Mass Transit is the Answer

Written by Ruhie Jamshaid  •  Features  •  May 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Thronging cars meandering at a snail’s pace on a congested road. Wildly honking horns knifing through the serenity and quiet, if there’s any left. South Asia’s traffic predicament, be it in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, seems to be growing and gnawing at commuters who find their peace of mind being brutally snatched away every single time they are on the road.

Escalating traffic congestion has several downsides. With more cars on the roads, there is inevitably greater gas emission which leads to debilitating pollution in the atmosphere. High vehicle numbers in many South Asian cities have also led to shocking accident rates. In addition, the psychological effects of suffering heavy traffic congestion day in and day out, cannot be underestimated. Needless to say, the repercussions of growing traffic in South Asia are of paramount concern and need to be addressed expressly.

In India, for instance, large cities like Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi are grappling with traffic congestion which is tied to growing population density. India has the world’s second largest population which is largely concentrated in urban centers. In the major cities in neighboring Pakistan, the population density is not so jarringly high, but cities like Karachi and Lahore continue to be bogged by traffic issues. The situation does not differ much in Dhaka in Bangladesh.

Aside from the population density, affordability of cars in terms of cost and maintenance, adds to the traffic problem. Additionally, the relatively poor infrastructure in large cities of South Asia, also add to the traffic predicament. Ad hoc road works, unplanned parking spaces and ill-planned squatter encroachments sprouting near road areas, all contribute to poor traffic conditions. Bad civic sense on the roads and dismal road usage also add to congestion as does manual traffic control in many of these cities. Given the barriers to smooth traffic flow in these cities, mass rapid transit systems appear to be the only viable solution to these traffic woes.

A mass rapid transit system offers several benefits in heavily populated and congested cities. Such a system is usually built above the roads or is laid underground, freeing up space constraints on the ground level. Usually a medium capacity system, it carries people equivalent to the number approximately traveling on seven bus lanes and twenty four car lanes. More people are, therefore, transported from point to point at any given time on such a system, creating better utilization of space and time for commuters. There are several other benefits that a rapid rail system entails. It penetrates hard to access areas such as far flung industrial cities which have been previously accessible by road only, providing a means of transport for the workers. Energy consumption and overall cost can be reduced by a mass transit system that serves to carry many more people at any one time than conventional means of transport. It also reduces waiting time for passengers as there are no barriers to the movement of speedy trains along a mass transit track.

However, the concept of a mass rapid transit system is relatively uncomfortable for many South Asian cities. For instance, in a bustling city like Mumbai, a local train system is already working but is confined to lower and middle class commuters. Unlike the more developed nations like Japan and Singapore, commuting on trains is not looked upon as normal and instead serves to define one’s social class. Therefore, for those in the upper social classes in South Asian society, the thought of commuting on a mass rapid transit system is not a welcome one. The dilemma is how to bring about a change in mindset, pertaining to commuting on public transport systems.

One of the very important steps towards making public transport, particularly mass rapid transit systems an attractive proposition for South Asians, is to bring about a complete image change. Train stations and trains must be pleasant to the eye besides being clean and comfortable enough to attract commuters from all sections of society. Besides an image overhaul, the train stations must also be located in the popularly frequented areas so that commuters recognize the benefits of using trains as opposed to ploughing through traffic.

Cost of travel is also paramount and should not weigh heavily on commuters. If people see the benefits of convenience, comfort and time savings and compare these against affordability, they will be far more receptive towards this mode of public transport. Campaigns can also be run to educate the public on the benefits of using the Mass Rapid Transit system. The media can be especially utilized to change public perceptions towards the various modes of public transportation. The government can also play its part by providing incentives to people for using mass transit systems by introducing additional taxes on the purchase of private vehicles. When the cost of owning cars escalates, people will naturally move towards public transportation, provided the latter is comfortable and convenient.

There are several success stories about mass rapid transit doing the rounds. The Mass Rapid Transit system in Chennai (India), for instance, has been in existence since 1931 and covers a distance of 25 kilometers across 21 stations. It has been lauded for alleviating traffic problems in a city that is known to be one of the largest urban centers in the world. The Delhi Metro is a newer and more advanced transit system with 142 stations at both underground and above ground level, working towards easing road congestion. Pakistani cities such as Karachi and Lahore have also been toying with the idea of a mass rapid transit system but have run into problems as a result of the negative political climate and other vested interests. Dhaka is yet to embark on a mass rapid transit program though traffic congestion in this city is leading to the deterioration of living standards in this fast growing metropolis.

The fact remains that heavily congested South Asian cities need to think with more responsibility about introducing really effective mass rapid transit systems if there is a serious desire in the management of these cities to stay economically competitive and offer better living standards.  

Ruhie Jamshaid is a creative writing trainer and freelances for various publications. She is currently based in Islamabad.

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