Washington Post appreciates Metro Bus project

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For hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, the miserable, sweaty, cramped commuting is coming to an end, reports Washington Post.

The international newspaper in its latest report observed that Pakistan, one of the world’s fastest-growing countries, has long lacked an efficient public transport system.

Pakistan’s 180 million residents have jammed onto unreliable buses and vans, prone to breakdowns and grisly traffic accidents.

The Newspaper said that the haphazard transport system – which sometimes involves passengers riding on the roofs of buses or sitting on top of each other in taxis or passenger vans – has been the butt of jokes at home and abroad. But now, in two of Pakistan’s largest cities, residents are enjoying a new mass transit options that even commuters in Western nations might envy, the paper said.

It added that rapid-bus systems that together cost $700 million are running in Lahore and the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital. In both metropolitan areas, more than five dozen air-conditioned buses circulate in dedicated lanes that use new bridges and tunnels to avoid traffic lights.

Commuters wait no more than three minutes for a bus, which reduces overcrowding while slashing average commute times by half. And at about 20 cents (Rs 20) a ride, the subsidized systems are accessible even to the poor, the paper said.

It further said that riders “feel respected, they feel more at home, and they can commute with dignity,” said Sibtain Fazal-i-Haleem, chief executive of the Punjab Metro Bus Authority, which manages both bus systems. “It’s a step toward modernization, it’s a step toward development, and it’s an improvement we should have done much earlier.”

In 2013, Shahbaz Sharif’s provincial government spent $300 million to open the 17-mile Lahore bus route. Ridership has grown to about 140,000 passengers daily, officials said.

Last year, the two leaders pooled provincial and federal money to construct the 14-mile, $400 million Islamabad-Rawalpindi route, the paper said.

The International newspaper said that using a 24-hour labour force, it was built with Dubai-like speed, opening in the last week after just 13 months of construction.

The route includes 24 stations between Rawalpindi and capital, where most well-paying jobs and government agencies are located.

Within hours of its launch, residents flooded into the stations. Now, the new service is offering a window into how transformational mass transit can be for the poor and middle classes.

The buses feature rechargeable fare cards, screens that show their current location, recorded messages announcing next stops and a cooling system that showers passengers with a final burst of chilled air before they disembark into the hot Pakistani summer, the newspaper.

After just a few trips on the Islamabad service, Asif Naeem,  31, said his “mind is now at mental ease” when he travels.

The salesman previously travelled on two different passenger vans for his commute from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, which he described as a “painful” 90-minute journey. The new bus has cut it to 40 minutes.

“This metro bus has changed my life,” Naeem said recently as he left the Islamabad bus station. “It’s very spacious, and besides, there is an air conditioner, which before, a poor man like me could never even think about,” he said.

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s minister of planning, said the federal government plans to launch -rapid-bus transit in Karachi in the coming years.

Iqbal said the new systems are already “changing the whole psychology of people.”

Even something as simple as standing in line for a fare card or boarding a bus in an orderly manner, he said, may be new for some Pakistanis.

“This will give them new behaviours, civic lessons and culture,” said Iqbal, who compared it to Nawaz Sharif’s decision to construct a new highway between Islamabad and Lahore in the early 1990s, during a previous term as prime minister. “When that new motorway started, suddenly people were driving just the same as they would be in Europe and America, following all the rules,” he said.

The start of a more formalized mass transit system could prove especially beneficial to women, analysts said.

Now, at least in Lahore and Islamabad, women and men appear to be happily sharing spaces on the new buses.

Misbah Arif, a doctor at BenazirBhuttoHospital in Rawalpindi, said the new bus system means she will no longer be chronically late for work.

“Before, there were no proper stops, so sometimes it was fine, but most times you were late,” Arif said.

In Lahore, the red buses run down the middle of a major boulevard and stop at several hospitals as well as Gaddafi Stadium, the cricket ground.

Sardar Muhammad, 85, emerged from one station carrying a shepherd’s stick.

“I never imagined I would see such facilities in my life,” said Sardar, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of Lahore. He said he recently learned how to use the system for trips into town. “Travelling earlier was very slow,” he said.