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Changing the Way You Ride

By Ahmed Raza

The success story of Pakistan’s first rapid mass transit bus project.

Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue,” remarks Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia. “The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who benefits from the models adopted.”

The mayor was giving a presentation on Bogotá’s mass transit system, TransMilenio, some years ago when he made these remarks here at the Punjab Chief Minister’s Secretariat. He is the man who transformed Colombia’s crime-ridden, traffic-clogged capital into a citizen-friendly neighborhood with over 1,200 public parks, dynamic pedestrian public spaces, children’s nurseries, schools, libraries and hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths and greenways.

During recent years, not only Peñalosa but several donor agencies like the World Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and Asian Development Bank enlightened Pakistani leadership and policymakers about the critical need of reliable, comfortable and efficient public transport systems.

In 2005, the Punjab government took a lead and commissioned Asia’s largest transport planning consultancy, MVA Asia, to carry out a feasibility study to develop an integrated network of mass transit corridors and prioritize their implementation. The company in its report indicated Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan, had transport demand of over 13.5 million passenger trips per day by all modes of transport in 2006.

It identified four corridors, the top priority being the Ferozepur Road corridor – called ‘Green Line’. The feasibility study of this corridor was finalized in August 2006. But political uncertainty and a change in government did not allow Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) regime to initiate work on the mass transit system.

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The Start of Mass Transit System in Pakistan

Later in 2011, Pakistan Muslim League (N) led-Punjab government, in collaboration with local and Turkish experts, reinitiated the project and laid the foundation stone of the country’s first mass transit system. The project was completed in a record period of one year.

Nearly half a dozen intelligent technologies provide real-time access to bus operation data from metro corridors in Lahore, Rawalpindi and shortly in the metro bus corridor of Multan.

Though there was strong political opposition and criticism leveled at the project, it proved to be a great success and set a new public transport standard for the country. Punjab Mass Transit Authority (PMA), the public transport planning, executing and regulatory arm of the Punjab, is ready to claim that ‘it has moved the nation once’ as Lahore Metro Bus Service is very close to achieving an accumulative ridership of 180 million passengers during a short span of over three-and-a-half-years only.

“Nearly half a dozen intelligent technologies, including Automated Fare Collection (AFC) System, Bus Scheduling System (BSS), Vehicle Tracking System (VTS), Passenger Information System (PIS), Intelligent Transportation System and Surveillance System, empower the PMA to efficiently run metro bus operations,” discloses Syed Uzair Shah, PMA Operations general manager. “These systems provide real-time to access bus operations data from metro corridors in Lahore, Rawalpindi and soon from the metro bus corridor of Multan.”

Shah said with the technical cooperation of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), the authority had automated the whole mass transit system in Punjab with a vision to provide safe, efficient, and comfortable urban transport service in major cities of Punjab.

From entry gate to exit points, he pointed out, all passengers and transactions in the metro corridors are tracked electronically. The authority has developed cash free, paperless ticketing environment called the AFC system that has eliminated incidence of revenue pilferage. All metro bus terminals are equipped with ATM-like smartcards and token vending machines and Personal Data Assistants (PDAs). This system provides access to passenger financial transaction data in real-time.

Right now, he said, the AFC system is available in Lahore and Rawalpindi metro buses, but the authority is integrating it with 200 new feeder buses that have been procured through an agreement with Daewoo Express Pakistan. These buses will run on 14 feeder routes of the Lahore Metro Bus service. After integration of fare collection systems, passengers can travel on different buses from one part of the city to another on the same ticket.

Another technology that bars entry of unauthorized persons in the metro corridors is turn-style gates. These electronic gates not only restrict entry of unauthorized persons but also keep track of financial transactions. These machines deduct fares from passengers’ smartcards or capture tokens on completion of the journey.

In collaboration with a Chinese vendor, Huawei, he said, the authority has installed high-definition CCTV cameras in and along the metro corridors for surveillance and monitoring of bus operations. These cameras are directly connected to a central command and control center through a high-speed optical fiber network. In addition, the authority has also installed high definition cameras in metro buses to further improve surveillance and monitoring.

Metro buses also have Controller Area Network (CAN) modules installed to provide real-time access to bus data like bus speed, engine RPM, door opening and closing time while GPS vehicle tracking system pinpoints bus location on the map.

The authority is also using Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system that offers access to various types of bus operation data including the state of electronic doors at bus terminals, diesel generators switching time, availability of fuel in generator. This system also gives control capabilities (to tweak the system) in real-time.

