In concept, the Lahore Mass Transit System had everyone excited. Although prematurely, many Lahoris felt that it would be something along the lines of a proper tramway network that could later be extended to reach into various parts of the city. But with all these high expectations, the launch of the Lahore “Metro Bus” project was a little disappointing.

What our Chief Minister essentially did was to carve up half the city to build out a piece of road on which a bus could run uninterrupted. Something similar could also have been achieved with stricter traffic rules and a separate bus lane.

Also, the Turkish mass transit that the system was meant to emulate is a tram that runs on a specific track, not an ordinary red bus driven on the road. Engineers would better be able to comment on this, but, perhaps, the feasibility reports for such a project would not be rosy.

In all likelihood, the “mass transit” project was a tramway project that later switched to a bus system in the light of political expediency. This is reminiscent of the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway, which was completed with fewer lanes, but which won everyone’s hearts because no politician can bank a highway. That is obviously true; politicians cannot pack up roads and take them away at the end of a term. But voters need to think more strategically: the question is not whether laptops, or roads, or public transport systems are fungible, but whether they are even needed.

Two years of teaching Public Economics had me harping on that the choice of public goods depends on the social welfare function. In other words, politicians decide what to invest in based on which project yields the greatest increase in social welfare. Or, on what citizens need the most. In an energy deprived province, with the overwhelming shortage of both electricity and gas, that should not be hard to figure. But who will notice money channelled into research initiatives for creative energy solutions, or in building better transmission networks, particularly when such projects take years to mature?

The world of the social welfare function is, therefore, only confined to textbooks. We, as voters, need a more refined analytical lens. Leaders are not trying to maximise social efficiency, but are more interested in maximising political efficiency. With re-election the main objective, politicians only want to invest in projects that will maximise their votes. Such projects are obviously those that the public will be most likely to immediately observe and to remember. And what could beat a bright red air-conditioned bus and first-time escalator rides?

I would not be very surprised if Shahbaz Sharif climbs up the ranks because of the Metro Bus project. But after five despairing years of democracy, it is important to understand the politicians’ strategic actions, rather than play right into their hands. The bus is something that will likely change the commuting life of many people directly. It is also something that Lahoris will see on the road every day as a shiny, ever-present reminder of something new, meant to be interpreted as a sign of progress delivered.

At the same time, although the bus is important, it is not as important as other aspects of Lahori life. It is not a substitute for 18 hours of loadshedding in the summers. It will not make work any more profitable for most Lahoris forced to work their way around electricity hours. It will not be a respite from irregular bouts of violence, or unemployment or heat. Yes, it may make CNG waiting lines smaller. It may also, if only to an extent, reduce traffic on the roads. It will, indeed, improve social welfare, but it is not the most efficient way to do so, nor will it lead to the greatest improvement.

The PML-N, or Shahbaz Sharif, cannot take the bus home. But they can get re-elected into government. I am not saying they shouldn’t be, but just that we shouldn’t let our votes be overshadowed by a new bus. Strategic politicians need to be countered with strategic, informed voters. Take the Metro Bus/Mass Transit for what it is, and not more.

That is all.

The writer holds a Master’s in Economics for Development from Oxford University, and is reading for a PhD in Politics at NYU. Email: ssi226@nyu.edu