In Lahore, a Barrier That Unites and Divides a City

The cultural heart of Pakistan, a city of more than 10 million people, Lahore sprawls along the southern bank of the Ravi River near the Indian border. Half of the city was farmland fifteen years ago; as the city’s population doubled, it staggered into the twenty-first century with no public transportation to speak of. Last year, Punjab state governor Shahbaz Sharif abandoned the city’s endlessly delayed light rail project and built a Brazil-inspired elevated bus line to carry commuters between the north and south of the city.

Sharif inaugurated the new line just before leaving office in March. Press reaction around the country was polarized and often vehement. A wall that divides the city, said much of the cultural elite. A modern, quiet, air conditioned miracle that ties the city together, said others.

“Under the formidable shadow of the high rise track”

Lahore metrobus wall

In Karachi’s monthly Herald, Intikhab Hanif calls the solitary bus line a road to nowhere. More significantly, he writes that the project was built so that the state of Punjab, Pakistan’s political fulcrum, would not tip to the upstart Tehreek e Insaf party in this month’s elections.

Some call it the Berlin Wall; others describe it as an unwelcoming, disconcerting barrier. A third group sees it as a muffler, tightly – rather, forcibly – wrapped around the neck of a seemingly unwilling metropolis and its residents.

These are the different ways that the residents of Lahore see the elevated pathway being built for a bus rapid transit (BRT) service between the southern and the northern ends of the city. Most of the 27-kilometre-long pathway has been completed in less than a year.

The provincial government, which is funding and overseeing the construction of the pathway and related expenditure, claims that the bus service will provide a transport facility that the people of Lahore could only have experienced abroad. Residents of the city, however, appear unable to appreciate the promised benefits, at least not until the buses can start running. From the city’s most eminent people to its most ordinary dwellers, everyone so far can only be heard complaining about the project.

“They [government officials]have not taken into consideration the peculiar character of Lahore’s heritage nor have they consulted artists, historians and social scientists [while planning the project],” says Salima Hashmi, former principal of the National College of Arts, Lahore. “The authorities have not taken into consideration the city’s character while starting the bus project, blindly following it as the only solution.” The pathway, made of high concrete walls and steel fences, is something that cannot be easily removed, says Hashmi. “It will bring a huge change [in Lahore’s character], both aesthetically and environmentally.

While Hashmi agrees that providing transport facilities to the people is important, she also insists that it is not the only requirement for a city. “A city has many layers which should never be ignored. I am not anti-development or against giving people decent, economical and safe means of transport, but one has to look for options best suited to their pockets and convenience.”
Critics also see the structure of the pathway as tremendously bothersome.

Firstly, they say, it has divided the city into two parts by blocking movement across the roads; people now have to travel many kilometres just to move from one side of a road to the other, especially in the Ravi Road area near Minar-e-Pakistan. “The bus pathway has divided Lahore into two parts – one for the rich and another for the poor,” says Ajaz Anwar, a senior artist who has regularly made Lahore the subject of his paintings and who is also the secretary of the Lahore Conservation Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the city’s historic character.

Secondly, critics argue, the elevated pathway is too high. The government is installing automatic escalators to carry commuters from the ground level to the elevated bus stations, but people would have to take more than a hundred stairs in order to come down. This will only create problems for children, women and the elderly, argues Hashmi.

The elevated pathway has also blocked the view of many historic buildings such as the Government College and the shrine of Lahore’s patron saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh. It winds through the congested residential areas around Lytton Road permanently robbing the dwellers of sunlight and exposing them to toxic emissions from diesel-fuelled buses.

Anwar sees the project as a manifestation of the political ambitions of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. “The sitting ruler of Punjab is posing as a Sher Shah Suri,” he says. “The only difference between the two is that the Suri of old built a road which is still being praised while the sitting Suri is building a road which is being rejected during its construction,” says Anwar.

The ground-breaking for the construction of the pathway occurred at a politically significant time. In March 2012, the federal government of the Pakistan Peoples Party was under tremendous pressure due to investigations into the ‘memo scandal’ and the contempt-of-court case against the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Newspaper reports suggest that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), which heads the Punjab government, was considering resigning from the assemblies at the time in order to force an early election. But then some senior party members reportedly advised against quitting parliament without first being able to complete some major project to attract voters. Otherwise, they feared, a surging Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would reap the benefits of early elections in the PMLN’s strongholds of Lahore and central Punjab. This advice resulted in the project being launched that same month.

Javaid Aslam, chairman of the Punjab government’s Planning and Development Division, is responsible for carrying out the project, says critics are opposing the project because they have a habit of opposing developmental schemes.

