While generally hailed by citizens as landmark initiatives, the bus rapid transit (BRT) or metro bus projects in Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad have come under criticism from some politicians. One reason for inviting such a critique is this system’s visibility and mobility. The debate surrounding the matter is whether this initiative is aimed at giving semblance of prosperity or is it actually contributing to human and social development.

The comparisons between investment in physical and human capital demonstrate that the quality and access to healthcare, for instance, is as important a priority for the policy planners as are the physical means to take the patients to the hospitals and clinics in time, or the quality of transport that would promote good public health. There is no doubt that investment in physical capital including transport has been established as necessary condition for spurring economic growth. This is why a heavily tilted funding towards physical infrastructure in developing countries is not uncommon. An International Finance Commission study titled “The Impact of Infrastructure on Growth in Developing Countries” found that investment in transport in developing countries showed a positive impact on the economic growth by generating employment and raising real estate value. Several studies reveal that benefits of BRT systems, now in place in over 180 cities of mostly developing countries, outweigh cost of these projects over a period of time.

In their response, the government officials in Pakistan have focused more on the need for efficient and affordable public transport system in rapidly urbanizing cities where millions of people commute for livelihood, education, health care, business, shopping and recreation. An emphasis is of course laid on the economic growth factor which is an essential prerequisite for human development. But the discourse presented by transport experts and government functionaries, particularly in Punjab falls short of highlighting the human, social and even psychological dividends of the transit system. In the Pakistani context there are additional advantages like social pride and empowerment, social integration and discipline, and wellbeing with a sense of satisfaction and happiness.

A large body of anecdotal and technical evidence shows that quantity and quality of physical infrastructure raises the productivity of human capital and enriches the quality of community life. The United Nations describes decent standard of living alongside healthy life and knowledge as three key dimensions of human development. Human development index is a composite concept. In case of health for instance, human development cannot be measured merely by looking at the indicators of quality of health care as health is linked to several other factors including status of public health, living conditions and environment, speedy connectivity, social happiness, and the list goes on. A research on “Social, Environmental and Economic Impacts of BRT Systems” conducted by Washington-based World Resources Institute unveiled the fact that in Colombia, Turkey and Mexico, metro bus systems reduced road fatalities, crashes and injuries, brought down exposure to harmful air pollutants, and enhanced physical activity. By reducing local air pollution and emissions, metro bus in Mexico City prevented more than 2,000 days of lost work due to illness and two deaths per year, thus saving around 4.5 million dollars.

Through an environment of transit equity, the BRT system in our country is leading to social integration as millions of people from public and private sectors journey together. Our education system has long been taken to task for its apartheid stemming from trifurcation into religious seminaries, government schools and private academic institutions. But such discrimination is not to be seen in metro buses where people from almost all segments of society benefit from this transport system. This is unlike an experience in a mega shopping mall where people from low to high income strata visit but only the affluent would actually buy expensive brands. Equal access to metro bus facilities inspires sense of equality and confidence and thus breeds social cohesion. A new confidence is seen among women, senior citizens and physically challenged whose special needs have been kept in view in the system. A sense of social responsibility, pride and dignity prevails at the bus stations and inside the buses. One can witness commuters offering seats to senior citizens or co-passengers in frail health. The positive impact of the transit system on the sense of wellbeing of riders and people living near the system has been revealed in some studies conducted internationally. The modern and hi-tech space at the stations gives feeling of the city’s power.

From pre-paid ticketing and standing in queues to following security checks, the citizens are imperceptibly being disciplined. The caring for time is a virtue of all developed nations. Already, the gated housing enclaves, mega shopping malls, state-of-art cinema theatres, and motorways are contributing towards reforming the habits of our people in terms of community living, shopping, recreation and travelling.

Metro bus is also integrating cities as citizens of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are availing opportunities in both the cities. The metro bus is now the prime link between the traditional city of Rawalpindi and young capital of the country. Thousands of individuals pour into Islamabad from Rawalpindi daily for work and education, and return in the afternoon. It is like a trip to downtown and back which is gradually diffusing the twin city outlook. But it is not one way track as more and more people are coming to Islamabad for work, education and recreation, thousands from Islamabad are visiting Rawalpindi for business and shopping. An otherwise laidback capital inhabited mostly by government officials has started giving an appearance of a pulsating city. Metro bus is also a gigantic step towards turning urban centers into smart cities. Smart urban mobility is a crucial element of smart city, which is supposed to be integrated in terms of an efficient, and reliable communication network physical and e-based.

As comparisons are drawn in terms of the number of riders on RBT, time saving, economic affordability and employment generation, research and surveys must also be conducted to assess and quantify people’s acceptance and happiness resulting from this system as well as its role in promoting health, protecting environment, instilling discipline, creating social homogeneity, and community acceptance or satisfaction. Needless to say the results of such surveys would overwhelmingly support these projects, as has been witnessed in other developing countries.

Despite world economic recession in 1970s, Brazil dared to pioneer RBT system in its city of Curitiba. Brazil’s population multiplied to around 200 million in 2012 and today it is world’s fifth most populous country. The question is: With a population of what Brazil’s was four years ago and having the status of world’s sixth most populous nation, could Pakistan’s policy makers afford to delay the mass transit system by another decade or so?

After building motorways, eliminating dengue virus and initiating solid waste management, the metro transit system is yet another milestone of international standard which is improving quality of life and creating a sense of wellbeing. This landmark project has wetted appetite of the public for its replication elsewhere, expansion to other routes and speedy implementation of metro train system.