Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is due to open Islamabad’s new half-billion dollar metrobus system on Thursday, which the government hopes will revolutionize transport in the capital but which has been criticized by some as extravagant.
The 23-kilometer line, where 68 air-conditioned buses will carry an estimated 135,000 passengers a day along exclusive, signal-free lanes, links the capital with its sprawling twin city Rawalpindi. The project was built in 13 months—six months longer than planned—at a cost of Rs. 44.84 billion, and will use buses from Turkey.
Critics have branded the metrobus, which is opening as the economy slowly rebuilds after years of stagnation, as “wasteful,” saying priority should be given to spending on education, health and the environment. But the government hopes it will give the economies of the twin cities a boost by making travel easier and cheaper for commuters currently reliant on a patchy network of minibuses and vans.
Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province, which includes Rawalpindi, said the service would be a boon for people on low-incomes. “It will also help cool the anger of people who have to travel in shoddy vans while government officials, politicians and rich people drive past in their air-conditioned and bulletproof vehicles,” Sharif told journalists earlier this week.
With gleaming grey tiles, escalators, elevators and modern glass and steel structures with wavy red roofs, the 24 stations of the new line would not look out of place in a more developed country. Completion of the project would be welcomed by many if only as heralding the end of more than a year of major construction work.
Since the groundbreaking in February last year, large sections of key roads have been dug up, causing huge traffic snarl-ups—to add to the noise and dust of the building work. “They dug up the entire route at once without any planning to divert traffic,” said office assistant Ishtiaq Ahmed, who travels daily from Rawalpindi to Islamabad by car. “The daily commute time has increased by one hour at least because the construction has caused congestion on all roads and I’ve had several warnings from my boss for turning up late,” he added.
Work was scheduled to be completed by December, but was repeatedly delayed, notably by months of political protests in the capital last summer over alleged election fraud. Civic rights activist Zafarullah Khan said the project was imposed on the people and no public hearing and environmental impact assessments were carried out before its start.
“It is an artificial transplant in the chaotic development model of Islamabad. Who decided? The citizens of the capital were not consulted,” said Khan. He said the “only benefit” would be that for Rs. 20 people can enjoy a ride in an air-conditioned bus in the height of summer.
Islamabad was designed in the 1960s on a grid pattern and some have slammed the metrobus as the latest act of vandalism on the original plan. They say the new bus route spoils the grandeur of the central Jinnah Avenue, the broad boulevard which runs from Parliament House to the far end of the capital.
It is the second metrobus scheme in Pakistan, after the one that opened under Shahbaz Sharif’s guidance in Lahore in 2013. As in Islamabad, that met with skepticism initially but has proved popular, currently ferrying up to 12,000 passengers an hour along its 29-kilometer length.
Officials say a mass transit system is indispensable for any city the size of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and the existing set-up had made commuting an agonizing experiencing for people, particularly women and the elderly. Private mini-vans, many rickety and un-roadworthy, are often dangerously overloaded, with men, women, children and students stuffed in cramped spaces like livestock.
“The metrobus will be a great boon for commuters as currently they have to travel in small over-crowded vans and dilapidated mini-buses,” said office worker Aurangzeb Khan. “It’s quite a struggle everyday to catch a van and then be huddled into it like chickens.” Women and the elderly are pushed and harassed during travel, he said, hoping the metrobus might bring a measure of dignity to the daily commute.