It had been easy to spot her. She sat on the coveted solitary seat of the front row. Her charcoal-black hair was straightened to dull perfection in a way typical of Lahori women - dead straight strands devoid of personality. A stiff organza dupatta loosely slid around her shoulders, draped like an afterthought. A knockoff designer lawn suit paired with a knockoff designer shoulder bag completed this ensemble.

She went from indifferently scrolling through her mobile phone to suddenly turning it off, and then proceeding, with the same degree of compulsion, to dig into her bag, rummage through its contents in loud, exaggerated motions, and eventually push out all sorts of cosmetic items onto her lap with a dramatic flair. Then, she lined them on her lap, hovering her fingers above them, lost in thought, eventually picking up her first choice out of the selection, a BB crème, lightly dabbing it onto her face, followed by a coral-coloured powder blush, after which she took out an eyebrow pencil, and angled her frame to the – moving – bus’s offside mirror.. She did all this, and more, without betraying the slightest hint of embarrassment or reluctance.

There were many points that the bus jolted and twisted, but it didn’t bother her at all – in fact, the sudden lurches in our journey only bolstered her confidence, and hastened her speed. The driver on the right hand, her only companion in that front row, would frequently look across his left and widen his gaze in amazement each time.

I didn’t entirely blame him – I too, had only ever seen OTT scenes like these before on a TV screen – and the woman in front of us surely looked like someone who had walked straight out of a film set and plopped herself in our otherwise boring morning commute out of nowhere. But that was the thing about the bus, you could never be sure what, or who, you would encounter on any given day.


Nearly 13 million people live in Lahore. Much of this 13 million citizenry takes over-enthusiastic pride in the wide, expansive roads, underpasses and signal-free corridors that dot the city; an asphalt jungle erected on the bedrock of “unmitigated urban sprawl” as noted in a 2018 report authored by Maryam Ibrahim and Sana Riaz in The Urban Gazette.

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Population growth, migration trends as well as drastic decrease in population density feed this urban sprawl; a fact observed by Ibrahim and Riaz who revealed that by 2015, Lahore’s urban area had undergone an increase in area from “220 sq. km in 1995 to 665 sq. km in 2015.” They further noted that if current trends continued, the city would double in size by 2040, inflating to a whopping 1320 sq km in area. Another spatio-temporal analysis of Lahore’s urban expansion carried out by academics based in Punjab reported similar findings, revealing that Lahore’s “built-up” area had increased in size by 532.48 sq km between 1973 to 2020.

The writing, as they say, is on the wall: Lahore is, perhaps always had been, on a path of accretion. Slowing it down entails a sustained and systematic approach, one which is beyond the scope of individual capacity and rests on the shoulders of state resources. This is where mass transit comes in.


My brush with Lahore’s public transit network came about in 2021, when I began taking the Speedo bus to commute from my residential society, in the city’s suburb, to the Government College University campus situated in the central part of town. The decision was a utilitarian byproduct of two events: erratic, unpredictable class timings at GCU’s clinical psychology unit, and rising petroleum prices that made commuting from one end of the city to another a nightmare.

In upper middle-class households of a certain respectability, such decisions, when taken, are often accompanied with resignation and wariness. Young women in these situations are handed out a set of rules to follow, an elaborate maze of regulations prescribed to insulate them from intermingling with members of other socioeconomic classes. Edicts such as “refrain from befriending strangers on the bus”, “do not smile at someone you don’t know” and/or “keep to yourself for the most part” are commonly handed out to anxious and docile women like myself, so as to ensure that mores of middle class respectability are honoured.

However, a functional public transit system by virtue of its nature aims to eradicate, or at least minimise the very space, both physical and mental, that exists between different passengers on a bus or train. This was something which I would learn on my own time in the days following my decision to take the Speedo to university.


In 2013, to much fanfare, Lahore welcomed its first Metrobus, a bus rapid transit (BRT) service. Initially destined to be a “Light Rail Transit Line” under the aegis of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), this mass transit service opened its doors in Punjab’s capital city after making a long evolution, starting from the turbulent era of Pakistani politics in the 1990s and culminating in its final shape after an erratic cycle of planning, followed by suspension, repeated over the course of two decades.

It drew appreciation and ire from different factions of the public almost as soon as it opened its doors to the public. Some argued that the 30 billion rupees spent on its construction was too high a burden on the national exchequer. Others resorted to naming it a ‘jangla bus. People like Faraz Khan argued in The Express Tribune that the money spent on the project could’ve been better utilised elsewhere, such as healthcare initiatives. Nevertheless, the BRT became the blueprint, or the first schema of a public transit system that entered the collective cognitive map of Lahore’s dwellers.

