Improving accessibility to employment, education, health, and other urban services is necessary for improving the welfare of the urban poor and low-income households. Although the rate of motorization is increasing in developing countries, the bulk of the urban poor in the developing world do not have the means to afford private motorized transport. The urban poor rely on public transit for trips that require motorized transport. Thus, public transit plays a critical role in sustaining and improving the welfare of urban poor by providing mobility to millions.
The past few decades have witnessed a continuous disinvestment in public transit by governments in Pakistan who have cut public services in an attempt to balance their books. When the government funded mass transit disappeared from the streets, the private sector stepped in to provide transit service, which left much to be desired in terms of efficient provision of quality service and safety.
Recently, provincial governments in Pakistan have embarked on bus-franchising schemes, which offer exclusive service rights to operators on dedicated routes. The transit operators, in return, guarantee a certain level of service. In Punjab, for example, bus-franchising scheme has delivered hundreds of new buses now plying on intra-urban routes.
The franchised bus service is a step up in quality when compared with the para-transit service it has replaced on the select routes. However, bus franchising has raised some immediate concerns as well. For instance, the new bus service is more expensive than the service it has replaced. The expensive, albeit improved, transit system creates new hurdles for the poor households. Similarly, the fate of para-transit operators, who have lost their livelihoods because of the new bus franchising services, is not certain. The bus franchising experience in Pakistan suggests that the gains in quality and efficiency have been realized at the cost of equity.
Using a case study approach, the paper focuses on the mobility concerns of the lower and middle-income groups in the Greater Islamabad Rawalpindi Area (GIRA). The study area comprises the urban parts of the federal capital, Islamabad, and the urban areas of the neighbouring city, Rawalpindi. The paper documents the opportunities and constraints resulting from privatization of public transit in general, and bus franchising in particular, related to GIRA.