When Pakistan's second largest city, Lahore, inaugurated its new rapid bus transit system in February with free service to the city's transit-starved 10 million residents, the idea backfired.
Several generations of Lahori families packed the red 18-metre-long articulated buses and kept riding – over and over again, along the 27-kilometre dedicated corridor that carries passengers from the sprawling suburbs of new Lahore through the layers of the city's history from the British Raj to Mogul rule.
The joy riders left thousands of commuters looking to get to work stranded on platforms and fuming. But the project is a crown jewel for the Sharif brothers, who are aiming to win historic national elections on May 11 with a promise to restore robust economic growth in Pakistan.
The Sharif brothers, conservative, wealthy industrialists-turned-politicians who are critical of Pakistan's role in the war on terror and call for negotiations with the Pakistan Taliban, are plotting huge wins at the provincial and national level.
There is the younger Shahbaz Sharif, who, as chief minister of Punjab, made sure that the $305-million Lahore bus service was completed in time to bolster his brother's bid to become prime minister for a third time. "He's a pusher," said Ozair Shah, general manager of Lahore's Metrobus. "He's in a hurry to do everything. He makes it a point to say: 'I'm not sleeping, so how come you are?' So that pumps people."
Nawaz Sharif, the second brother, was prime minister until he was ousted in a coup in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf and sent into exile along with his brother. Campaign ads airing across the country feature images of the Lahore Metrobus and Shahbaz Sharif. The message is that Lahoris have benefited from a mass transit system and so can people in other cities across Pakistan.
For the Sharif brothers, the political odds of winning control of the Punjab provincial government and possibly forming the national government are looking good. Of the 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly, 148 are in the province of Punjab.
"I think they are going to win Punjab. There is no doubt in my mind. The next five years are going to be really defining. Punjab's economy will take off and it will put tremendous pressure [on the other provinces]," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Pakistan is seen by many citizens as well as outside observers as descending into chaos as it struggles to defeat an insurgency in its tribal areas and end a wave of targeted killings in its largest city, Karachi. But the Lahore mass transit project is a rare example of turning back years of neglect and trying to bring order, at the very least, to the mayhem on one city's roads.
After two lost decades and opportunities to collaborate with various partners – the Japanese, the Chinese and the Asian Development Bank – the government of Punjab, the most populous and wealthiest province, was able to deliver the transit system in 11 months thanks to Turkish expertise and planning, as well as a lot of political incentive.
Lahoris continue to pack the Turkish-operated bus service. A ticket is only 20 rupees, or about 20 cents. And it is the first-ever mass public transit project in a country where millions of people who cannot afford a car or motorcycle must endure lengthy daily commutes in the heat in a private network of decades-old fume-spewing buses, rickshaws, minivans and often on foot in order to get to work and back home.
"We have changed the way people think about travelling," said Mr. Shah, a U.S.-educated and trained transport engineer in charge of the bus system. "A journey that took about 100 minutes now can be done in 62 minutes in an air-conditioned bus, very comfortably."
The system was built for 40,000 riders, but has attracted 125,000 riders a day, Mr. Shah added.
It is that poorly planned leap that could cause problems for the Metrobus, says Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Lahore-based environmental lawyer and expert on urban infrastructure.
The difference between the expected ridership and the actual daily commuter numbers is a "serious miscalculation," he said, adding that "[the system] can't be scaled up any more" and that the next five years would test whether the Metrobus could cope with the expected growth in riders.
But in order to get to a bus station, many Lahoris still need to use a rickshaw, minivan or walk. Integrating the older city bus service with the Metrobus line is still a work in progress, Mr. Shah said. "I never claimed that I solved all the problems of Lahore, but I've made a dent. I think I've made a big dent," he said.