainly is the first solid brick in the foundation of a modern, efficient, dependable mass transit system. Karachi has in the meanwhile, hardly moved from the drawing board.

The Metrobus has its flaws. BRT corridors need to be part of a larger transit system with feeder services. It has also been designed ad hoc, independent of land-use patterns. Environmental feasibilities, a pre-requisite, were completed halfway through the construction. And, the unending stretch of iron bars does look ugly. Unfortunately, they are imperative to enforce the segregated right-of-way, and avoid accidents involving adventurous citizens crossing the passage. Once we all learn to be law-abiding, the iron bars could be replaced with low-rise kerb stones.

The Metrobus, therefore, has to be seen as such — a first experiment that would inform future urban mass transit in Pakistan. It has been expensive, but like all greenfield projects, it had to be built from scratch. A second line will would cost far less.

Opponents bemoan that the one-way fare, irrespective of distance, is Rs40. While that may be high for travelling between two or three stations, an auto-rickshaw, the only other alternative in Lahore in most cases, would cost far more.

Building on to the system

Don’t forget a BRT system helps with public backlash when fuel prices go up. Private buses may squeeze the passenger but in a BRT system the government can subsidise fares directly.

The BRT technology allows these policies to be swiftly implemented. Every trip on the Metrobus is recorded; therefore, for each trip made, the government could subsidise part of the fare.

The Metrobus should, therefore, be re-judged in light of its potential. Its cost should be weighed against the existing congestion and opportunity cost incurred in winding traffic jams across the cities. It is the cheapest, and extremely effective form of mass transit that has been built fast and to good standard. In a country as hungry for development as Pakistan, there could always be alternative ways of spending every rupee. But some projects are more urgent, and can have a greater multiplier effect, than others.

Better public transport is not wishful thinking, it is a right. Just like large parks and public spaces, mass transit systems democratise space and geography. And that is one of the more important prisms through which to judge the Metrobus on whether it is an expensive mistake or a judicious investment.

Karachi: the past, present and future of public transportation

Karachi has been unfortunate. It is consistently relegated to the bottom of quality-of-living indices. The Economist Intelligence Unit called it the 6th worst city to live in. This notoriety has stuck largely because it is the only city its size (18m) without a mass transit system.

This was not always the case, though as early investment proves. The first steam tramway was conceived as early as 1881, when the city’s population was around 75,000. It started working in 1885 in Old Town and Saddar. By its 70th anniversary in 1955, there were 64 trams for 1.5m people. In 1969, the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) opened from City Station to Drigh Road. It was an instant hit, carrying 6m passengers yearly. It grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and a loop line was added across north and west, making it circular. At its peak, 104 daily trains ran until decay set in and the grip of private transporters grew tighter. The tramway was shut in 1975, leaving the congested south at the mercy of private buses. When Karachi hit 9m people by 1999, KCR was shut too. Over the next 16 years, the population has doubled but there is no mass transit for it.

Not that none have been on the drawing board. A revival of the KCR has been on the cards since 2001 but 12 years on, work has yet to start. It will rebuild 50km of the loop, cost Rs260 billion, and take nine years, according to the Japanese donor agency Jica whose study on Karachi’s transport needs has been key to the effort.

There is a small caveat though. One circular railway will be a drop in the ocean of Karachi’s insatiable demand. The city has grown immensely and without feeder services, the KCR will only cater to a fraction of the city. These arguments do not, however, imply that it is not essential. They show what else will be needed in future.

That is where Lahore has shown us the way forward with its Metrobus bus rapid transit system. BRT systems are long corridors that move people across the length and breadth of a sprawling city on passageways reserved for buses in the centre of a road. These surface subways can work spectacularly for Karachi, especially because of its geography.

Karachi is roughly 60km by 60km square, tilted precariously on its bottom-left corner. The city grew in triangles from the Karachi Port and Mereweather Tower area. Indeed, if you look at the layout of the old town you will see several corner buildings are actually triangular. Since commerce was concentrated in the south, at the city’s starting point, the harbour, people also flowed south for work every day. To this day, this pattern largely persists.

The earliest major arteries of Bunder Road, Frere Road and McLeod Road aided this flow. Future arteries, such as Shahrah-e-Faisal, New MA Jinnah Road, Shahrah-e-Pakistan and University Road, reinforced it. This gives the city nice, broad, straight routes that would be perfect for BRT corridors. They would not only intersect with KCR at its southern tip, City Station, but also halfway across the north as the train loops from east to west. The system would still need more radial BRT arteries that connect these north-south corridors and feeder services in northern suburbs. Individual light rail transit loops, like high-capacity trams or trolleys, could supplement the system in the congested south, including Saddar, Burns Road, Old City areas, and possibly Clifton.

Some plans being studied support this. Jica has prepared a master plan 2030 that incorporates the KCR and other forms of rail. Any future work has to factor in the private bus network which will resist change. But the former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa has a solution that worked in his city when he brought in BRTS. Get the old bus owners to run the new ones. Rickshaws should not be forgotten either as they can service areas where buses cannot reach.

