Plans for mass road transport system in Islamabad, among the world’s few worst served capitals in this respect have so often gone awry that one is inclined to not make much of the Bus Road Transit system that CDA claims it is not only planning but determined to install soon. The authority chooses not to mention the much vaunted 2008 Rapid Mass Transit System or the most recent arrangement for purchasing a fleet of buses that former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani promised was to be on the roads by November 2011. If CDA fails this time too the lot of the growing commuting population will only worsen by the day as overhead bridges and underpasses fail to ease congestion of motorised traffic and reduce the daily addition of tons of pollutants to the city’s environment.
At the mercy of private transporters thousands of commuters, working men and women, school and college going girls, travel between Islamabad and Rawalpindi on rickety buses and vans of all sizes and description. Hundreds more travel intra-city changing vehicles from stop to stop as routes have been so designed as to make the most from passengers. Stuffed in vans, buses and Suzuki pickups, the commuters of the twin cities are exposed to safety risks, humiliation and reckless driving, all of which lead to a yearning for a decent transport system. Young women in particular face shameless harassment not only from the travelling public but also drivers and conductors. Their lot is the worst among the commuters.
Tariq Awan, 50, gets on a Toyota Hiace van near Kuri Road on the Islamabad Expressway. It’s the morning rush hour and all the seats are occupied. So instead of standing inside the van with his back bent, he prefers to sit on the ‘VIP seat,’ a tiny space behind the front seats, right next to the van’s sliding door.
Awan sits in this uncomfortable position but he doesn’t show it. The van ride is nothing new for him; he has been traveling by public transport for almost half his life.
A government employee, Awan commutes daily to Islamabad on route 21. On this particular day, he doesn’t get to sit on a proper seat at all, despite paying full fare. But he’s used to this mistreatment and seems to have accepted it.
“Transporters are full of greed. When people become greedy, you cannot expect them to behave well.”
Despite several plans on the drawing board over the years, a public-sector transport service for the federal capital remains elusive.
“Islamabad ranks amongst few of the worst capitals in terms of urban transport,” said Dr Ghulam Abbas Anjum, a professor of transportation planning at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore. “Even Ghana’s capital has a regular transport system.”
Anjum says public transport should be the top priority for “sustainable, functional cities.” Unfortunately, public transport has never figured that high on the city managers’ priority list.
Pulling the brakes on the bus plans
Interviews with officials from the Capital Development Authority (CDA) reveal that plans for a bus service have come up various times in the past. It’s just that none of them ever materialised.
“At one point, a plan for a bus service was shelved even though it was near completion,” CDA’s member planning and design, Mustafain Kazmi, said.
CDA officials offer several reasons for the plans coming to naught. Some plans, they say, were dumped due to lack of funds. Others bit the dust after political interference and bureaucratic red tape. Yet other ideas flopped due to lack of proper planning.
The civic agency’s 2008 plan for a Rapid Mass Transit System (RMTS) went dud after security concerns scared a consultant away and the CDA ran into funding problems in 2009. In 2010 CDA got offers from consultancy firms for a feasibility study of the transit system again.
Even former prime minister Gilani said the procurement of buses for Islamabad was ready in November 2011. But next year, the financial crunch applied the brakes on the Rs400 million allocated for Islamabad Metro Bus Services in CDA’ annual budget for 2012-13.
“ICT can regulate transport, but it’s not an autonomous body, so it doesn’t have any funds (to start a transit system),” ICT Deputy Commissioner, Amir Ali Ahmed, says. “We can’t practically do anything about it.”
Ahmed says ICT can only encourage and “provide legal cover” to the CDA for starting a transit service.
Meanwhile, 1385 private vehicles serve 17 routes within Islamabad, according to ICT data. There are 22 van and Suzuki routes in Rawalpindi. The number of inter-city vans is at least double those on Islamabad routes, according to some estimates.
Islamabad’s urban growth rate was 5.8 per cent between 1981 and 1998, and Rawalpindi is one of eight cities which account for more than half of the country’s total urban population.
Urbanisation is likely to increase in the country by 140 per cent from 2010 to 2030, according to a 2006 Asian Development Bank report. This means the population in the twin cities, already an estimated 5 million, is bound to grow.
In the absence of a decent public transport, more people mean more vehicles on the road.
The number of registered private vehicles in Islamabad showed a 33 per cent increase from 2008 to 2012, according to ICT data. Number of registered motorcycles grew by 38.5 per cent in the same period.
A CDA traffic engineering official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Islamabad’s master plan allows for “incremental development” and additions to avoid congestion.
“We have the capacity to handle the traffic flow for the foreseeable future,” he added.
But Anjum, the UET professor, has a different opinion. “How many underpasses will you build? If you ease the flow of traffic at one crossing, it’ll be choked at the next,” he said. “Road widening is not a remedy.”
He says motorised transport is needed because cities are expanding and the only “viable solution is urban transport.” Most public-sector transport systems around the world rely on trains and buses.
“Small vehicles can weave through traffic, but they don’t offer decent seating,” said Awan, the daily commuter. “Buses accommodate more people, so fewer vehicles would be required.”
If this doesn’t happen, there could be serious environmental effects.
Commute or pollute
A 2010 research study conducted by the Fatima Jinnah Women University used vehicle registration data from 2000 to predict that if the number of vehicles grows at the same pace, the twin cities will have 34 million vehicles by 2030.
These vehicles will add around 24 million tons of nitrogen oxide to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, the study says.
The study, by Dr Sheikh Saeed Ahmad and Rabia Shabbir, claims that buses could lead to a six million-ton reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.
The concentration level of nitrogen dioxide already exceeds the permissible limit suggested by the World Health Organisation, according to another report co-authored by Ahmad. The 2012 report shows that concentration levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide are high in areas of intense traffic and congestion, with more pollution in Rawalpindi than Islamabad.
“Even if you solve the problem of pollution in Islamabad, what will you do about Rawalpindi?” said Shuja. “You have to plan for both cities.”
“The way the population is growing in the twin cities, it’s better if we plan now for a public transport system,” he added.
Back to the future
But there’s still hope. CDA is about to conclude a pre-feasibility study for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, sponsored by the Asian Development Bank. If approved by the CDA board, the agency will commit to a comprehensive feasibility analysis.
The BRT service, if realised, will have a fleet of 48 buses to serve around 42,000 commuters a day, using a dedicated 3.5-metre bus lane, said Kazmi. The proposed route for the service is IJP road to 9th Avenue to Pak Secretariat via Blue Area, according to CDA’s expression of interest document for the service.
One of the pressures against public-sector transport could be from the private transporters. “In the public interest, we are going to go ahead with this plan,” said Kazmi. CDA will not sit quiet if they face opposition for the project from the private transport mafia, he added.
Ahmed said they have the political will to carry out the project. Ahmed says he has requested quick deadlines. “We don’t want a three to five year plan,” he says. “It should happen soon, in a year or less.”
Given the past history of failed plans, it’s not certain when the twin cities will see decent public transport. Until then, the commuters can only hope that things will change for them.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2012.