Ticket to ride

So as a commuter its seven out of ten, with judgment reserved on long-term viability

Chris Cork July 08, 2015
The writer is editorial consultant at The Express Tribune, news junkie, bibliophile, cat lover and occasional cyclist

My initial WOW! on first acquaintance with the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Metrobus system was reduced to a rather more muted ‘Hmmmm’ by the time I got off. Make no mistake, this project is a game-changer and in the (very) long term may even pay for itself, but two hours spent in torrential rain going from end to end of the system on Tuesday mercilessly exposed the weaknesses.

First off — it leaks. Everywhere. The buses themselves leak at the bendy join, the roofs of the walkways leak considerably more and the leaks are so bad in low-lying stations that there is significant flooding. For a utility like this that is but a few weeks in operation that is bad news. Islamabad can be a very wet city. Expect no early improvement.

Secondly and very obviously the workmanship and possibly the materials are not up to snuff, neither is some key infrastructure equipment. I saw not a single working escalator in my ride. Not one. It was remarked to me ‘they lasted 10 days’. The red panels on the roof of overpasses are peeling off with who knows what consequence along with other relatively minor but likely to be increasingly obvious, faults.

Thirdly and very obviously there is something of a passenger shortage in the gap between the PIMS stop and the Faisabad stop in ‘Pindi… presumably because there are no commuters living along this stretch or at least very few, rendering it somewhat redundant. Something of a planning deficit there, methinks. And then there is the fare. Twenty rupees per journey is too low. Twenty-five would have been more realistic but trying to increase the fare at this stage of the game is likely to attract brick-throwing customers in very short order.

I have no intention of dissecting the business model in this column; it has been done elsewhere and far better than I would be able to do. Suffice to say that the average holder of an MBA (not unlike me) would have little difficulty in shooting gaping holes in it. ‘Nuff said.

And yet and yet… the Metro bus is here to stay and it is far from being all bad news. Casting my social anthropologist eye over my fellow travellers a number of things were immediately obvious. The first and most arresting was the mass outbreak of good manners on all sides. I saw a man stand and offer his seat to a woman. A youngster was upbraided for not giving up his seat to an older person, and sat shamefaced among some rather self-satisfied enforcers of one of the politer social norms.

Women mostly ignored the seats designated for them and chose to sit in the front section of the bus. On a rough headcount as the journey progressed I estimated that women made up about 15 per cent of the total passengers on the bus at any one time. They were a mix of young and old, some women were travelling alone and at no time — and I was watching very carefully indeed — was there any attempt to encroach on the space of the women by the male passengers. A man apologised for treading on my foot. Another offered me his seat which I politely declined. Nobody spat on the floor. There was no litter in the bus — or in the public areas and stations either. There was no graffiti on the seats — but give it time, its early days.

What there was in considerable quantity for most of my ride were a lot of seemingly satisfied customers, customers who for the most part are unlikely to have perused the business plan and only want to get from A-B cheaply and in the shortest possible time. There was a sprinkling of what I am assuming to be working women or female students with files and laptops in bags (the balance of women were families in transit, kids in tow) but mostly it was men who stood or sat quietly, made way for those getting on and off and generally behaved much as one might find in the buttoned-up buses of Vienna or Zurich… or even London.

So as a commuter its seven out of ten, with judgment reserved on long-term viability.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2015.

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