Karachi’s Mega Transport Mess

By: Editorial Team
Published: August 1, 2017
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Arif Hasan is one of Pakistan’s leading architects and urban planners. He is a recipient of the prestigious civil award, Hilal-i-Imtiaz. Following are extracts of Hasan’s detailed conversation with Narratives on the protracted public transport and traffic problems of Karachi

A troubled history

When Pakistan came into being, Karachi had an estimated population of 450,000. There was a network of trams and some 15 buses, which were more than enough for the city. The tramway was laid in such a way that you were never more than two kilometres away from it. It was the lifeline of Karachi – all the way from Keamari, right down to M.A. Jinnah Road, branching into two roads with one that went to Saddar, and from Saddar to Cantonment Station, while the other went to Soldier Bazaar. So, Karachi was very well served.

A formal road-infrastructure plan for Karachi was devised for the first time in 1918, where locations for city centre, institutional buildings, educational areas and residential areas were allocated.

But 1947 changed all this as the population more than doubled in a period of just two to three months. (After the partition of the sub-continent) . . . at least 600,000 more (people) migrated to the city from India . . . though many Hindus also migrated from the city, but they did so gradually.

The government at that time started a public-sector transport service, which ran well. But when it was realised that more needed to be done, it went into a public-private partnership, resulting in the formation of Karachi Road Transport Corporation (KRTC) which had nice, big comfortable buses. Unfortunately, the KRTC had to be wound up in 1997 as it was running at a colossal loss, and also because during riots in the city, a great many of those buses had been set ablaze. Also, the subsidy the KRTC was supposed to receive was not released, adding up the losses over the years.

The pressure on transport was felt acutely during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto era, which paved the way for a free-transport policy. As per policy, anybody could buy a route permit and that’s how mini-buses appeared on the scene in Karachi. But it was only after the winding up of the KRTC, that the mini bus really took over. There was no pressure on the government for subsidy, and it was a win-win situation for all, so things functioned.

Swift rise, swifter fall

In 1962, the circular railway began its operations in the city, not as a mass-transit function but for carrying goods between various commercial areas of Karachi, and linked with the railway.

It was then expanded to ferry passengers and it turned out to be highly successful. But it was not looked after. With the passage of time, operating costs increased even as the mini bus, linked with most areas of Karachi, emerged as the first-choice for the commuters.

In 2004, the number of motorcycles were between 400,000 to 450,000, which today is more than two million

Circular railway had a fixed route; it did not have a wide reach, only catering to the people around its ambit. Even then, commuters had to walk long distances or take a bus all over again to reach their destinations.

With the expansion of the city, the circular railway served less and less people. Hence, the mini bus took over: it was faster, and cost the same as the railway. The circular railway could have been linked to the new suburbs of the city, but was not. It cost more, had not been upgraded, the network not expanded, corruption was massive; it soon became redundant and collapsed. So the main systems that were developed for public transport collapsed.

If we analyse the KRTC project, it was very ambitious. It included a training institute where drivers, conductors and managers received training. It was also linked to the automobile industry for servicing and repair of the buses, making it a quite comprehensive package but the state did not look after it and contributed to its failure, which led to the mini bus becoming the king.

Broken promises

Problems began to surface when, following a Supreme Court order in 2005, all public transport was asked to convert to CNG (Compressed Natural Gas). So, a very large number of mini buses converted to CNG, and they spent a lot of money in that conversion.

As a result, there was an acute shortage of CNG which no one had foreseen – neither the Supreme Court nor anybody else. The CNG shortage forced the buses into not operating for many days a week. They were left in a fix as they could not convert back to diesel, and it was not possible as they would have required further investment of up to Rs. 200,000 on a single bus. This led to a reduction in the number of buses. From 25,000 buses, they were reduced to about 9,000 by 2012, turning it into a big crisis which exists to this date.

Photo: Getty

To counter it, the government started Green Bus and CNG bus services but none of the projects succeeded as the promises made to the transporters were not fulfilled. They were promised subsidy to meet Operations and Maintenance (O&M) expenses as the ticket was originally costing Rs. 45, but it was not provided.

The government also promised them exclusive routes, which were with the private operators before, but that too turned out to be just talk and no action. They were left to compete with the private operators, which they could not do as private operators had cheap buses, with no loans on them. On the other hand, Green and CNG buses’ operators had loans on them, which they had to return. At one point, Green and CNG bus operators just abandoned their buses, saying ‘we are not paying the loans to the banks and here are your buses, you can keep them.’

To fill this gap, the private sector moved in with the introduction of Qingqi rickshaws. The private sector was able to invest in about 45,000 to 50,000 Qingqis, which became the backbone of Karachi’s transport. But Qingqis were also banned by the courts, and as a result at least 300,000 seats per day were removed from Karachi’s transport sector, creating even worse problems.

