Shahid Saeed has a good piece in defense of Lahore’s Rapid Transit Bus System in Dawn, a great counterpoint to the common narrative critical of the project.

In the first year of operation, the total ridership was 43 million. A 42 per cent fleet expansion took place midway through 2013, increasing capacity. Peak daily ridership was 178,850 and the average daily ridership through the first half of 2014 was at 149,228 with a monthly average peak of 159,222. Buses are jam-packed and total ridership this year should be expected to hit 54 million, up 25 per cent, but having reached operational capacity.

From what I’ve seen while in Lahore last year and via anecdotal evidence, the system is heavily used.

Saeed links to sources for only two of those numbers, which lead to tweets by Khurram Dastgir-Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Commerce. Khan has many twitter followers, and his tweets are an interesting mix of feel-good Pakistan sentiment, musings and links about poetry and fine art, and a sprinkling of random stats that should be published in government documents. This use of tweets as press sourcing will be familiar to those who followed the ISPR’s statements during the tense moments of Imran Khan’s march in Islamabad in August this year.

Khan also has a Facebook page with a curiously smaller number of followers (~4k on Facebook compared to ~76k on Twitter). I recommend you visit the page and read some of the comments. You’ll find citizens complaints formatted as formal letters inside Facebook comments, and then some gems like this.

Back to Saeed’s argument, which in general is that Lahore’s MetroBus serves a large number of people, addressing an important need, and is done using a justifiable government subsidy, and fare-collection that is in line with transit systems over the world.

He then points to ways to make the system a little more efficient and self sustaining:

PHA currently charges Rs1,472,000 for around 180 sq ft of advertising on a moving transport vehicle and Rs1,328 to Rs3,163 per sq ft per month for ‘streamers’ – ads that are hung from poles.

Looking at outdoor advertising rates, and since any ads along the busway will not be at the ideal location that billboards occupy, rates can be expected to be around Rs1,000/sq ft/month. On the fence of the 19km on ground busway section, if 500 advertising spaces of 15×5 ft are leased out at this rate, it will generate Rs450 million.

I understand the need, but this scares me.

Saeed too acknowledges the valid criticism that the project lacked public involvement (as I wrote a few days ago):

Lahore’s Green Line BRT has had many issues too, not least of which was the lack of public engagement in planning, which is a product of bureaucratic mistrust of the people and the ‘all-knowing benevolent ruler’ governance style.

Even the project’s most enthusiastic supporters have valid criticisms.

The design of the stations and elevators could have been better. Some are not happy with a planned LRT line being converted to a BRT one, even with the government’s promise that it may be converted to light-rail one day.

I have a certain fascination with rail systems, particularly underground ones. And I have always hoped that Lahore would some day have a rail system. But a trip to Istanbul last year convinced me that a city can function extremely well with a number of different transit systems catering to different areas and different kinds of travel. Istanbul has a dense bus network, rapid transit bus lines, on-ground rail as well as an underground rail system, which together keep the city moving quite well. My sense is that Lahore will take on a similar approach.

And it’s good to see that improvements to the system are already being incorporated into projects in other cities:

Lessons learnt have already been incorporated in the new transit lines planned, with Multan’s planned system consisting of two corridors from the get-go; with ability to have more than two routes on it, and far better designed stations too.

The hope is always to get the first one right, but it’s never really possible to get the first one perfect. The best we can hope for is that we continue improving and that we improve fast.

Saeed goes on to provide counter-arguments to common criticisms:

Many people are comparing a single transit line’s ridership to the city’s entire needs and suggesting that the project is a failure.

He’s right. More often than not it seems that people are unhappy with an incremental improvement, and are looking for something that solves everything, which of course, is unrealistic. What could help here is if the Lahore & Punjab governments share a plan to address the city’s transit needs more broadly, and present a vision for a system of which this bus line will be a part. That won’t get rid of all critics but will put the government on much better ground.

There’s also an update on the work for the bus lines in Rawalpindi-Islamabad:

With the dharnas, work on the final terminus of the planned BRT line remains suspended and a vital part of the corridor stands affected. When it opens next January, the BRT line will not end at the planned terminus of Pakistan Secretariat, which employs thousands of lower middle class administrative staff who live in Rawalpindi or in Islamabad’s sectors that the BRT line is going through, but one stop short.

Another consequence of the PTI’s aimless protests in the capital. I’m sure they can spin this as a success but it really isn’t.