Those posing objections against the bus project did not allow the widening of Canal Road which was necessary for regulating traffic in Lahore, he tells the Herald. These people are talking of preserving the landmarks of the past, forgetting that the present government is giving the city a project for the future, Aslam says.

He also disagrees with the suggestion that the project has harmed the look of the city. “No view has been blocked by the pathway. The elevated track, in fact, provides the best view of what Lahore offers.” The only problem is that such a view is no longer available to all those walking, moving, living and working under the formidable shadow of the high-rise track.

He also does not see anything wrong with the entry or exit points of the bus route. “In the near future, all public transport vehicles coming in to Lahore from Kasur [in the south]will stop at Gajju Matta, transferring passengers to the rapid bus system there. Similarly, no such vehicle coming from the north would be allowed to enter Lahore. It will drop passengers at Shahdara and they will then use the rapid buses to enter the city,” he explains.

Saeed Akhtar, chief engineer at Lahore’s Traffic Engineering and Transport Planning Agency, says the government did not need to consult everyone over the project as there are relevant departments to look into all associated costs and benefits. Those objecting to the project must understand that people need to adopt a modern lifestyle for catching up with the world, he says dismissively. “Either we listen to them, or resolve the problems of the people.”

Intikhab Hanif

“We feel like outsiders in our own city”

Photo Friday Times

In the Friday Times, architect Imrana Tiwana writes that the single metro bus line only benefits one tenth of a percent of the city’s population, while its miles of heavy steel railings form a wall which slashes the city in half, dividing neighborhoods and bulldozing formerly green areas:

Ahmad is a tailor who lives on Ravi Road. He has four children and ageing parents to look after. After the barriers erected for the new metro bus, he says the life of the whole community has become divided. Its mobility to work, hospitals and schools has been affected. Ahmad has to walk half a mile to cross the road, and there are no footpaths for his children to walk on.

Getting on a bicycle for the long journey across the road is a deathtrap. His ageing parents are now house bound as it is too dangerous to venture out of the two small rooms that the eight of them live in. Part of his home has been demolished to widen a road without adequate notification or compensation, he claims. The citizens of the area ask for justice, but no one pays heed.

Work at his shop has come to a standstill. Four hours a day is not enough to earn a living. Gas load shedding and power outages mean there is no breakfast for the children, and they cannot study or sleep at night. With summer round the corner, he says it will be impossible to live when the temperature crosses 45 degrees.

Habib is a clerk in Lahore, and has a family of six to look after. His wages are not enough to meet his needs. He has a motorcycle, but finds it difficult to sustain it because of the ever increasing price of fuel. He lives in two small rooms, in a densely built up urban area. All the trees have been cut down to widen the road. A small sapling cannot replace a sixty year old tree, he said. All the green has been replaced with grey, and the city’s appearance has changed. “We feel like outsiders in our own city.”

– Imrana Tiwana

“The reverent silence of the Lahore people traveling in the brand new metrobus”

Lahore Metrobus

In Karachi’s daily Express Tribune, Gulraiz Khan traces the history of Bus Rapid Transit, and writes that the project was by leagues the most cheapest and quickest way to build a modern public transit system.

The first thing you will notice is the eerie quiet after the doors shut. There are perhaps a few whispers, a cough, the humming of the air conditioning, and the pssst sound every time the driver applies the air brakes.

It is actually a reverent silence, the silence of the people of Lahore traveling in the brand new Metrobus. I experienced it on a late winter afternoon as I headed to meet a friend for coffee. Since I didn’t have a travel card, I got a token from the self-service ticket vending machine at the station, and walked down to the platform. I looked up at the LED information board – the next bus was arriving in one minute. A red bus pulled up. People queued. The bus docked, its doors opened simultaneously. Two women walked out, the rest of us shuffled in. The doors shut behind us. And then there was silence.

Shahbaz Sharif is a true Lahori, theatrical in his very essence. All his work is imbued by immense drama. He dreams up grand projects, and executes them at lightening speeds. By the time the opponents grasp the idea of his latest fancy and start protesting, the project is up and running. The Lahore Metrobus has been no exception.

Reactions to the Rs30 billion project, like any big-ticket number, have been polarised. Opponents have called it a wasteful political gimmick, a blot on Lahore’s beauty and insensitive to the city’s fabric and heritage. It has been oft-compared to the Berlin Wall for its ubiquitous iron bars. Opponents claim it has divided the city between the haves and have-nots and done little to relieve traffic congestion.

The Metrobus has also been termed an unjust expenditure, with the 27-km line costing more than allocation to any other sector (including education, health, water) under the Punjab Annual Development Programme 2012-13.

