Oct 20, 2011

The flyover frenzy

Tasneem Noorani It is not only that the urban population of Pakistan is on a sharp increase. Every year, 134,000 cars and 835,000 motorcycles are being added to Pakistan’s increasingly congested roads, not to mention the numberless rickshaws, to enable urban commuters to travel to workplaces and homes. The main response of the government, whether in Islamabad or provincial capitals like Lahore or Karachi, is to build flyovers and widen roads, even if this involves cutting old roadside trees. The provincial governments think this “progress” is going to get them votes while it incidentally eases traffic: the resulting relief in traffic is merely temporary and the impact on their vote banks at best remains doubtful and to be proven in the future. Like the population increase, the maddening traffic is growing exponentially in our cities, becoming such a scourge that it makes one wish one were living in a village. Countless billions of rupees are spent on flyover-building and road-widening projects, even though they only benefit the owners of cars, not the less fortunate Pakistanis who have few other means of viable transport in the absence of functioning public transport, like buses. The motorbikes and rickshaws used by those who can afford them in the latter group only serve to clutter the roads still further. All over the world, governments spend far more money on betterment of public transport, rather than on flyovers and wider roads. London, whose public transport we admire so much, is a fine example of this. London was spending £4 billion in subsidy on public transport every year until two years back when I had the opportunity to interact with its top public transport body, Transport for London (TFL). In Delhi, the government spent $4 billion on making the subway, apart from putting 3,000 state-of-the-art buses on city roads. Less than a decade ago, the city government in Karachi started 50 CNG buses with great fanfare, but because the model was unsustainable, they were discarded not too long after the launch. The government introduced a scheme of 8,000 CNG buses and even allocated money in the PSDP, but so far not a single bus has come onto the road. Similar headlines have been made in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Islamabad administration has been making promises for the improvement of public transport in the country’s capital. But there are no additional vehicles on the roads there. In Punjab the government introduced the concept of exclusivity of routes and franchising. That experiment is in tatters. This was partly because of a court order striking down exclusivity and partly because the government was incapable of managing and supervising such a fleet even if it were owned by private operators. So after six decades public transport in all cities consists of the crudest buses driven by untrained drivers. In Faisalabad an experiment in organisation of public transport with the involvement of the community and owners of public service vehicle was started in 1993. A legal entity was created by the commissioner (your truly was the incumbent), which laid down the rules of plying PSV (public service vehicles) in the city. The FUTS (Faisalabad Urban Transport System) provided support to the owners of vehicles to make sure their investment gave them good returns. It was a smashing success. But it was deliberately undone by the-then government in Lahore, which wanted to introduce the franchising system all over the province. Because the model of FUTS was sustainable and realistic, it still limps along in Faisalabad and provides the bulk of public transport, without government support. In 2008, when the new government in Punjab came into power, a task force was set up to find a solution for public transport in the province. I was made chairman of that task force because of my Faisalabad experience. After due deliberations, it was decided to set up a company which would handle all matters pertaining to regulating and organising public transport in Lahore, while the ownership of vehicles would be private. The Lahore Transport Co (LTC) was the first organisation after the demise of the PRTC more than 20 year ago which provided the capacity to the government to run public transport. In all the provinces, public transport is expected to be managed by the transport department, which is actually manned and trained to make policy rather than regulate and run buses. Unlike other countries we have no organisation with specialists like transport planners, fare specialists and public transport engineers. The LTC was the first in this respect. The LTC started with great promise, by finding urban transport specialists (a rare commodity in Pakistan), making systems and setting up an electronic surveillance system to track and monitor buses. We offered an attractive subsidy package to investors to bring new buses and run them and the LTC was to regulate the investor’s buses, with the guarantee that he would make a 20 percent return on his investment. Despite all kinds of allurements, the investor was reluctant to come forth because of apprehension on account of the government’s track record on paying subsidy in time. He needed assurance of at least five years for the recovery of the cost of his vehicle. Only one foreign investor, with a promise of 200 buses, showed interest and reportedly is now bringing 110 buses. We pleaded with the government to place the budgeted money with the LTC, or in any arrangement where the investor would know that if the government changed his investment would be safe. But we were told that the government resources did not allow it to withdraw such a large amount in one go. However, a few weeks later the flyover of Kalma Chawk was launched, where about the same amount of money that the LTC required to bring buses on the roads was spent on brick, mortar and cement. There is no hope for public transport in cities without the government paying out substantial subsidies. If subsidies are needed in any sector, it is in public transport; as evidenced by experience in the rest of the world. But in our country the politicians’ priority seems to be infrastructure expenditure like flyovers, underpasses, wider roads rather than subsidised public transport through a transparent and sustainable system which a special purpose company like the LTC is capable of providing. It is time we stopped pampering and subsidising the motorist by building roads and flyovers and started channelling that money into public transport to enable affordable decent, comfortable transport to the public so that the mad rush to add more cars, motorcycles, and Quingqi would abate, and a modicum of order can return to our roads. The alternative is sick cities with clogged arteries in the next five years.

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