Shah said though most traffic signals have been removed from the metro bus corridor in Lahore but there are still four traffic signals that sometimes cause problems at rush hour. The authority has installed a Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) to overcome this problem as the system gives the power to control traffic signals on the metro bus en route.

All systems are designed to maximize efficiency and remote monitoring of the metro bus operations. Earlier, he said, it was impossible for public transport companies to efficiently run such a huge operations, but technology has truly empowered traffic planners, regulators and operators. The whole metro bus operation is running on an outsourced model. The authority has only a skeleton crew of 75 staff that run the metro bus service in Lahore and Rawalpindi and will also handle operations in Multan very soon.

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Responding to a question, Shah said, “As the whole operation is run on an outsourced model, there is no need to worry about downtime. The vendors have to rush to fix the problems on priority basis to avoid penalties that start swelling after a half-hour grace period. So far, the authority has recovered millions of rupees in penalties from its vendors as some problems couldn’t be fixed in time. For example, if we find that the bus terminal is not cleaned as per standard, the authority directly imposes a penalty on the Lahore Waste Management Company or Rawalpindi Waste Management Company as they are responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the corridors. If a security guard is absent from his location, the security company has to bear the burden. If a bus driver is on his cell phone on the job, the Turkish bus operator, Albayrak, can be fined as PMA officials are monitoring the entire bus operation while sitting at the command and control center.”

Though the Pakistani government is trying to improve public transport infrastructure, a lot still remains to be done. In the case of intra-city an market, there is a big gap in terms of inexpensive, safe and comfortable modes of transport.

An Inspiring Example

He said other provinces of the country have also realized the significance of the mass transit system after the success of Lahore and Rawalpindi metro bus services. The authority is continuously sharing its experiences with all provinces. It has shared its request for proposals (RFPs) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and given presentations to Karachi and Quetta for setting up an efficient mass transit system.

The authority is also assisting law enforcing agencies to track down miscreants. Recently, he disclosed, a family approached city police for recovery of their daughter who allegedly ran away from her home. They indicated the girl might have traveled on the metro bus, so on police request PMA shared the footage of particular stations in question and helped the police to track down the young girl. There were several other cases in which the PMA helped law enforcing agencies as it maintains seven-day footage backup for Lahore and 30 days for Rawalpindi.

Lahore Transport Company’s bus tracking and monitoring system.


He went on to say that, Punjab’s mass transit system is based on the world best transport models. The authority has consulted the World Bank’s public transport guide for design and implementation of the mass transit system in the province.

As per international standards, the authority has a vision to provide efficient public transport just 500 meters away from citizens in all major cities. To achieve this target, the authority is building an Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore and a Metro Bus corridor in Multan. The PMA is also working to run buses on feeder routes of metro bus service in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan, under its integrated public transport initiative. After completion of the metro train project, the authority would add more buses on feeder routes to connect demand centers with metro corridors as the PMA’s next attack was on motorcycles. These feeder buses would encourage motorcyclists to travel on public transport and cut down traveling costs and address traffic problems.

Lahore Transport Company (LTC), another transport planning and regulatory arm of the district government, is exploring different technologies to streamline bus operations outside the metro corridor in Lahore. On the operations side, the company is using hand-held units for electronic ticket and GPS technology for tracking buses and distribution of subsidy among bus operators, while for passenger facilitation, the company’s  smartphone application, ‘Bus Da Pata’ informs passengers about bus schedules and locations. LTC also has an SMS based service for feature phone users.

“The company is modernizing its ticketing system by implementing Near Field Communication (NFC) technology,” says Badie Khan, LTC’s Chief Technical Officer. “The company had developed the system, only a few software glitches are being fixed.” He said the PMA was running RFID-based ticketing system which is relatively old technology and has limited capabilities. The LTC is planning to switch to NFC. It is trying to find some solution to integrate both technologies as ultimately one day, both organizations have to merge for smooth public transport operations.

He underlined that the provincial capital needs around 1,500 buses to cater to passenger demand, but the company has only 400 buses. Though, the situation would improve after induction of 200 new feeder buses in Lahore but public demand is much higher. Right now, the company is offering public transport facility to nearly 200,000 passengers per day.

In addition, the LTC regulates around 35,000 three-wheelers (Rickshaw) in the city and issues route permits to wagons and buses. It has helped to drastically reduce illegal public transport.

Safety measures

To make public transport safe for users, operators and for the environment, Punjab government recently partnered with the world-renowned Swedish company, Opus Inspection, for establishing a technology-backed Vehicle Inspection and Certification System (VICS). Opus Inspection is one of the largest vehicle inspection companies in the world having more than 30 years’ vehicles testing experience. It has a global presence in multiple markets, especially in the USA, European Union, and South America.

