The population of Lahore has more than doubled to 11.1 million in the past 20 years. It is one of the fastest-growing cities in the region. Lahore is growing in all directions, but not all the developments are in compliance with the city’s master plan. Managing traffic is becoming a challenge.
The number of vehicles registered in Punjab increased from 5 million in 2007 to 16.7 million in 2017. The huge influx of vehicles is outpacing the population growth of the city. Since the per capita income is increasing, people are able to afford more vehicles. In addition, the number of daily commuters from neighbouring towns such as Sialkot and Kasur has grown too. Therefore, an efficient public transport system, and policy regulations, are required to reduce congestion on roads.
City planning requires separate roads or lanes for different type of vehicles to make the traffic flow uniform. For example, there are 13.1 million motorbikes registered in Lahore, but there is no dedicated lane on any major city road for these bikes.
Moreover, traffic management can also help reduce the pressing concerns of environmental degradation in the city. Fuel combustion of vehicles is one of the major contributors in deteriorating air quality. World over, road transportation accounts for 22 percent of greenhouse consumption and 59 percent of petroleum consumption. Lahore is no different.
Managing traffic by having an effective public transport system, enabling ride-sharing options, and increasing the influx of electric vehicles is the need of the hour. According to a study by LUMS and Lahore Safe City, the economic cost of congestion is estimated to be Rs. 100 billion per annum, which is almost the same as the entire budget of Punjab police. This cost is almost equally shared by the opportunity cost of lost time and excess consumption of fuel. It is no brainer that we need to invest in improving urban transport systems.
The pressing need is to improve the public transport of the city. The Green line (Metro bus) has been operational since the last few years and is deemed to be a great success. The connectivity from one end of the city to the other has opened up economic avenues and reduced the load of traffic. With the success of the Metro bus, a few housing societies in the outskirts of Lahore – in close vicinity to the bus route – have also developed and become populated due to increased accessibility. Another project by the government of Punjab, called the Orange Line, is also in the process of completion.
However, the Punjab Government faces a major problem of operational subsidy funding when it comes to running the Green line or Orange line. The fiscal space is limited and the end consumer cannot pay the premium. There are two other lines which are a part of the Lahore master plan, but the government may not go ahead and develop these projects without having adequate fiscal resources at its disposal.
The modern-day solution lies in providing ride-sharing options. The success of Careem in Pakistan is a good example of such initiatives. Careem has helped reduce the load of passenger cars on the road. Similarly, as an alternative to the public transport system, companies like Swvl and Airlift are successfully penetrating Lahore’s transport sector. These application-based bus services are trying to replace public and private traditional transport systems in the developing world, just like Careem and Uber have virtually eliminated the traditional cab service.
If we look overseas, megacities in the west are functioning at a different tangent. For example, the Subway in New York is so convenient that it is preferred even by millionaires residing in the city. Last year, its budget, at $17 billion, was higher than Punjab government’s total annual budget outlay.
In a congested city, underground train transit systems offer unmatched time-saving options however, the value of time for an average commuter varies across cities. It is quite high in New York or Singapore which justifies the huge budgets of running underground systems. However, cities in developing countries like Lahore are not at a point where they realize the critical importance of reducing commuter time in the spurring city and overall economic growth. The need, therefore, is to have a cost-efficient system at home. The idea is simple; governments have to provide subsidies for running public transport systems.
In developing economies, governments are usually inefficient. This means that even after considerable subsidies, public transport systems may still not be optimal. On the flip side, private technology-based ride-sharing companies can provide an alternative, with efficient transport systems for masses at affordable rates without subsidies from the government.
Part 2 of this series on traffic management will discuss other ways to reduce congestion and environmental consequences of the increasing traffic, even during times of fiscal constraints typically faced by the governments of developing countries. These include building more road networks in the public-private partnership, applying congestion taxes, promoting electric vehicles, and creating space for pedestrians.