With Qingqis off the roads, there was an increase in the numbers of rickshaws. But the services which Qingqis could have offered at very low cost, rickshaws could not have provided. Moving forward, ride-hailing online services, such as Uber and Careem, marked their entry into the city’s transport sector, becoming popular among the middle and lower middle classes. This sudden shift in preference of commuters adversely affected the rickshaws as commuters found travelling through Uber or Careem as cheap as rickshaws and much more comfortable, reliable and safe.

More and more vehicles

There are several aspects to Karachi’s traffic woes, one being the increase in the number of cars on the roads. In the last year alone, at least 900 vehicles were registered daily. Second, the motorcycle has emerged as a cheaper and more flexible means of transport than any other. Hence, there was an extraordinary increase in its numbers as well. In 2004, the number of motorcycles were between 400,000 to 450,000, which today is more than two million.

Even if all the five BRTS projects are completed, it would still serve only seven percent of the total commuting population

The private sector also has a role as it funds the sector massively and makes it easy for a common man to own a motorcycle through loans and easy installments. Owning a motorcycle is a life-changing experience for many as it makes commuting easy and cheaper. But there is a downside to it as well. The rate of accidents of motorcycles is the highest in the city, and this rate is increasing with the increase in the numbers of motorcycles.

This is not to imply that only Karachi suffers from such problems. The story is the same for almost any megacity in the world, be it Mumbai, New Delhi or Bangkok. Take New Delhi for example, year before last, more than 1,400 vehicles were registered every day; and in Bangkok, more than 1,750 vehicles were registered on a daily basis. These cities also face traffic problems, but they have a public transport system, which we lack.

Problems with the BRTS

The government’s BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) for Karachi, which is in the process of completion, is too expensive – both in terms of operation and infrastructure, and also maintenance. As per my calculations, I think the ticket of this Green Line BRTS would not be less than Rs. 100. If they would want low fares then they will have to give subsidy, because the project’s operational cost is too high.

Even if all the five BRTS projects are completed, it would still serve only seven percent of the total commuting population. The rest of the population would still be going to travel on the existing buses. The BRTS established the world over is designed in such a way that other routes can feed into it. So, it is not an exclusive route like we have. In this way, not only does it improve their business, but also provides better transport to the public. But this can only happen if the BRTS is at-grade; if the BRTS is elevated then you cannot feed into it.

Our Green Line BRTS is mostly elevated, and nobody can feed into it. However, the Red Line BRTS is planned to be at-grade. The problem with this entire BRTS project is that it is very expensive, and it will require major subsidy to run its operations effectively. This is surely going to improve the transport services, and will, to an extent, definitely provide relief to the public, but it is going to resolve only a small part of the problem.

The way forward

The real solution to Karachi’s traffic problem would be to introduce at least 2,000 big buses, and establish exclusive lanes on the city’s 13 main arteries, segregating it physically and operate them as normal buses. This will be cheaper, will require lesser investment, and will have a much larger outreach.

The authorities need to decide on a suitable bus for Karachi, and ensure that everybody buys it – whether it is an independent operator or a company. There is also a need to establish an institute for the training of drivers, conductors and managers.

The real solution to Karachi’s traffic problem would be to introduce at least 2,000 big buses, and establish exclusive lanes on the city’s 13 main arteries

Only those who are trained should be allowed to run these buses and there should be a monitoring system in place to oversee it. Along with this, there will be a need of bus depots, workshops and terminals. I believe this is the real solution to resolve Karachi’s transport-related problems, to make it affordable, to lower investment costs and to have a larger expanse than just the BRTS.

Whether this happens or not, we do not know; but to make it a reality, there will be a need to create an institution first as those established before have collapsed and are non-existent.

Looking at the state of traffic, the concept of building fast roads is not really the way to go about it. Fast roads are only beneficial during non-rush hours, where one could move fast through the city. But in rush hour, it increases your problems. This is the reason that the city’s entry and exit points are mostly choked. The solution to this would be that traffic be stopped at different points through signals, synchronised traffic lights, so that the flow of traffic could be controlled.

There is a concept of ring road, where transversal roads are linked; it helps ease the movement of traffic, because commuters could go through ring road rather than moving through the city. Ring road has been proposed for Karachi many times, but has never been worked upon. I think now is the time to seriously consider it.

Karachi needs a system

Apart from these fundamental problems, a massive awareness programme should be launched to make people follow rules and regulations. Many countries have run such programmes successfully. In most of South Asia, there is complete anarchy on the roads, except for the places heavily controlled.

However, in South East Asia, where there are similar problems, the people’s response is entirely different: they are more civilised as there is better education and they are taught about traffic rules and regulations in schools.

What’s happening in Karachi is all about managing anarchy, and not working towards establishing a system. Local government could do a great deal in improving the system, but then there is no active local government here.

Even when a powerful local government was in charge, it did not look for solutions and instead continued making fast roads. To resolve a problem, there is a need to diagnose it first. We do not see a solution to Karachi’s problems on any official document. How can we talk about solutions when we don’t know what the correct diagnoses are?

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Editorial Team
The Editorial team of Bol Narratives