Slightly over a year ago construction work started in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Construction work is nothing new around here – Pakistan’s population is growing rapidly and houses are constantly being enlarged, with office blocks and malls mushrooming in similar profusion. But this construction work was on a different scale. Some of the most important roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – Murree Road, 9th Avenue, the Kashmir Highway, Jinnah Avenue – were torn up, more or less at once. That’s perhaps half of the most significant roads in the capital of Pakistan rendered unusable overnight.
Predictably, chaos ensued. Real, genuine chaos. Journeys that would previously have taken twenty minutes took an hour or more. Dust clouds erupted from the construction sites. When It rained – and last winter it rained a lot – the dust turned to mud, and cars slipped and slid across the cities. I remember one on particular evening travelling from southern Rawalpindi to central Islamabad, and spending nearly two hours in a clunky, smelly taxi, stuck in traffic, surrounded by thick clouds of choking dust and the constant blaring of horns. If Dante added more circles to his vision of hell, that would have to be a prime candidate.
Now, though, all is forgiven. The metro bus is here!
If you’re wondering what a metro bus is, here is an explanation: it is a transport network, with a single dedicated roadway and stations along the way. Only metro buses can use it, meaning that there is never any traffic. Thus the journey from southern Rawalpindi to the centre of Islamabad is reduced from an hour or more to a mere 30 minutes.
And that’s not all. That journey of an hour or more would have been spent jammed into an uncomfortable, crammed minibus, with no air conditioning, no comfort, and no space for luggage. These minibuses are incredibly unsafe, badly driven, and hellishly uncomfortable. In their place we have brand new Turkish buses, spotlessly clean, with air conditioning and automatic doors. They leave every minute – miss one, and you only have to wait for sixty seconds for the next.
And even THAT’S not all. The stations are fully automatic: you simply beep your token or card against the terminal and you can walk straight through. A ticket for any single trip costs 20 rupees (roughly $0.20). No queues, no bother, no stress. Even the stations are wifi-equipped.
The metro bus is now my preferred form of transportation. It is completely effortless and utterly wonderful. Complaints have been raised about its cost – and to be honest it cost an absolute bundle, perhaps $400 million, with the usual accusations of corruption and nepotism (to give an example, the contract for providing the stations with flowers and trees was given to a company run by the brother of a government minister) – but these seem churlish in light of the fact that the capital of Pakistan now possesses a public transport system that, honestly, would not be out of place in any city in the world.
It’s an odd feeling, in a country where so much is neglected, poorly-maintained, shoddy, broken, or generally worn down, to use a publicly-funded amenity which is genuinely world-class. God bless you, Metro bus, and may you bring joy and ease to many millions of Pakistanis.