Between a rock and a hard place

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By Bakhtiar Iqbal

Older residents of Lahore often proffer that in the last few decades the city has changed drastically, and not for the better. While some may dismiss these sentiments as mere nostalgia, the assertion remains empirically observable. It seems as if in the blink of an eye roads that were often deserted just a few years ago now play host to traffic jams that last hours. While the problems that have led to this situation are varied and complex, there is one aspect that demands immediate attention and redress: urban transport.

Among the many difficult decisions that the new PTI government must grapple with, the future of investments in Pakistan’s urban transport infrastructure, particularly in Punjab, will carry salience in the coming years. While the federal government must contend with a potential $8 billion IMF bailout program, and the austerity that is expected to accompany it, it may not sit well with the new Prime Minister’s campaign promises of improvements in human and physical capital, and an overarching promise to improve the quality of life for the country’s 200 million citizens.

One fundamental aspect of this quality of life is the manner in which people and goods move about. Any future story of Pakistan’s growth will be incomplete without an accompanying story of how it moved.

Currently, an estimated 36 percent of the population lives in urban settlements, with the vast majority relying on private means of motorized transport for their mobility needs. According to the National Transport Policy commissioned by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform in 2017, Pakistan’s population travels almost 400 billion passenger kilometers (pkm) each year, with an expected 5-fold increase to 2 trillion by 2050. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of registered motorcycles grew from less than 5 million to more than 12 million. This increasing dependency on private transport puts a strain on physical infrastructure that the country is not equipped to deal with. The lack of quality infrastructure results in growing congestion, environmental problems, and road accidents, in addition to the negative impacts on economic productivity. Simultaneously, and perhaps more severely, it also impacts citizens’ access to basic services such as healthcare, schooling, housing, and entertainment.

As it is, Lahore’s urban sprawl has become a severe hindrance to public service delivery. Poor service delivery within the center forces people to move out towards the suburbs. As the city expands, service delivery over greater distances becomes even more costly. And if the city continues to spread, it will become even more difficult to maintain connectivity. In addition to the more tangible effects, this has effects on the fabric of society as well. The sense of community, of self, of identity, become things of the past. People grow to become insular, disconnected from everything around them.

As the country’s urban population, continues to grow, the lack of an integrated transportation system will increasingly constrain any aspiration for economic growth. Nowhere will this be more apparent than in Lahore and Karachi, the two biggest urban centers

In the backdrop of the austerity measures that have been announced, the question of whether the country can delay investments in its urban transport infrastructure is an important one that must be answered. This is particularly salient in light of the demands that investments in the country’s human capital place on the budget. Will transport be kicked down the road and become someone else’s problem or will the current government play a more proactive role?

Why investments in Lahore’s public transport must continue

If there was any time for the government to be proactive viz a viz urban transport, it is now. As things stand, many of the high costs associated with the Green Line Metro Bus and the Orange Line Metro Train systems are the costs of bad planning in the past. Despite having a population of over 11 million people, Lahore still lacks an effective and integrated public transport system. While the Green Line has shown signs of success despite its various problems, it still largely operates in a silo. Similar concerns hold for the Orange line. Unless thousands of buses are deployed to operate in mixed-mode traffic, much more than the 1574 planned by the Punjab Mass Transit Authority, we will see no changes in congestion. By rough estimates, Lahore needs at least 9000 buses to meet public transport needs.

The emphasis, however, lies on integration. Public transport needs to become a staple of daily life. It needs to be safe, accessible, and of good quality. For example, people shouldn’t have to first take a rickshaw to the nearest market or town center to catch a bus.

In order for public transport to truly take center-stage in public discourse, we must reframe the narrative around it. Decreasing congestion or making it easier for the car-owning public to travel should not be the primary aims of public transport. It is important to think about public transport in terms of moving workers and goods. Lahore has a varied economic base with about 9000 industrial units and about 42 percent of its work force employed in finance, banking, real estate, community, cultural, and social services. The lack of an integrated public transport network increases both the costs that businesses incur in attracting workers and the costs that workers face in commuting to their places of work. As more and more commuters shift to public transport, it simultaneously becomes easier for goods to be transported within the city. And as it becomes easier to do business and for workers to move about, effects spill over into productivity and growth as well.

At the same time, this urban mass transit should be combined with improvements in intra-city transport networks as well. The World Bank’s Logistic Performance Index for 2018 ranked Pakistan at 122 among 160 countries for the quality of trade and transport infrastructure and quality of logistics service providers. A regular bus service, higher-order transit systems like the Green and Orange lines, and integration with high-quality intra-city rail networks would go a long way in making both the city and the wider region more mobile.

Effective public transit systems require both investments in physical infrastructure, and consistent and coherent policy clarity through land-use and town-planning authorities. While one can appreciate the fiscal constraints posed by a weakening economy, the importance of public transport cannot be understated. Given its long-term impact on economic productivity, it must remain a priority for the new government.


Bakhtiar Iqbal is a Research Assistant at Consortium for Development Policy Research (CDPR)

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