RFID based smart card for Lahore Metro Bus Service


The new vehicle inspection and certification system is set up under a public-private partnership with an estimated investment of $12 million. Punjab government has signed an agreement with Opus Inspection for a 20-year concessionary period, after which the complete vehicle inspection infrastructure will be transferred to the provincial government.

As per the agreement, the government will provide land for construction of vehicle inspection centers while the Swedish company will invest in technology and infrastructure. In the first phase, Opus Inspection has established two vehicle inspection centers in Lahore and Kala Shah Kaku. It will build 39 more vehicle inspection centers in all 36 districts of the Punjab by mid-2017.

“The company has introduced state-of-the-art vehicle inspection technologies for the first time in Pakistan,” asserts Sohaib Ahmad, the general manager at Opus Inspection, totally transforming Punjab Transport Department’s outdated paper-based vehicle inspection system. The new computerized system is not only making public transport safe in the province but it is also serving various governmental agencies like Punjab Transport Department, Punjab Excise and Taxation Department, City Traffic Police and Environment Protection Agency, he reveals. The latest cloud-based vehicle inspection system stores all inspection results in a central database which can be available to all relevant government agencies in real-time.

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Vehicle Inspection

The new vehicle inspection and registration system was inaugurated in July 2016. Right now the company is doing inspections for all types of new and used service vehicles, including cabs, rickshaws, buses, trucks, and loading vans. As soon as a vehicle enters in the inspection center, the company affixes a unique radio-frequency identification (RFID) sticker on it. Its registration certificate is authenticated by sending an online query to Excise and Taxation Department’s database to identify illegal or stolen vehicles.

In the next stage, qualified vehicle inspectors and technicians conduct visual and physical inspection and ensure that national safety standards, as defined by the government, are complied with. All tests are conducted on advanced computerized equipment under the supervision of staff while readings are recorded in a central database.

So far, the company has completed over 7,000 inspections. Opus Inspection data indicates most vehicles failed during their first try but with a little maintenance and guidance provided by the company, nearly 80 percent passed inspection in their second try while the remainder cleared in the third or fourth try.

Opus offers free re-inspection during 14 days if a vehicle fails the first time. Previously, the Punjab government was running vehicle inspection through motor vehicle examiners but this manual system failed to produce results owing to various capacity constraints.

Commercial vehicles are being inspected at Vehicle Inspection and Certification System (VICS) center in Green Town, Lahore.


Travel Smart

Considering the huge demand for different types of public transport and availability of 3G and 4G mobile technologies, this has also attracted various foreign collaborative public transport operators, like Uber and Careem, to Pakistan. Some local startups are also trying their luck in niche markets.

“3G and 4G technologies have opened up new avenues in each and every field of life,” says Amna Asim, marketing manager Uber Pakistan. “Though the Pakistani government is trying to improve public transport infrastructure, a lot still remains to be done. In intra-city an market, there is a big gap for inexpensive, safe and comfortable modes of transport. Uber has stepped in Pakistani market with its global experience and quality of service.”

She points out Uber is using different technologies to make travel smart. In layman terms, Uber electronically geolocates a user device and then alerts the driver to pick up the passenger.

Modern technology and high-speed connectivity have empowered the transport sector to completely transform the feel of a city as any city’s roads serve like the arteries of its existence, she states. Platforms like Uber, allow the traffic to flow in a much better way as traffic jams are avoided and people do not have to worry about parking issues. Hence, the better a city’s public transport structure, the smarter the city.

Comparing Pakistani market with the rest of the world where Uber operates, she said, dynamics of the Pakistani market are very different from other global markets primarily because the country’s transport sector is still evolving. Pakistan doesn’t have a very strong cab culture but the introduction of convenient platforms, like Uber, is encouraging people to step out of their homes while being assured of an efficient and affordable service. “We too have adapted our services according to the country’s requirements where for example; we have introduced our cash payment option in Pakistan because the majority of customers here use cash to make payments,” she added.

Highlighting the future of the transport sector, she indicated, Pakistani market has immense potential, and with Uber operations in full swing in both Lahore and Karachi, it is just a matter of time before it expands to other cities. The company believes that the transport sector in Pakistan will witness a sea change in the next few years.

Ahmed Raza has an abiding interest in technology. He is a prolific writer/journalist, graphic designer, and a techaholic. He writes under a different pen name for leading news dailies.


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