Where are the buses?

Everyday Muhammad Ahmad gets up from his home in the Liaqatabad Colony near Ferozpur Road. The 23-year-old lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his parents, two brothers, a sister, his uncle and aunt and their three children. 

“We have two bikes. One that my uncle owns and the other is my father’s, but my father uses a cycle instead and my elder brothers usually use the bike,” he says. Ahmad’s father works as a gardener in the nearby Model Town housing society, where his brothers also have jobs. Ahmad, on the other hand, has a small shop of his own that he opened with some friends near Gajju Matta. They make and repair motorcycle seats. 

“When we opened the shop, my uncle let me use his bike. The shop is new so the money we make is very tight right now and every penny counts. The bike is an old Yamaha. If I had a newer CD 70 it would give me better mileage but the Yamaha takes me 35-40 kilometres in a litre of petrol,” he tells us. 

When Ahmad opened his shop in late 2020, the price of petrol was half of what it is now. “Back then I used to travel from my house to the shop and it would be a 30-kilometre journey to and fro every day.” 

He goes to his shop six days a week. That means just for work he travels 750 kilometres a month. On a bike that travels 35 kilometres a litre, he buys around 22 litres of petrol a month. At the current price, this means it would cost him PKR 5060 a month just to travel for work. “The shop currently makes around PKR 20,000 for each of us every month. That is all the money I make, so PKR 5060 is a big amount for me.” 

Up until petrol was being sold at a subsidy, Ahmad continued going to work on his uncle’s bike. But when the incumbent government increased the price in three different phases, he finally decided to take a different route. “It was costing way too much. So now I have shifted to the Metro Bus. I go to the Ittefaq Station stop which is a 10-minute walk from my house. I get on board and in 20 minutes I make it to my destination where I walk another 20 minutes to get to my shop,”  he says. By buying a card, Ahmad manges to travel to and fro from work each day for PKR 60. That amounts to a monthly PKR 1500. “I am now saving around PKR 3500 a month. That may seem meagre, but to me it means the difference between helping to buy groceries at home or not having any money in my pocket.” 

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Ahmad is one of the many people who have shifted from travelling on a bike to using the metro. Ever since the petrol price hikes, over 100,000 people, who were earlier commuting in their own cars on various intra-city routes have switched to the metro trains, the metro buses and the feeder bus services in Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi.

“While observing the passengers ratio, we have found an addition of around 75,000 passengers daily into our intra-city transport systems – Orange Line Metro Train (Ali Town-Dera Gujran), metrobus (Shahdara-Gajjumata) and the Speedo buses plying on feeder routes in Lahore. Similarly, around 20,000 passengers have also switched to the metrobus system in Rawalpindi,” says a senior official of the Punjab Masstransit Authority (PMA). 

Something people do not keep in mind is that mass transit projects are life changing for a lot of people that use them. In Pakistan, such projects are often described as ‘jangla bus’ services and ‘white elephants’ when in fact they do a lot of public good. In fact, the example of Ahmad we have given is of someone who still has it better. There are people out there who do not have access to motorcycles at all, and have to rely on local routes run by expensive rickshaws or spend hours a day hopping from one bus to the other and paying a new fare everytime. 

Projects such as the metrobus do not just provide a reliable means of transportation, they also allow hardworking people to travel with dignity and without having to face harsh climatic conditions and pollution. And it isn’t just the metro in Lahore. 

The Orange Line Metro Trains (OLMT) are estimated to handle 30,000 passengers every hour. With a planned operating time of 05:30 to 23:30, it would mean 200,000 commuters using the service every day, a figure expected to rise all the way up to at least 500,000 commuters within three-years of inception, meaning an estimated eventual hourly usage by nearly 50,000 people.

For someone who has to travel up to 27 kilometres on foot, on a motorbike, or by hopping from one wagon to another, an airconditioned and subsidised facility like the OLMT is a gamechanger. People can travel farther for work, they can have the assurance of comfortable and cheap travel without worrying about fuel costs.

Such projects  operate at a subsidy precisely because they are an example of the government looking out for the people.  With an estimated population of nearly 13 million people, Lahore’s roads see a staggering eight million daily motorised trips to work, shopping or recreation other than walking. And over the years, this trend has only increased. 

Rapid growth in population and increasing vehicle ownership have steadily worsened the traffic congestion in Lahore. In fact, as of February this year, data collected by the Motor Registration Authority showed that there are a total of about 6.2 million vehicles in Lahore. There are as many as 4.2 million motorcycles in Lahore. The motor vehicle population in all of Punjab is 19.6 million, meaning Lahore makes up 32% of the vehicles in Punjab. 

As fuel prices remain higher than they have ever been before, more people will require public transport. In Punjab, particularly in Lahore, a shadow of such services exist. The people of other cities deserve them too. It is high time for such projects to be considered a necessity; whether it is this government or some other entity, focus must be on meeting this vital requirement. And political opponents must stop labelling them wasteful white elephants. 

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