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With tickets priced at 20-30 rupees, it also became the cheapest way to travel from one place to another along its designated route. This was no small feat to achieve in a country where only a small number of its inhabitants could afford to own a car—only 6 percent of Pakistanis do. It came as no surprise then, that the voices participating most visibly in the vilification of a public transit network were the ones who would likely never be using it.

Over the years, the mass transit system further added supplementary transport services to increase accessibility to the main Metrobus route in different localities of the city, with the Orange line train project and the feeder bus system being prominent highlights of this network. In this way, the Lahore feeder bus service, known in common parlance as the Speedo bus network, was brought into existence. According to data available on the website of Punjab Mass Transit Authority, the first phase of this service included the introduction of overall 200 buses on several routes in Lahore.

When they were first introduced in 2017-2018, they failed to attract huge ridership owing to a complicated ticketing system; eventually, the service introduced cash transactions to allow for a better user-friendly experience. The buses, red in colour, soon became instantly recognizable mainstays on Lahore’s thoroughfares.

When I first saw them from my car’s windows, I looked at the passengers inside with fleeting interest; tired, nameless faces, standing in a moving vehicle, sometimes brimming to its limit, with exasperated expressions on their face. I would look at them and pay thanks to the Heavens above that I wasn’t one of them.


Housewives going to the Data darbar.

Almost ex-housewives going to courts seeking divorce.

Lawyers going to court to assist that divorce.

Mothers going to Mayo hospital with their sick children in tow.

A fine arts student from NCA or PU with a giant canvas in her lap.

Not a day passed without introducing me to a new woman, a new story I had never heard before. By 2022, this had become one of my favourite things about taking the bus.The longer I used the bus for my commute, the easier it got to small-talk and people watch. Another skill that I’d picked up from my commute was my ability to hog a coveted empty seat on a bus overflowing with passengers. Doing so required letting go of any sense of propriety and assert, in its stead, a degree of dhitayi, or shamelessness. There was no room for ethics when it came to hogging a seat. You had to shamelessly push past people and claim a seat as your own before anyone else could do it.

This competition worked, however, only for people your own age.

One day, an elderly woman walked into the women’s section just as I had managed to find myself an empty seat in an otherwise overflowing compartment. I could see that she was eyeing my position even before she approached me. I knew this because I was the only 20-something in the row of seated women—cultural custom dictated that I cede space for an elderly in public spaces wherever, whenever possible. As she eventually made her way to my side, I prepared myself to give up my seat. Then something odd happened; the woman stopped a few steps before me, unable to form the request that I’d already been preparing myself for. I could see that the words were on the tip of her tongue, and yet, somehow, she couldn’t get them out.

As I silently got up on my own to offer her my space,, I wondered why she had hesitated. Then I saw the polythene bag she had carried along with her.

Inside the bag was a jharoo (cane broom) and spandex gloves. She must have been a cleaning lady working in the residential colony nearby – a colony not so far away from my own housing society. She had been reluctant to ask me to get up because the househelp never asks the employer class to give up space.

How odd, too, that I unquestioningly gave up my seat for a woman I would never stand up for in any other setting. It was then that it occurred to me, the strange, subversive nature of public transport. I did not know of any other public space in Pakistan where members of different classes could interact with one another without an unequal transactional relationship dictating the rules of that interaction – a space where constraints of class could, at least temporarily, cease to hold the weight which they did in the world outside of it.


In the weeks and months that followed, I began wondering if a safe public transit option was as important for women as a room of one’s own. Each time I was on my way to university I thought of this, especially on days when it rained a certain way which made romanticising mass transit easier than usual.

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This romanticisation was fed life by my growing confidence in the ways I accessed the city. Ever since becoming a regular commuter, I became mesmerised by the boons mobility offered: camaraderie with fellow women passengers, detours to Anarkali bazar with acquaintances from uni, multiple visits to the Lahore Museum on my own – confident in my knowledge that when the time came to go home, there was a bus available to take me there.

This changed my relationship with the city. No longer was I a passive onlooker whosaw it from the window of my car. Instead, I was smack in the middle of its dirt and grime, walking along its footpaths in peak summer, interacting with its landmarks and cultural markers in a way that allowed me the confidence to assert my space in the city; a position only made possible through greater mobility. Mobility lent me the perspective with which I could see, for the first time in my life, that the Lahore one accessed through a privately owned car and the Lahore one experienced on foot were two separate spatial entities.