If Karachi learns from the mistakes of other cities and builds a mass transit system, its economics would improve as people and goods would move freely but it could also reconfigure the tattered fabric of society for the better.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 21st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Maria
    Apr 21, 2013 - 12:20PM

    A well reasoned and researched article singing the praises of mass transit systems. I have found that almost everyone I speak to who has taken the Lahore Rapid Bus Service has been supportive of this project. The very fact that its use has exceeded all expectations tells us that it is a step in the right direction. Pakistanis are used to criticizing while not working for anything better. The Metro Bus Service is proving as useful as the same Motorways that critics deemed as wasteful and expensive but now form a backbone of travel.

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  • Jamshed
    Apr 21, 2013 - 12:25PM

    Well why either metro train or metro bus? Ever heard about monorail ? It is much cheaper than underground train + cost effective and futuristic .. Sorry to say bit metro bus is 70′s thing and not some kind of revolutionary project .. It will be a white elephant .. As shahbaz sharif have left no room for further development ..

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  • mohaisin Sharif
    Apr 21, 2013 - 12:47PM

    Last week I was travelling to Kasur with family, from Ferozpur Road when we turned on Kasur road, side by side was Metro bus, on each and every crossing we stopped average 20 minutes, it was big torture really! The distance and stress have become doubled not less with such unmanaged, inappropriate and failed project!

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  • ahmed
    Apr 21, 2013 - 12:58PM

    what contrasting comments by readers, we cannot agree on anything i guess.

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  • Apr 21, 2013 - 2:07PM

    PML(N)’s whole campaign is based on the following:

    Metro Buss
    Motorway
    Solar Lamps
    Danish School

    All we need to realize that it is their vision for the development of the people of Pakistan? Honestly speaking no one ever gave you anything broader.. did anyone ever gave you any slight idea when it comes to:

    Economic Reforms? right now disaster
    Counter Measures for shortage of Power, Gas How & When?
    Infrastructure, roads, bridges, dams Development Policy?
    Poverty Elimination & relief for common man?
    Internal Security & Foreign Policy?
    Population Control or counter measures to use them in labour markets?
    Use of Natural resources.. how?
    Water Policy?
    Agriculture & Forests.? Forests are almost disappearing
    Health sector & provision of medical facilities, fake medicines?
    Measures to reduce mortality rate, nutrition for pregnant women & their well being.
    Education reforms… how to produce world class professionals within Pakistan?
    Transportation, improvement of Land, Sea & Air Transport?
    Relations with the neighbors?
    Debt reductions?
    Import Exports
    Price control of basic commodities?
    what about overseas Pakistanis?

    and so on…. add the one in your brain.

    I don’t know if these are to be included in the manifesto, but I never heard any of PPP, PML(N), PTI talking on these…may be they talk about few like Security, Education, etc but how they will do..no one knows.

    My dear fellows Pakistanis, we do not have any other solution or Ala Din’s Chirag to counter the issues in Pakistan but via Election, but at least parties can give us their stances how they will counter these issues during the governments…right now no one is there to fix the above all for us.

    So conclusion is that: Don’t keep high hopes from anyone even if PTI is coming into power, they won’t be able to fix all for you… or may be able to do something for Security, Energy, Education.

    If you ever heard of the above, anywhere any politicians talking about these.. please let me know.

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  • Omar
    Apr 21, 2013 - 2:07PM

    I love the design!

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  • jadoon
    Apr 21, 2013 - 2:36PM

    Well, during my days in GC lahore in late nineties, I considered lahore a disorganized dusty, overcrowded city. Now, when i visited lahore, it is totally changed city, at least around canal road areas. The canal road is totally signal free and I could not sport metro bus system hindering traffic anywhere. So, you may criticize “N” for overspending on mega projects, but at least something remains on ground for common people. Take the example of motorway, which was criticized at that time too, but looks like a blessing when compared to GT road.

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  • Rizwan
    Apr 21, 2013 - 3:08PM

    I am a supporter of public transport systems. My gripe with Shahbaz Sharif is the complete lack of planning and inefficiency in executing this entire project. The quoted Rs.30b cost (if that is true) could have been half that if only some sense had gone into this project. Even now while it’s up and running, there are serious technical faults with roads and intersections around it. Lahore has been used as a playground for Shahbaz Sharif’s experiments, at an expensive cost to the exchequer. And although the buses now ply the route, they are clearly not enough for this corridor judging from the jam packed buses and the number of private sector transporters STILL operating on Ferozepur Road. The project has done nothing for congestion, and probably will not unless your other public transport options are eliminated from the road, and that can only be done by building a higher capacity network.

    Other than the poor planning and execution, I would like the Punjab government to make public the entire cost breakdown for the project. An audited report would be good too, and I’d like to see how it is that HCS continually gets every Punjab government project with seemingly no competition. Who supplied the steel and the railings for the project? Were PPRA rules followed? Is this project compliant with environmental laws? Was there a cost-benefit analysis done at all? I guess these are things that will forever be consigned to history amidst the PML-N’s election rhetoric as they advertise their “gift” to the city (out of the taxpayer’s money of course).

