Public transport in Islamabad: A growing challenge for city managers with rapid urbanisation


Islamabad's population is expected to exceed 2.2 million in 2030 from the existing 1.67 million, increasing demand for sustainable public transport

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s federal capital, Islamabad, is a fully planned city unlike any other metropolitan in the country, but the city managers have been grappling with a growing challenge of rapid urbanisation, ever increasing population and the resultant burden on its limited resources especially the public transport for daily safe, efficient and cost-effective commute of thousands of people.

Islamabad is believed to be the tenth most populous city in Pakistan, currently with an estimated population of 1.67 million which is growing at a whopping 2.52 percent annually. The city’s population is expected to exceed 2.2 million in 2030 if it continued at the current rate. It is spread over 906.5 square kilometres and its development was completed in 1960s, but with zero public transport system for mobility of the people.

There are about 700,000 daily trips originating and terminating within the federal capital territory while another 500,000 daily trips are apart from it in which people either travel to or from the city to adjoining urban areas, according to a case study. So, this all demands a sustainable public transport in the federal capital to facilitate not only its residents but also the people traveling to or from the city.

With the ever increasing population and urbanisation of the city, the level of congestion on the roads is becoming worse with every passing day as majority of the public still has no option but to travel in their private cars, motorcycles or shabby private transport. People are forced to travel in small wagons and minibuses which largely remain unregulated and unmonitored by the authorities. They also remain one of the major sources of pollution in the city, leading to numerous diseases and increasing health burden on the national exchequer.

In June 2015, a first metrobus network of its kind was operated between Pak Secretariat in Islamabad and Saddar Rawalpindi to cater to the growing needs of transportation between the twin cities. It stretches over 22.5 kilometres while another metrobus was inaugurated in April last year from Peshawar Mor to Islamabad International Airport. According to the government officials, both the metrobuses are providing cheap and comfortable service to thousands of people daily. The interviewed commuters at large have also expressed satisfaction over the service except its closures during the protests and rallies in the twin cities – Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

In July last year, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif inaugurated another two modern Green and Blue lines to add to the existing network of the public transport. The officials said they were planning to start the public transport on at least ten other routes of the federal capital soon to connect the whole city with the affordable and sustainable public transport network.

Urban planners, such as Farhan Anwar and Naveed Iftikhar, said the safe and sustainable public transport is a key driver of socioeconomic development of any society as it would help all people including the marginalised, females and old people to access jobs, markets, hospitals and even recreational spots easily and without road congestions. They said the public transport would also help the country lower its burgeoning fuel import bill and carbon emissions to meet the international obligations.

At the moment, Pakistan’s whole transport sector represents about 23 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a research study by the Institute of Urbanism, based in Islamabad. The sector accounts for 22.3 percent of the services sector gross domestic product (GDP), it provides six percent of the nation’s total employment and uses around 30 percent of the total energy including diesel and petrol in the country. The passenger transport only in the country accounts for whopping 68 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions which are expected to grow at around six percent annually with the increasing population.

Apathy towards sustainable transportation

The government introduced a National Transport Policy in 2018 with a vision to provide safe, affordable, efficient, durable, and environmentally friendly means of transport, ensuring reliable access to jobs, markets, education, and other services for all, but it is yet to be materialised. The apathy of the authorities towards of the provision of sustainable and affordable public transport can be judged from the fact that this national policy was not revised since the 2018 first draft.

The inefficiencies in the urban transport sector like poor road infrastructure, traffic congestion and rickety buses are costing Pakistan four to six percent of its GDP every year, but still the authorities remain oblivious to the growing need of the public with minimum allocation of budgets to improve the road infrastructure, replace old buses with fuel efficient ones and minimum attention to issuing vehicle fitness certificates

It is an admitted fact now across the globe that safe and sustainable commute in any city was directly linked to its economic growth as well. Therefore, authorities in the developed countries would focus on provision of cost-effective and safe public transit to their people to ensure their timely and cheap commute to the jobs, markets and educational institutions. Underground metros, electric trains, buses and cars are the main features of any developed city in the world these days.

In Islamabad, the authorities have started Green and Blue lines on specific routes besides the two separate metrobus services to cater to the transportation need of the public, but still it was inadequate and ill-planned as well. The city managers admit that there was no formal master urban transportation plan despite being the fact that Islamabad was believed to be a well planned and better managed city in the country. The authorities also acknowledge that the existing public transport network was not well integrated and inclusive as it should have been ideally.

