Are private mass transit start-ups the solution?

Lahore has embraced app-based urban mass transit initiatives that can reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and GHGs but is that the right way forward?

Wearing a white shalwar qamees and a cap, Muhammad Suhaan Rashid, 10, can be seen standing in front of a mosque waiting to be picked up. The young man can be seen looking at his phone and then to the road.

Hardly two minutes pass by and a bus painted in red stops next to him. He boards the bus and tells the driver his seat number. He is on his way home now.

Suhaan’s days of renting online cabs to commute are over, as he uses a Pakistani app-based urban mass transit startup that allows people to book rides on buses and vans to commute.

Suhaan travels from the mosque to his home in Sukh Chayn Gardens, a private housing society in Lahore. The driver helps him cross the road.

Muhammad Suhaan shows how easy it is to book the bus. “It hardly takes a minute,” he says.

“I just have to add the pick-up and drop-off points from the app and the timings of buses and available seats pop up, which helps me book the ride.”

“If the bus gets delayed at any point I get a message from the bus service. The tracking option in the app shows the real time location of the bus,” shares Suhaan.

The service has added convenience to his life, and it is cheap. “Renting a cab used to cost us Rs600 but the bus ride costs only Rs120. That’s nearly five times cheaper,” says Suhaan’s father Rashid. This tech-driven transport service has rolled out 80-100 vans and coasters on the road, offering service to 25,000 users in Lahore daily. Suhaan has also tried an Egyptian bus transportation network company recently introduced in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, and found it pretty reliable. The company has mobilised over 2000 buses in the three cities, offering service to more than 100,000 users every day.

Lahore along with Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Peshawar has led Pakistan to become the second highest-ranked country for annual particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) levels after Bangladesh, according to 2019 World Air Quality Report.

A citizen-led air pollution monitoring start-up, Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), has revealed that in 2019 Lahore had only 10 hours of Good Air Quality. This coincides with the data of air quality monitors installed by US Consulate in Lahore, which revealed that in 2019 the concentration of particulate matter of 2.5 micrograms per cubic metre, [PM2.5 ( g/m³)] was 201 g/m³. This was 20 times higher than the safe limit according to the World Health Organization (WHO) of 10 g/m³. If compared with the safe limit of National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) and Punjab Environmental Quality Standards (PEQS) of 15 g/m³, the level of PM2.5 in Lahore was 13 times over the safe limit.

PM2.5 is a pollutant which causes death due to heart-related diseases and lung cancer. A particle of 2.5 g is one 400th of a millimetre, smaller than the human hair and can reach lungs. Inhaled PM2.5 particles can also enter the blood stream and the brain.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ report Remote Sensing for Spatio-Temporal Mapping of Smog in Punjab and Identification of the Underlying Causes Using GIS Techniques (R-Smog) revealed that the transport sector contributes 43 percent of air pollutant emissions in Punjab. The industrial sector ranks second contributing 25 percent, whereas the agriculture sector contributes 20 percent acquiring third position. The power sector acquires fourth position contributing 12 percent of air pollutant emissions.

With the transport sector contributing nearly half of the air pollution emissions in the Punjab, the situation is worst in the provincial metropolis – Lahore. According to an estimate, there are approximately 6.2 million vehicles and 4.2 million motorcycles in Lahore that make up to 32 percent of vehicles in the Punjab.

However it is not just the increase in vehicles exacerbating air pollution but the poor fuel quality as well. Abid Omar, the founder of PAQI thinks so. Referring to the fuel standards in India he says, “Bharat 6 standard is equivalent to Euro 6.” Whereas in Pakistan, Omar says, “it is doubtful whether we even meet Euro 2 standards from 1996. Most local refineries are not capable of meeting that standard.”

Abid says a certain car brand with a more efficient engine wasn’t successful in Pakistan just because the fuel quality was ‘so poor with extremely high manganese content, which is detrimental to both the engine and to human health’. “Everywhere around the world, vehicle engine oil is changed after 15,000-20,000 km but in Pakistan it is changed after 5,000 km due to poor fuel quality,” he says.

A bus can help remove several vehicles from the road, thereby reducing the overall carbon footprint of the commuters. According to Hurriyeh Iftikhar, a bus service executive, “If you travel by car your average carbon emissions would be 400g/km. By joining our service you reduce that to an approximate 158g/km.”

Shahzeb Memon, from another coaster service, claims that their service is contributing towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “It saves about 1000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions for every vehicle each day.”

Omar of PAQI thinks that these are not ‘big numbers’. “Mass transit should be accessible to millions. What the app-based services are providing highlights the government’s failure in providing a basic public service. The government should incentivise such companies, so that they can reach a scale that contributes to reducing air pollution and thereby improving human health,” he says.

The 2017 population census revealed that Lahore’s population had swelled to 11.13 million from 5.14 million since the 1998 census – showing a staggering increase of 116.3 percent.

Omer says that app-based services are providing the facility to a tiny fraction of people in Lahore.” Omar adds, “Of course, as part of the individual responsibility, it is better to use such a service but in order to make an impact the scale must be increased.”

He says in Beijing the government is providing mass transit for over 13 million people. “That is what a public transport is meant to be. It can actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.” says Omar.

The idea of a sustainable urban transport is lauded by environmental organisations too. Hammad Naqi Khan, the CEO of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) recommends that “old and polluting vehicles must be avoided and roadworthiness should be accounted for.”

Hurriyeh Iftikhar says they are in the process of introducing electric vehicles. She says their service has already helped shape perceptions. “Most of our user-base consists of vehicle owners. It shows how people are beginning to understand the benefits of ride pooling and have become socially and environmentally aware.”

WWF’s Khan welcomes the move to include electric vehicles. “This can help address our urban environmental challenges,” he says.

“We are also looking into the feasibility of introducing electric vehicles into our fleet,” adds Memon.

Dawar Butt, who specialises in air pollution monitoring and advocacy says that the private transportation options that run on diesel are not ‘environmentally friendly’.

“All around the world public transport runs on CNG buses. As long as diesel of poor quality is used the buses will emit PM2.5, adding to air pollution.”

Butt thinks that in terms of climate change mitigation, it may help to ‘reduce carbon emissions and only a marginal difference in improving air quality.’ Butt recommends using diesel particular filter (DPF) along with better quality diesel (minimum EURO 4 standard), if diesel buses are to be used.

Khan of WWF also blames poor fuel quality as the ‘main culprit’ behind increasing air pollution. “The oil refineries add chemicals to improve the fuel quality like they add manganese to increase the research octane number (RON) to meet the national standards, which pollutes the air.”

This coincides with a research which recommends the government to take steps to reduce the sulfur content of diesel and removing lead from gasoline which would help to improve the air quality.

With the transport sector being the biggest contributor to air pollution in Lahore, the call for an integrated mass transit system becomes important.

The writer is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a master’s in International Journalism from Cardiff University, UK. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via

Lahore embraced urban mass transit initiatives that can reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, GHGs but is that the right way forward?