An efficient and safe Mass Transit System is the need of the hour
Before Covid-19 took over the world, Amna Khan commuted to and from her workplace in Mozang Chungi, Lahore, through Airlift’s ride sharing service. She would book her seat the night before, and being a resident of the DHA, she would choose Lalik Chowk as her pickup location.
The van would drop her off right next to her office. The entire one-way trip would take her 30-45 minutes and cost Rs 40, initially. Later, the charge was raised to Rs 120. Khan explains that it was still quite cost effective as Uber and Careem would have cost her Rs 450 or so per ride.
Another company that provided similar ride sharing services was Swvl, which worked in pretty much the same way. However, post pandemic the financial hit to these services was enough for the company to close down.
Swvl has resumed its services, albeit on a few routes. Khan has begun driving to work after Airlift’s suspension, which she says is no easy feat keeping in mind Lahore’s traffic. “Using Airlift was super convenient and relaxing for me,” she says. “Besides, I am all for public transport instead of private cars, so I preferred taking it.”
When she was asked why the alternative wasn’t Lahore’s mass transit systems, there was radio silence. Perhaps, she was thinking why someone who’s keen on ride sharing for environmental reasons wouldn’t go for that. “The metro bus station was far away from my drop-off location,” she finally said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking up to my office in a crowded area and a place not meant for pedestrians. Also, getting on it would be a lot of trouble.”
Ride sharing apps like Swvl and Airlift are better compared to public transport systems rather than private cab services that are meant for single passengers and aren’t financially feasible as daily commute options. However, the socioeconomic cohort that uses these services, mostly working middle class, seems to never use the country’s mass transit systems as an alternative, throwing light on the inadequacies of the current transport system.
According to Sibtain Fazl-i-Haleem, the former managing director of Punjab Mass Transit Authority, while the metro system in Lahore is second to none, the problem is that out of all the lines and routes that are supposed to be built according to the feasibility studies, less than half have been built as of now. “Lahore is supposed to have four primary lines, out of which only the Orange and Green Lines have been developed,” says Fazl-i-Haleem. The other two lines are still in the books due to funding constraints.
Additionally, all these routes are supposed to have secondary and tertiary routes that take passengers to their final destinations if those don’t fall on the primary lines. Only the secondary routes of the Green Line have been developed, with feeder buses serving them. (Feeder buses are buses that pick up passengers and drop them off at transfer points from where they can take a bus or train to their final destinations.)
He further says that 40 percent of the city has been served but for the other lines to be developed, you need commitment by the government, which currently is not there.
He recalls that the currently operational lines too received plentiful criticism and it was suggested that the funds should have been used for healthcare and education projects instead. “But if a transport infrastructure is not there, people won’t be able to reach schools and hospitals in the first place.”
Ammar A Malik, a senior research scientist at AidData, William and Mary University, conducted a study on who benefits the most from Lahore’s Metro Bus System (MBS). According to the findings of the study, once a passenger is on the bus, especially women, the journey is quite comfortable. The cooling and heating is good, the bus drivers are well mannered, safety wise people feel comfortable and there is a general segregation of men and women.
The problem lies in accessibility: “To get to the bus station, especially for a woman, then the layover and boarding another bus are quite difficult,” he tells TNS.
“For the feeder buses to solve this issue, the routes need to be in accordance with those suggested by transport engineers. Besides, the timing needs to be punctual. “If a woman is at a bus station at 7:25pm and she does not know what time the next bus will arrive or the frequency of the buses, this will be a deterrent in taking public transport. “Maybe even 10 more feeder buses will greatly increase the accessibility for citizens.”
This helps us understand why services like Airlift and Swvl have been such a huge hit with the people, especially women. “Right before we suspended the transit services, we were making 40,000 rides in Lahore and Karachi, and had a fleet of 900 buses,” says Sheheryar Iqbal, who leads strategy and planning at Airlift.
“I think the reason we received a great response was because while the MBS operates on a single line, we were able to create more virtual lines that were much closer to people’s end destinations, while keeping the price point fairly low.”
However, the company does not plan on resuming its services any time soon due to Covid uncertainties and due to its expansion into quick commerce.
Fazl-i-Haleem states that the international principle is that citizens who want to travel by public transport should be able to get on one at 500 metres to 800 metres. He says that the aim is that if the system is punctual, heating, cooling is fine, and location convenient for people, only then will citizens be encouraged to shift to public transport.”
However, Malik feels there are other factors that need to be addressed to be able to do so. He explains that everyone, particularly women, need to feel safe while opting for the MBS. “The government needs to improve the surveillance systems, employ more resources where the crime rate is high, have better street lighting and better training for the bus drivers that interact with the passengers.
“Additionally, the supporting infrastructure needs to be worked on as well including pedestrian walkways and bike infrastructures etc.”
The need for public transport to be a popular option for citizens has become imperative. Traffic in Lahore has become a nightmare, the smog that has made breathing clean air an unattainable desire, and the frightening rise in fuel costs — all point towards a convenient, safe and functional mass transit system as the hero that will save the day. However, for the mode of shift to take place, the government needs to place immense importance on bettering the current system while investing in supporting features of the mass transit system. “The real win will be when people start to think that taking the metro will be easier than driving to work or riding the bike,” says Malik.
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the source
Nushmiya Sukhera is a writer and journalist based in Lahore. She has studied at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism