It was with much fanfare that authorities in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province announced a major project to revolutionize public transport in its teeming capital.
But a year later, some 4 million residents of Peshawar continue to face clogged streets, long delays, disease, and stress as much of the sprawling city feels like a giant construction site.
While officials say they hope to complete the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project soon, Peshawar’s residents are finding it hard to move on the city’s choked roads and breathe its highly polluted air.
Naureen Akhtar, a banker, says her daily 10-kilometer commute from home to work has become a nightmare. After the authorities dug up the University Road, a main artery in Peshawar, to build the highway slated to carry BRT buses, her commute now consumes a large part of her day.
“Now I am stuck in traffic for two or even three hours. I used to get home by 6:30 p.m. in the evening but now I can’t get there before 8:00 p.m.,” she told Radio Mashaal.
Shakeel Khan, a flower seller, says the BRT construction has hurt his business because customers are unable to park in front of his shop.
“They just destroyed the road in front of my shop, and now there’s no one to fix it,” he told Radio Mashaal. “The Peshawar Development Authority blames the BRT, which in turn says the authorities are responsible for repairing the road.”
Naimat Shah had to carry his sick daughter for few many kilometers after a road closure forced him to abandon the bus from Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar’s old city to his village. “I will now have to take a long detour to catch another bus to the village of Sarband on Peshawar’s outskirts,” he told Radio Mashaal.
As the provincial capital, Peshawar attracts hundreds of thousands of daily visitors from across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Naimatullah Khan made a three-hour journey from the southern city of Bannu to shop at Peshawar’s bazaars.
But once in Peshawar, his movement became extremely restricted.
“The traffic police suddenly closed the roads, so we have to abandon the bus. I now have to walk a long time to reach the markets where I want to shop,” he said.
When completed, the 65-kilometer BRT bus corridors will help more than 400,000 passengers to travel around Peshawar. It will significantly reduce traffic on the city’s 25-kilometer main boulevard from Chamkani in the east to Hayatabad in the west. Officials claim it will cut the travel time for most passengers in half.
In October 2017, Pervez Khattak, the former chief minister or most senior elected civilian official, made tall claims as he inaugurated the construction of the BRT.
“I have been told it will be completed within six months,” he said at the time, insisting that his Tehreek-e Insaaf Party (PTI) administration would ensure the project proves to be one of the most efficient and cheapest public transport schemes.
“We will not be subsidizing this project because it will earn enough to sustain itself,” he told supporters. “My dream is that one day after we complete our projects, Peshawar will have one of the best traffic systems in the world.”
But more than a year later, the BRT is still incomplete, and another PTI administration has taken office in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The costs have soared beyond the initial estimates of $350 million. Even the provincial high court in Peshawar has asked various government departments to address complaints and probe graft allegations surrounding the project. Poor planning has forced contractors to demolish defective parts of the project.
Peshawar is already one of the most polluted cities in Pakistan. The dust blowing from the city’s run-down roads and exhaust fumes from the standstill traffic have deteriorated the air quality even further.
Yet senior officials are adamant that the project will be a game changer for Peshawar. Taimur Saleem Jhagra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s finance minister, says the government is now aiming to complete the project in March.
“Our real challenge is that the BRT should prove to be a source of pride for Peshawar,” he said. “I hope I won’t have to drive to work and instead will be able to park in Chamkani and ride to work on a BRT bus.”
Kaliqur Rahman, a PTI lawmaker in Peshawar, says completing such a major project in an old and haphazardly developed city such as Peshawar is proving a major challenge.
“Peshawar is not a planned city, so whenever we dig we meet new challenges,” he said. “This is why there are so many hurdles.”
But others are not convinced. Lawmaker Inayatullah Khan, a former local government minister, says he opposed the BRT because it was a bad idea for the city.
“We only had one major traffic artery in this city, and the BRT completely destroyed it while also taking away whatever little greenery we had here,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Radio Mashaal correspondent Zaland Yousafzai contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.