The federal capital’s major public and private schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and even recreational spots were not connected to the public transport system. Students and general public have to use private cabs and cars to reach to the public transport stations to travel to their destinations on the metrobuses. The city dwellers are also faced with traffic congestion at almost all major roads during peak hours, resulting in extra consumption of thousands of litres petrol and diesel daily besides a significant contribution to the pollution and air quality.

During the peak hours especially in the evening, motorists find it difficult to locate parking in the marketplaces. Urban planners suggested the city managers to construct maximum number of parking plazas in the busy markets to tackle the congestion. They have also suggested the CDA officials to start charging the parking fee from the private vehicles to discourage their use, boost the revenues and create green job opportunities for the youth. At present, there are two parking plazas which are functional in Jinnah Super Market, F-7 Markaz, where people park their cars for free.

The CDA is constructing another major parking plaza in Blue Area, the city’s main commercial hub, to facilitate the public. The urban planners and environmentalists urge the district authorities to charge a fee from those parking their vehicles in the parking plazas and install machines alongside the busy roads too to charge the fee. Experts believe the parking fee may discourage the public to use their personal vehicles for travelling within the city, and they may prefer to use the public transport.

They believe that a sustainable and environment friendly public transport network would also help improve deteriorating air quality of the federal capital, besides helping protect green cover of the city. Urban planners have also suggested the authorities to create separate lanes along with all roads in the city for bicycles to promote its use. They say the developed countries were promoting e-bikes, electric cars and even electric buses and trains to cut the greenhouse gas emissions and provide safe and sustainable transport to their residents.

Transition to electric vehicles

In Pakistan Electric Vehicle Policy 2020-25 and Euro-V fuel[1] quality were introduced by the previous government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, but they are yet to be implemented in letter and spirit. The transition towards the green transportation is slow, though in the electric vehicles policy it was noted that Pakistan would provide incentives to the private sector like tax exemptions and discounted power tariffs to install charging stations and other feasible infrastructure to facilitate the electric vehicles in the country.

Under the policy, a phased transition to the electric vehicles was proposed without having any adverse effect on the existing automotive industry which provides direct and indirect employment to three million people and contributes revenue of approximately 100 billion rupees annually to the government exchequer through taxes.

In the first phase, two to three wheelers were to be switched to the e-vehicles with an objective to reduce the country’s external deficit through reduction in overall share of oil import bill by shifting to EVs. It also envisaged to mitigate negative aspects of climate change through reduction in emissions from transport sector through introduction of fuel-efficient green technologies.

The government has also announced some tax breaks and exemptions for import and manufacturing of the electric vehicles in the country, but this all has yet to be materialised Since December 2022, the country has slapped an unannounced ban on imports to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis after its foreign exchange reserves started dwindling due to external repayments. The nation’s foreign exchange reserves have now dropped to mere $2.9 billion, according to the State Bank of Pakistan, enough to cover imports of three weeks. So, at a time when the country is faced with the liquidity crunch, the imports of electric vehicles remain out of question.

Connectivity to residential sectors

In the wake of the growing urbanisation in Pakistan’s federal capital, the urban planners have suggested the authorities to tackle urbanisation challenges with provision of safe, effective and sustainable public transport to the public as this would also support the country’s fragile economy. They have urged the authorities to learn from their past mistakes in the urban transit planning and initiate new strategies to deal with it, but to no avail so far.

The experts have also suggested the authorities to categorise the public transit needs of lower middle class and upper middle class as both may have different choices for their daily commute. They said the transit planners should not implement a standardised transportation for the commuters whose willingness to pay varies considerably based on comfort and luxury of the transit. They have also suggested the government to arrange for ramps and wheelchairs at the bus stations to facilitate the disabled.

The city managers should also direct the public resources for creation of walking paths, bicycle lanes and public transport to facilitate the maximum number of people with targeted subsidies.

The CDA is working on another Islamabad Bus Service along the existing BRT lines to roll out a fleet of public buses to cater to the transportation need of maximum number of people in the federal capital, the officials said. They said the majority of Islamabad’s residential sectors, markets, educational institutions and hospitals would be connected to the existing metrobus service to reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads.

In the next phase, the officials said, they would also be considering import of electric buses, e-bikes and electric cars to include them in the existing public transport fleet of Islamabad to facilitate the public and maintain clean and green Islamabad. They, however, admitted that this would require a planning, budgeting and approval from the federal government before acquisition of the electric vehicles, so they are not clear at this stage as to when this plan could materialise.



[1] Euro-V is an international standard fuel that helps reduce harmful vehicle emissions, minimising adverse impact on the environment and benefitting the ecosystem while improving an engine’s performance