In sprawling cities, the tyranny of geography is unleashed on the most disadvantaged residents. In developing world cities such as Karachi and Lahore, for millions of working class citizens jobs and homes are set miles apart. Access to personal mobility – a motorcycle or car – is a distant dream. For them, a disproportionate part of the day, and a large share of their wage, is spent commuting to and from work.

Karachi, to state very generously, has a semblance of a ‘bus network.’ About 18,000 disheveled buses, coaches, wagons and mini-wagons ply hundreds of routes on an arbitrary number and naming scheme. For a city of 18m, that’s about one bus per 1,000 people.

Lahore, a city roughly half the population, never truly bothered with mass transit, until now. According to the Lahore Transport Company, there are 650 buses on 30 routes, with plans to add 2,000 new buses and realign the entire route network. That’s roughly one bus for over 3,700 people.
Rickshaws and taxis are increasingly unaffordable, even for the middle class. With CNG [natural gas]shortages and escalating fuel prices, the regular fares for a 10- to 15-km journey easily hits three figures [over $1]. Most labourers and low-paid workers, therefore, use bicycles, and the bulk of the labour force opts for motorcycles. The rest, who can afford them, have cars.

The only answer, it seems, is to start thinking seriously about an efficient, dependable, and respectable mass transit system.

The conventional wisdom goes that as cities approach the one-million population mark, the administration needs to invest in a mass transit system – to move a large number of people back and forth. Unfortunately, that conventional wisdom eluded Pakistan’s city managers. They decided to restrict themselves to building roads, and let the private sector handle transport.

The love affair with asphalt – roads, expressways and flyovers – was ground in the belief that they would magically resolve congestion. The experience of South East Asian capitals – Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila – was lost on them. These cities built expressways upon roads upon expressways throughout the 1990s, only to realise that their cities were choked by the turn of the century. More asphalt led to more demand and in the absence of mass transit networks, it only worsened congestion and air quality. They went back to the drawing board, and drafted mass transit schemes.

There is one small glitch: rail-based transit systems, elevated or underground, are stratospherically expensive. Subway lines, on average, cost between $100m to $250m per kilometre. The upcoming phase of Delhi Metro would cost $163m per km. Assuming that it would cost $150m per km, how much would the 27-km Lahore Metrobus have cost if it were rail-based? Rs405 billion [$4 billion].

So if we want to drastically transform our cities, and do it cheap and fast, the option we do have is the Bus Rapid Transit, or the poor man’s subway.
Jamie Lerner, three-time mayor of Cuiritiba, in southern Brazil, came up with the idea of the ‘surface subway’ in early 1970s. A subway should have speed, reliability, comfort and good frequency. Lerner strived to have all these conditions on surface – hence the term ‘surface subway’ for the world’s first bus systems with dedicated corridors, off-board fare collection and the look and feel of a modern subway.

Today, 75% of Cuiritibans get to work by a bus in the morning, and 2.3m passengers use the BRT system every day. Other cities, including Bogota, Lima and Sao Paulo, replicated the BRT. The previously crime-riddled neighbourhoods, notorious for their drug cartels and high homicide rates, are now safer, more accessible. A large part of that success is attributed to BRTS.
Since 2000, 14 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, have built around 500km of BRTS. India is following suit, with five BRT systems, including Delhi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Pune, six under construction and eight in the pipeline. Jakarta has been implementing a massive system since 2004 by the name of TransJakarta. As of February 2013, TransJakarta has 12 corridors, totaling 172km, served by 520 buses that carried 310,000 passengers per day in 2011.

Pakistan is a late entrant to the BRT club, with its first line opening in Lahore in February 2013. Within a few weeks though, it was carrying over 140,000 passengers a day.

The corridor, when viewed independently, is well designed, and meets criteria laid out by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. It has barrier-controlled, automated off-board fare collection, a service interval of less than 2 minutes in peak hours, a segregated right-of-way, modern stations with well-designed signage, information systems and a precision bus docking system synchronized with sliding, automated glass doors that give it the look and feel of a subway station. The stations allow you to park your bicycle as well, a facility that may appear wasteful now, but will come in handy later.

The Metrobus has its flaws. BRT corridors need to be part of a larger transit system with feeder services. It has also been designed ad hoc, independent of land-use patterns. Environmental feasibilities, a pre-requisite, were completed halfway through the construction. And, the unending stretch of iron bars does look ugly. Unfortunately, they are imperative to enforce the segregated right-of-way, and avoid accidents involving adventurous citizens crossing the passage. Once we all learn to be law-abiding, the iron bars could be replaced with low-rise kerb stones.

Better public transport is not wishful thinking, it is a right. Just like large parks and public spaces, mass transit systems democratize space and geography. And that is one of the more important prisms through which to judge the Metrobus on whether it is an expensive mistake or a judicious investment.

– Gulraiz Khan

Gulraiz Khan