The ‘what-if’ approach to public transport

sakina

The economy continues to tread the path of uncertainty and doom. The rupee refuses to budge from Rs90/USD, the investment climate staggers, and inflation somehow seems a non-representative variable. Amidst these unsettling issues, what if the system were revamped? What if the inelasticity of the burden of oil imports was to be challenged? And what if the plight of those consumers who purchased cars in the fruitful yesteryears but face shortages and helplessness at CNG stations was taken into account? Not all can afford tanks full of petrol any more, and there should be no shame in admitting this fallout. Putting into perspective, the foreign exchange spent on petroleum imports each year, the first half of FY12 registered a 35 per cent increase in the oil bill, while comprising a 35 per cent of the total imports. If this trend continues in the later half of the current fiscal year, the total oil import bill can be expected to arrive at $17 billion versus $12 billion in FY11. Studies show that about 49 per cent of oil is used for transportation purposes, which implies that $8 billion will be spent on mere commuting in urban areas where only one third of the total population resides. In the last six months Arab crude prices (specific to Pakistan) have risen from $108/bbl to $124/bbl, registering an increase of 15 per cent. Given that oil embargo on Iran is not far to follow, immediate measures need to be taken for resources to be not be subservient to variations in international prices.
Given this background, a recent announcement from the Lahore Transport Corporation, to import 350-500 buses by April, makes one heave a thankful sigh of relief for the presence of some visionaries in the government. Moreover, the construction of Bus Rapid Transit System to serve about 150,000 passengers daily on Ferozepur Road, also deserves considerable applaud. If one were to design a plan for medium term, the biggest hurdle that the government is bound to face involves a huge paradigm shift for the urban elite. The message would be simple; every member of the household does not need to own a car or travel by a private vehicle to reach their destination be it a workplace, a social event, or simply menial grocery shopping. The ‘west’ that we all aspire to god-willing immigrate to, has well developed public transportation systems which require at times hours of travelling for citizens to commute. Why can’t we provide security and confidence to women, children and people at large from ourselves first, before demanding these essentials from the state?
The parallel measures that provincial governments need to undertake involve giving a boost to competition in the provision for transportation services. This would ensure a greater emphasis on quality, prices and the development of an overall culture for using these services in addition to ancillary employment generation. Moreover, to disincentivise use of personal vehicles, commercial parking zones can be developed which charge heavy tolls for people who chose to bring out their cars. The benefits of this approach are many and easy to appreciate. Greater revenue, less traffic congestion, pollution, driving stress should hopefully be adrenaline boosters for many.
The onus of these suggestions falls on both policy makers and consumers alike. If traffic regulations were imposed, the informal market and the mafia where rates are decided for driving/ routing the semblance of public transportation that we currently have, would suffer great dents. As a final measure, I propose recall of all driving licenses, and retaking of tests to ensure greater security and less stress on roads.
The time to rethink is now!

The writer is an economic analyst and freelance financial journalist. She can be reached at sakina.husain@gmail.com



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