ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — For hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, the miserable, sweaty, cramped commute is coming to an end.
Pakistan, one of the world’s fastest-growing countries, has long lacked an efficient public transportation system. Instead, Pakistan’s 180 million residents have jammed onto unreliable buses and vans prone to breakdowns and grisly traffic accidents.
The haphazard transportation system — which sometimes involves passengers riding on the roofs of buses or sitting on top of each other in taxis or passenger vans — has been the butt of jokes here and abroad. But now, in two of Pakistan’s largest cities, residents are enjoying new mass transit options that even commuters in Western nations might envy.
Rapid-bus systems that together cost $700 million are running in Lahore and the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital. In both metropolitan areas, more than five dozen air-conditioned buses circulate in dedicated lanes that use new bridges and tunnels to avoid traffic lights. Commuters wait no more than three minutes for a bus, reducing overcrowding while slashing average commute times by half. And at about 20 cents a ride, the heavily subsidized systems are accessible even to the poor.
Riders “feel respected, they feel more at home, and they can commute with dignity,” said Sibtain Fazal-i-Haleem, chief executive of the Punjab Metro Bus Authority, which manages both bus systems. “It’s a step toward modernization, it’s a step toward development, and it’s an improvement we should have done much earlier.”
The new systems are political and financial bets by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province. Both have staked their reputations on pledges to quickly deliver expensive new development projects such as highways, airport terminals and power plants. And both have faced criticism for dedicating big money to buses in a struggling economy where basic services remain dismal.
In 2013, Shahbaz Sharif’s provincial government spent $300 million to open the 17-mile Lahore bus route. Ridership has grown to about 140,000 passengers daily, officials said. Last year, the two brothers pooled provincial and federal money to construct the 14-mile, $400 million Islamabad-Rawalpindi route.
Using a 24-hour labor force, it was built with Dubai-like speed, opening last week after just 13 months of construction. The route includes 24 stations between working-class Rawalpindi and the wealthier capital, where most well-paying jobs and government agencies are located.
Within hours of its launch, residents flooded into the stations. Now, in a country where the average income is just $1,513 per year, the new service is offering a window into how transformational mass transit can be for the poor and middle classes.
The buses feature rechargeable fare cards, screens that show their current location, recorded messages announcing next stops and a cooling system that showers passengers with a final burst of chilled air before they disembark into the hot Pakistani summer.
After just a few trips on the Islamabad service, Asif Naeem, 31, said his “mind is now at mental ease” when he travels.
The salesman previously hailed two passenger vans for his commute from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, which he described as a “painful” 90-minute journey. The new bus has cut it to 40 minutes.
“This metro bus has changed my life,” Naeem said recently as he left the Islamabad bus station. “It’s very spacious, and besides, there is air conditioner, which before, a poor man like me could never even think about.”
Still, Pakistan’s investment in rapid-transit bus service has been controversial.
Several leading political parties have argued that the money could have been better spent on education, health care or social services. Ali Muhammad Khan, a lawmaker from the Movement for Justice Party, likened it to a father buying a new car when his child doesn’t have a pen for schoolwork.
“Shouldn’t the government have asked the people whether they need schools, colleges and hospitals or the metro bus project?” Khan asked.
Other political leaders have argued the projects are another sign that Sharif, the prime minister, favors his political base of Punjab — Pakistan’s most populous province, of which Lahore is the capital.
They note that the rapidly growing city of Karachi, home to an estimated 22 million people, still lacks a major public transportation system. Lahore’s population has been estimated at between 6 million and 10 million residents, while the combined population of Islamabad and Rawalpindi is about 3.5 million.
Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s minister of planning, said the federal government plans to launch rapid-bus transit in Karachi in the coming years. But he faulted previous national governments and local Karachi leaders for not doing more to address the city’s growing pains.
“We don’t want the mistakes of Karachi repeated in other urban centers of Pakistan,” he said.
Iqbal said the new systems are already “changing the whole psychology of people.”
Even something as simple as standing in line for a fare card or boarding a bus in an orderly manner, he said, may be new for some Pakistanis.
“This will give them new behaviors, civic lessons and culture,” said Iqbal, who compared it to Sharif’s decision to construct a new highway between Islamabad and Lahore in the early 1990s, during a previous term as prime minister. “When that new motorway started, suddenly people were driving just the same as they would be in Europe and America, following all the rules.”
The start of a more formalized mass transit system could prove especially beneficial to women, analysts said. In a 2014 study for the Asian Development Bank, researcher Iffat Ara concluded that Pakistani women were often harassed by men on crowded buses and that women were being driven from the workplace because of a lack of suitable public transportation options.
Now, at least in Lahore and Islamabad, women and men appear to be happily sharing spaces on the new buses.
Misbah Arif, a doctor at Benazir Bhutto Hospital in Rawalpindi, said the new bus system means she will no longer be chronically late for work.
“Before, there were no proper stops, so sometimes it was fine, but most times you were late,” Arif said.
In Lahore, the red buses run down the middle of a major boulevard and stop at several hospitals as well as Gaddafi Stadium, the cricket ground that bears the name of the late Libyan dictator.
Sardar Muhammad, 85, emerged from one station carrying a shepherd’s stick.
“I never imagined I would see such facilities in my life,” said Muhammad, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of Lahore. He said he recently learned how to use the system for trips into town. “Traveling earlier was very slow, like using a donkey cart.”
Despite all the glowing reviews, questions remain about whether Pakistan’s chronically cash-strapped governments will be able to maintain the subsidized service.
But Kaiser Bengali, a prominent Pakistani economist, said the cost of the system should also factor in what he expects will be heightened productivity from the workforce.
“They used to have to spend an hour and a half, two hours getting to their office in crowded buses, hanging out of buses,” Bengali said. “By the time they reached their office, their mood was as crumpled as their clothes.”
Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.