A little apprehensive, I walked into a station at Karachi’s Green Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) located at Numaish Chowrangi.
What I saw took me by surprise, but also quickly instilled a sense of pride.
For growing up in Karachi, I have tried to avoid public transport with safety being a primary concern. Hearing countless accounts of women facing harassment did not help either.
However, I thought maybe, just maybe, Karachiites’ prayers, especially those of its women, for a safer transportation system may finally have been answered. Being environment-friendly was just icing on the cake.
Heading downstairs to the two-level station, the first thing I saw was a clean basement — a relief, to say the least, since I expected there to be trash strewn about, slogans with some colour added by the all-too familiar tobacco stains spewed across the wall.
Inaugurated on December 10, 2021 by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the BRT project, worth nearly Rs17 billion, began its operation on December 25. For Karachi, this state-of-the-art project was a big deal, as the city for decades suffered because of under-investment in its public transport system.
After scanning my one-way ticket (Rs55) on a QR code reader, where I was checked by one of the several security guards but given just five seconds to go through the tripod turnstile, I made my way into the bus. For someone travelling for the first time, you need to keep this in mind.
The bus had a separate place for ladies in the front, middle portion for families, with men seated at the back. Even the automated doors to enter the bus are divided this way. There is also an area reserved for blind and differently-abled passengers.
Once you enter the bus, you forget that you are in Karachi (for a bit, at least). Its congested roads, loud noise, and pollution all make way for peace and tranquility as the door closes and the bus takes off with a soft bump. You can count on the ride being smooth as you will not find any traffic or the usual potholes as the BRT runs on its own bridges and lanes, cordoned off from the rest of the hustle and bustle that Karachi is known for.
Being a woman, I was naturally concerned how the men would react to a female traveling alone in the bus.
As per a paper by International Growth Centre, women in Pakistan are much more dependent on public transport than men are to travel to work, study, and visit family or access public services. While commuting in public buses or rickshaws, women face staring, obscene gestures, whistling, lewd remarks and touching.
In a report in 2017, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that 31 percent of students, 23 percent of working women, and 20 percent of homemakers decreased the use of public transport due to these reasons.
With these things in mind, I soon realised that all my concerns were for nothing as not only was I feeling safe due to security cameras at the station and inside the buses, the men at the back were sitting quietly or talking among themselves, not paying attention to the women.
Or maybe it was due to the fact that the buses are built in such a way that there is a wide gap between the men, family, and women sections. The bus can cater to 150 passengers including sitting and standing areas.
Fear of being in an overcrowded vehicle may become an issue for the BRT later, but, for now, 80 buses catering across 22 stations with three-minute intervals seems fine.
Enjoying the comfortable seat and the AC, I looked at the front, in the ladies’ section, and saw a woman sitting casually in her seat and chatting on her phone. She gave the vibe of a frequent passenger. Glancing to my right, I saw a woman and her son, peacefully enjoying a rather smooth ride.
During the ride, a small screen shows the upcoming station and announcements inform you about the next destination. Passengers are given 20 seconds to exit, during which another guard enters the bus from the men’s portion and exits from the women’s — his eyes alert, looking for a sign of any suspicious activity, or a woman feeling uneasy.
Two months after starting its operations, the BRT has provided a convenient mode of transport to many, who were before using buses, taxis, and rickshaws and not to forget standing waiting around under the city’s cruel sun.
“This is our second time taking the bus. Before we used to take rickshaws and reach our office,” one girl said, cell phone in hand, which was plugged in the USB charging port of the bus, probably the vehicle’s most useful feature. Asked whether she would use the service again, she nodded, however, adding that there needs to be more stations as it still took her a rickshaw to reach the station from her home.
As the bus sped towards the next station, I could not stop but think that maybe women can now commute using the BRT without the fear of being harassed. Maybe its safe, just maybe it will stay that way.
Moreover, the BRT has given Karachiites a glimmer of hope that with the start of this project, the public transport system is on the path of getting a major overhaul.
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