    The project could have been miles better (and larger) had it been implemented from the beginning of the Sharifs’ turn, rather than the last year and a half. That it coincides directly with the rise of PTI says everything about the intention behind this project.

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  • John the Baptist
    Apr 21, 2013 - 3:16PM

    Folly.

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  • Aamer Khawaja
    Apr 21, 2013 - 3:22PM

    @Jamshed:
    you are grossly mis-informed, monorail costs much more than brts, and runs on electricity- something already unavailable in this country. Also the per km operating cost per year is minimum 16million dollars. this means it wouldve cost 400+ million dollars per year just to operate it.

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  • S. AMIR
    Apr 21, 2013 - 3:38PM

    necessary and overdue

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  • Muneer
    Apr 21, 2013 - 6:48PM

    Rs.30 billions only for metro in Lahore for 27KMs.Compare it with hunderds of death in Lahore only this year due to measles,thousands of death in dengue outbreak.No one has yet calculated daeths all over Punjab due to poor health facilitiesThis 30billions was the contributions of entire punjab tax payers and not of Lahore only.Perhaps billions spent on health could have saved lives and sufferings of millions.But then propaganda of development would not have been there.Choose your preference saving life by improving spending more on health and education or spend entire developmental budget by first destroying already good existing roads,then reconstructing 27KMs of road to provide better travelling service on that section and in the process also deny employment opportunities to thousands of the transport and other auxillary services connected with it by prohibiting them to use parallel roads.Should public money be spent on health,education etc for general welfare of the people or only on politically beneficial  projects  of some benefis?.Perhaps silence in metro bus is of those sufferers.  

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  • @ Jamshed
    Apr 21, 2013 - 7:35PM

    Its people like you who polarize people of Pakistan and never appreciate anything. Monorail is futuristic but FARRR more expensive, plus the kind of rated pakistan has atm no one even give us their flu. Turkey was nice enough to do this deal with us and Shabaz Shariff saw an opportunity and prevailed it. Instead of supporting individuals and saying everytin they do is correct and what others do is wrong, support ideology.

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  • Jibran
    Apr 21, 2013 - 7:59PM

    We used to have Punjab Urban Transport Corporation, with a vast network and fleet of buses. It was destroyed by the Sharifs during their first stint in power, to make way for their yellow cab scheme. All the scrap buses then ended up in the foundries of Itefaq Group of Industries. Now the Sharifs are going back to what they destroyed in the 1990s. At least they should admit their guilt first.

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  • satakshi
    Apr 22, 2013 - 1:06AM

    Its total stupidity..when thousands are dying of measles n polio n other diseases, our government’s priority is to build roads.. shame on these plp who think spending millions for transportation when plp are dying of hunger , they have no job , there’s no security of one’s life. These idiots need to understand the priorities of people and work accordingly.Recommend

  • Bilal
    Apr 23, 2013 - 1:28AM

    Those idiots saying that this is a waste of money because thousands of people are dying, tell me how are those people gonna pay for those treatments when they spend majority of their money on traveling on overpriced ricksaws and busses? Majority of the people dying of measles and polio are lower class people who have bread winners in the family that travel from the outskirts of Lahore to main city, they have to spend tons of money on travelling back and forth, with a public metro system, they get to save their money, use it on something and not rely on begging or the government to pay for all their medical problems

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  • Ali S
    Apr 24, 2013 - 7:33PM

    @Mohammad:

    Still a towering achievement compared to PPP

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  • S
    Apr 25, 2013 - 10:56AM

    I have traveled myself in Lahore Metro bus this month when I visited Lahore. It felt so good to see such a thing in our country and the best part is that it is still very much well maintained. I like the timing of bus arrival, the technology they are using, air conditioning and smooth flow of it. It is really a blessing for general public.

    Shahbaz Sharif deserves the appreciation for introducing this system in Lahore.

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  • SHabbir Afridi
    Apr 25, 2013 - 3:37PM

    What was the CM thinking when he planned this project without taking Health & Safety into consideration. You can not expand the service further without destroying the existing infrastruct. the biggest issues come out after 10-15 years when the actual repercussions show up when u wana grow the project further. This is evident from the 10 years challenge for the London Underground for coming up with a better ventilation after the bombings occurred resulting in mass suffocation of the trapped passengers. so many Iron bridges can simply collapse on the car drivers right and left of the bus service. The Cage on left and right traps the passengers in times of emergency. Imagine a bus hurling into the steel fence if the tire burst…or in case of fire. Cars on left and right can get into the Steel cage badly injuring the people involved.. and the list goes on and on!! and Not to mention the most stupid signal lights.. Turns green and then red in 2 seconds..and then against green…Model town underpass being the only exception

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  • Mansoor
    Apr 26, 2013 - 11:44PM

    Your Rs. 405 billion is cooked up. Dhaka Underground will cost $1.7b/21kms and that means about $80mn/km. That would cost $2.16bn for 27km in Lahore. That will be about Rs. 200 billion and NOT 405bn! Recommend

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