My graduate studies came to an end by 2023; it marked a gradual phasing out of the Speedo bus from my life.

It was also the year when smog, traffic congestion, and skyrocketing fares charged by car-hailing services became an increasingly omnipresent reality in an average Lahori’s life. Lahore regularly topped the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world. Vehicular emissions from privately owned cars were repeatedly found to be one of the largest contributors to this menace. Reports, think pieces and thread abounded on Twitter, linking the unchecked mushrooming of flyovers and underpasses in the city with worsening air quality. Urban enthusiasts and environmental activists repeatedly made calls to improve and advance the pre-existing public transit structures present in the city to tackle the issue.

No one in charge seemed to care.

Instead, under Mohsin Naqvi, the then caretaker CM Punjab, nearly Rs 150 billion was spent on road-related projects across the Punjab, with Lahore being its primary beneficiary. One such initiative was the Kalma chowk expansion project; costing the government approximately Rs 5 billion, it was yet another signal-free project aiming to offer owners of privately-owned vehicles a seamless drive all the way from Barkat Market in Garden Town to Cavalry via Kalma Chowk, Centre Point and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar underpasses and Barkat Market to Mozang and Cantt via Kalma Chowk Underpass.

If data available on the City Traffic Police website is to be believed, there are approximately 6.2 million cars present in Lahore. Much of these are owned by individuals clustered along the city’s peripheries, in upscale housing societies; a fact confirmed in the report compiled by Ibrahim and Riaz. Another report compiled by PIDE suggests that a bulk of these cars, owned by people living in DHA, Askari, and Bahria Town, exceed 2.1 cars per household.

Thus, the Kalma chowk expansion project spent a whopping Rs 5 billion to cater to a group of individuals all clustered along the outskirts of upscale Lahore. The project wrapped up and opened for business by the mid of 2023. It became the only thing everyone seemed to talk about for a good several weeks wherever I went. At a friends’ get together, I found myself holding myself back multiple times whenever I heard someone bring it up in conversation, praising how it decreased their travel time by half. At another dinner party, family friends continued to praise CM Naqvi for his “sense of duty to the people of his hometown.” When I wondered aloud why this sense of duty hadn't been extended to the other half of the city’s inhabitants who actually lived inside its boundaries, I was met with an awkward silence.

The Lahori dream, it seemed, was to push its disadvantaged communities at the back of one’s mind, into an oblivion so deep that it would need years of psychotherapy to bring it to conscious memory.


Elections held on 8th February 2024 usher in a new era of politics in Pakistan.

Punjab, in particular, is abuzz with reports of the incumbent government looking to spearhead multiple projects aimed at gaining lost confidence in the masses after a controversial win in the elections. MPA Sadia Taimoor submits a resolution in the Punjab Assembly secretariat, demanding the restarting of the Pink Bike Programme” for working women in Punjab. There are also reports suggesting that Maryam Nawaz, current CM Punjab, has given a go-ahead for the execution of two major transport projects, including 20,000 electric bikes and 657 eco-friendly urban buses. A school bus project for girl students in every tehsil of Punjab has also been reported. There are talks of resumption of the Green Line and Purple Line projects.

I read all of this with a pinch of salt - whether or not the new government succeeds at incorporating these elements of public transit in Punjab’s pre-existing tapestry of transportation system is something that only time can tell.

In the meantime, Twitter updates from Lahore Development Authority’s (LDA) official account suggest that, for the time being, things are the same as they always have been. Work on the “ Controlled Access Corridor” - another name for a signal free corridor running on Bund Road, continues. According to Dawn, the corridor cost the government of Punjab Rs 10.8 billion.

LDA’s twitter account cushions reporting of this corridor with another reporting on a plantation drive, congratulating everyone, but mostly itself, on the successful plantation of more than 200,000 plants in a bid to curb air pollution.”

One day, as I make my way home after meeting friends, in an upscale part of the city where roads do not have dedicated bus lanes, I briefly come across a group of women and children standing on a patch of green belt, trying their hardest to cross a merciless signal-free corridor. It is a recurring figure on the Lahori street—a woman trying to time her lurch onto the coming cars in a way that enables her a safe crossing to the other side. There are millions of women in our country for whom crossing a street can mean death. If I had met the same woman on the Speedo, I might have given up my seat for her.

Rutaba Tanvir is a psychologist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in The News on Sunday. She is also an alumnus of the esteemed Lums Young Writers Workshop 2023.

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