Of unfulfilled promises and the city’s 25-year quest for public transport
few months ago, Hafsa Aslam, a university graduate, set out to become a lecturer. Now, she gives remedial tuitions to school children besides teaching at a private school for Rs 6,000.
She is a resident of Ilahiabad, a Faisalabad suburb. Her father supports his family of eight - his wife, three daughters, a son, a widowed sister and mother - by working at a textile mill for Rs 30,000 a month.
“Earlier, I used to go to college on an auto-rickshaw. When the rickshaw driver doubled the fare, it was no longer possible for my father to pay the amount,” Hafsa tells The News on Sunday.
She says she had to travel about 20 kilometres daily to go to Government College, Samanabad, from Ilahiabad and the same distance on the return journey. “Riding four motorcycle rickshaws and walking several kilometers daily was something my father disapproved of,” she recalls.
For Hafsa, the absence of a reasonable public transport system has had life-determining consequences. She has had to give up her education. “It is not easy for women, especially girls, to travel by motorcycle rickshaws that run in the city in the name of public transport,” she says.
“Apart from harassment by the driver and male passengers during the journey, there are catcalls by passers-by to contend with,” she adds.
Had there been a proper public transport system in the city, Hafsa says, she and many women like her would not have abandoned their dreams. “I’m not alone. There are many women like me who have had to discontinue their education because of the transport issues,” she says.
According to a study by Aurat Foundation, a non-government organisation, 85 percent of women in Pakistan use public transport.
Evolution of public transport
Lyallpur was settled in the last decade of the 19th Century. The city initially spanned an area of 110 acres around the Clock Tower. It was designed for and estimated to meet the residential needs of 20,000 people.
The most popular means of transport at that time was the tonga, a horse-drawn carriage. It could be seen carrying people to the Clock Tower chowk, the adjoining markets and the railway station. Tonga stands were built near Karkhana Bazaar, Jhang Bazear, Chiniot Bazear and the railway station.
According to documents provided by district administration, the first bus service in Faisalabad was started in 1968. Initially, the fleet consisted of six Mercedes buses.
By 1976-77, the number of buses had been increased to 113 including 38 double-decker buses. Later, 50 more Fiat buses were added to the service. The bus service was operated under the Punjab Road Transport Corporation.
On September 14, 1991, however, citing a lack of funds for the repair of its buses, the Board of Directors of the PRTC approved their auction, putting an end to the facility.
The vacuum was filled by private transport. Bus stands cropped all over the city and small-scale transporters started plying Suzuki pick-up vehicles on several routes in the city.
Given poor to no regulation, the quality of service declined. Hawkers and conductors from rival services were often seen competing for passengers and trying to board as many people in their buses as possible. The crowding was inconvenient for all passengers but especially hard on women, senior citizens and children.
The rise and fall of Faisalabad Urban Transport Society
In March 1994, the then divisional commissioner, Tasneem Noorani, started the Faisalabad Urban Transport Society to provide better travelling facilities to the citizens.
Initially, a fleet of Hiace vans provided under the Prime Minister’s Yellow Cab scheme was introduced under an initiative by the FUTS. Due to the new and comfortable vehicles, low fares and better service, the vans soon became a hit.
In the past, the city had an excellent public transport system consisting of Mercedes buses. It also had some double-deckers.
During the first five years of this scheme, the number of vans operated under the FUTS rose from 26 to 1,800. The number of daily commuters reached 0.7 million.
In 1998, a team from the Asian Development Bank, the lending institution for the Yellow Cab scheme, came to Pakistan to assess the progress. They found out that the loan repayment rate in Faisalabad was more than 97 percent. For the rest of the country it was seven percent.
The ADB team then visited Faisalabad and prepared a report on the FUTS. It offered a $400 million loan to improve the public transport system. The plan was to phase out the vans and introduce buses in their place.
After Pakistan tested nuclear devices in May 1998, new economic sanctions were imposed on the country. The ADB loan offer thus assumed new significance. The Punjab government came up with a plan to start a private franchise bus service. To this end, the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1965 was amended and the route permits of the urban transport service were cancelled.
This hit the FUTS the worst. Most of the van owners sold their vehicles or shifted to other cities.
Under the franchise arrangement, Bashir Sons, Manthaar and Kohistan Transport Company started operating wide body buses using loans provided by commercial banks at low interest rates. They were also given land leases by the government to build bus stands.
Under the agreement with the government, 40 buses were to be operated on each route. The city would have a total of 400 buses. A bus would arrive every ten minutes. However, the duration was later increased to half an hour as the number of buses decreased through attrition.
In 2005, the number of daily commuters in the city exceeded 1.5 million. Only 220 vans and 26 CNG buses were then operating in the city as public transport.
Seeing the opportunity, many people started operating motorcycle rickshaws. Today there are thousands of these. However, despite the passage of two decades, no system for registration and regulation of these rickshaws has been developed.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered that the government ensure that every rickshaw had a fitness certificate and an operating licence that no more than four passengers were carried at a time. The order has yet to be enforced.
A survey conducted in 2022 by the students of Government College University, Faisalabad, found that more than 60 percent of the citizens considered motorcycle rickshaws as the only reliable means of travel in the city and wished for a public transport service.
Commissioner Salut Saeed says, “Yes, the city lacks a robust public transport system. There is room for operating at least 250 buses and 1,000 Hiace vans.”
“Proposals have been invited from private transporters under the FUTS. A committee has been constituted to plan the routes and for other administrative matters,” she adds.
She says a proposal for an all-women ‘pink bus’ service is also under consideration.
FUTS Administrator Rahat Ali says, “Currently, 573 vans ply on 11 routes. More than 25,000 citizens travel daily by these.” He says a five-year contract has been offered to transport companies to increase the number of transport vehicles under the FUTS.
“35 new routes have been approved for the city. The transporters have been assured that the motorcycle rickshaws will not be allowed on these routes,” says Ali.
Regional Transport Authority Secretary Abdul Jabbar says that eight private transport companies have submitted proposals to operate 380 40-seat coasters. He says the RTA has submitted a plan to the government to introduce 100 coasters on 10 new routes to facilitate 2,800 passengers who commute daily.
However, despite several meetings and some announcements since May, the administration has also yet to announce a final date in this regard.
The need and the hope
According to a World Bank report, in 1997, a public transport service consisting of 744 buses was needed to meet the needs of more than 2.1 million population of Faisalabad city. Given the increase in population since then, 1,300 buses are needed for the more than 3.7 million people in 2023.
The Punjab government had announced plans for a Metro Bus Service in Faisalabad in 2013. However, this did not come to pass.
The Faisalabad Peri-Urban Plan prepared by the Urban Unit of the government in 2015 and the Faisalabad Master Plan prepared for the next twenty years by the Faisalabad Development Authority in 2021 have no concrete proposals for the public transport system.
The writer has been associated with journalism for the past decade. He tweets @ naeemahmad876