Many big cities around the world have an efficient, affordable, and environmentally-friendly public transport system. What makes us lag behind?
Public transport seems to have been struck off the priority list of the federal as well as provincial governments. The impression has been enhanced since the incumbent government came into power. Pakistan’s biggest cities, including Karachi and Lahore, have expanded exponentially during the last decade or so. Meanwhile, public transport is in tatters, leaving hue populations at the mercy of the private sector transporters.
Subsidising quality public transport is not a bad bargain. This is done all over the world. Availability of affordable and decent public transport has many advantages; it enables the people to improve their lives by accessing markets, employment, healthcare and education. It has a beneficial effect on people’s productivity as well as the environment.
We know that fewer cars on the road means less fuel consumption and less damage to the environment. More passenger buses, trams and trains mean more people are able to afford mobility and have access to more jobs, business opportunities and more entertainment avenues.
During the last days of the PML-N government, public transport in the Punjab had started showing signs of decay. A couple of contracts with foreign investors in public transport were not renewed. Soon after the PTI came into power all that remained of the public transport was gone. Later, Covid-19 helped drive away what was left of private sector investment in public transport, especially in the Punjab and Sindh.
The suggestion that the government doesn’t have the means to subsidise public transport speaks of its lack of seriousness and poor priorities. It shows that it sees no advantage in helping the citizens move about and find work to eke out a living in these hard times. Considering the length and breadth of Karachi and Lahore, for instance, it’s hard to imagine how could be considered trivial. Going from Point A to B now costs a lot more than it used to do only three years ago.
According to a World Bank brief, “Transport is not just about moving from A to B it is about connecting people to opportunity and building a sustainable future.”
Over the years, public transport has not kept up with the expansion of the cities. That has resulted in more motorcycles on the road and, unfortunately, more accidents, including fatal accidents. According to a news report, motorbike and three-wheeler sales have increased 38.97 percent in FY 2021. Interestingly, the government appears to take pride in the record sale of motorbikes.
There’s little effort on the part of the provincial governments to keep public transport running. In September, the first batch of 40 electric buses for Karachi’s Green Line Bus Project arrived from China. One can only hope that the arrival of these buses is the first step towards a planned public transport infrastructure for Karachi and other cities.
The suggestion that the government doesn’t have the capital to subsidise public transport speaks of its lack of seriousness and questionable priorities.
The Punjab government has reportedly added 64 new buses to its fleet Lahore Metro Bus service fleet. These are welcome developments but no more than a drop in the ocean in view of the state of our public transport systems.
City planners, social scientists and economists agree on the centrality of public transport in ensuring mobility for the ordinary citizens.
A paper published by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) titled, Towards An Inclusive Public Transport System In Pakistan, by Muhammad Adeel, Anthony GO Yeh and Zhang Feng, says “Nearly half of Pakistan’s total population resides in urban areas, which makes it the most urbanised country in Asia Pacific.” One can imagine how difficult it is living in an urban area without an effective network of public transport.
The paper says, “Lack of access to transportation systems greatly affects the lives of vulnerable population, including the students, the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly and the young. These disadvantaged social groups, when combined, form a majority of the country’s overall population...”
The paper argues that an inclusive public transport system will enable the mobility of the masses in a financially affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable manner.
It lays stress on the fact that “urban management and planning has an important role to play in ensuring convenient access to activities in urban areas. The existing built environment and public transport service do not match with the needs of women, low-income people and those without a personal automobile.”
A World Bank paper, Greening Growth in Pakistan through Transport Sector Reforms by Ernesto Sánchez-Triana, Javaid Afzal, Dan Biller, and Sohail Malik, says, “The (transport) sector plays an important role as an enabler of other sectors in the economy via facilitating agglomerations, contributing to both domestic and international trade, and helping facilitate spatial transformation.” That means affordable public transport is the basis of a dynamic city running on well-oiled wheels.
While the rest of the world is moving from transport running on petrol or diesel to electric vehicles, we are still waiting for public transport in any form it comes. It is time to realise the health and environmental benefits of public transport. A WHO report, Transport, environment, and health, edited by Carlos Dora and Margaret Phillips, which mainly focuses on the European region, makes an interesting comment. It says, “How we travel, wherethrough and how often all have major implications for the health of our communities.”
For our cities to come alive and move ahead, our policy makers will have to make public transport a reality, the sooner the better.
The writer is a staff member. He focusses on issues of environment, development and governance. He tweets @Syed_Ather_Ali