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Karachi’s public transport on the verge of collapse: report

Updated January 23, 2015

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ONE of the numerous overloaded buses running on the city roads on Thursday.—Tahir Jamal / White Star
ONE of the numerous overloaded buses running on the city roads on Thursday.—Tahir Jamal / White Star
Figure-2: Tramway routes
Figure-2: Tramway routes

KARACHI: The public transport sector of the country’s largest city is on the verge of collapse owing to a history of failure, negligence, inefficiency and lack of follow-through in both government and public-private partnership projects, says a report.

The report, titled ‘Karachi: the transport crisis’, has been compiled by renowned city planner and architect Arif Hasan with Mansoor Raza and staff at the Urban Resource Centre. It is being released to the public on Friday.

The 32-page report, which draws on almost 200 interviews with government officials, transporters’ representatives and members of the public, paints a bleak picture of the current scene, with transporters crippled by high fuel costs and limited government support, and the public caught between rising prices and a simply inadequate number of available options.

Karachi, a city of an estimated 22 million people, currently has roughly 9,527 operational minibuses, as compared to the 22,313 it had in 2011, according to the report. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) says an additional 8,676 large buses are required to fill the shortfall.

Figure-1
Figure-1

Moreover, of the city’s 329 official bus routes, only 111 are currently being operated, while the others have been abandoned because “they are not considered lucrative by the transporters”.

Irshad Bukhari, the president of the Karachi Transport Ittehad (KTI), says that transporters are being forced to either move to different cities or quit the business altogether.

“[Karachi’s bus owners are leaving the business] because there is no income, and the stress is very high, with maintenance costs, and with no protection from the government, no regulations, and no fuel available,” he told this reporter.

Those operating buses are facing pressures from several simultaneous directions, the report explains, with bus operators in a position where they have to pay route owners, money lenders, police officers on their route, as well as rising fuel costs.

Moreover, those seeking to enter the market are forced to go through money lenders, the report says, as regular banks do not offer loans to them for fear of default.

Mr Hasan contends that the private sector, while not perfect in meeting the needs of consumers — particularly in terms of road safety, customer service and providing exhaustive route coverage — does still operate in a more effective manner than it is assumed to.

“It is generally considered that the informally financed transport sector in Karachi is anarchic and disorganised,” the report says. “However, the drivers have a strict timetable and regulations for it to be implemented, fixed locations for parking their vehicles, and an organised regime which determines the relationship between the different actors in the transport drama and with the police.”

The main contention of the report appears to be that the private sector has been left entirely on its own, operating in a largely unregulated and unmanaged environment, with very little government oversight or support.

A history of failure

The lack of support, the report explains, appears to be the result of a long and storied series of debacles every time the government has attempted to meet Karachi’s growing public transport needs.

Starting with the Karachi Improvement Trust (KIT) in 1950, Mr Hasan provides a detailed history of nine successive government-sponsored bus initiatives in the public transport sector, all of which eventually collapsed due to mismanagement, inefficiency or a lack of follow-through on promises made to private partners.

While several of the initiatives were initially successful, most collapsed under financial strain, the report says. These failures include, but are not limited to: the KIT (1950-57); Karachi Transport Syndicate (1957-58); Karachi Road Transport Corporation (1959-67); Sindh Road Transport Corporation (1967-77); and the Karachi Transport Corporation (1977-96).

FIgure - 3: Karachi's Expansion and the Circular Railway - ECIL
FIgure - 3: Karachi's Expansion and the Circular Railway - ECIL

It was the collapse of the KTC in 1996, when it was making losses of Rs10 million a month, which caused the government to change tack.

“The most important repercussion of the failure of the KTC was the change that took place in the thinking of government and transport related professionals,” the report says. “They came to believe that only the private sector can manage transport.”

From 1996 onwards, the government has undertaken several initiatives in partnership with the private sector, including the Karachi Public Transport Society (KPTS), the Urban Transport Scheme (UTS) and the CNG bus project (2007). By 2007, the government had so badly failed in following through on promises made to private sector investors during the KPTS and UTS that it was forced to self-finance a ‘pilot project’ of 75 CNG buses as no investors were willing to join hands with them.

As of 2009, those 75 buses were also no longer on the roads, and officials say it would take a subsidy of Rs2.729 million a month to bring them back.

CNG collapse

Another major reason for the concerns of private sector investors has been the rising cost of compressed natural gas (CNG), now available only four days a week in the province.

CNG buses account for 70 per cent of all public transport in Karachi, the report says, and on days when it is not available, most of them are not found on the roads. Moreover, banning the use of CNG would necessitate the import of roughly 2.3 billion additional litres of petrol and diesel.

Transporters say the government’s focus on converting vehicles to CNG during the 2000s is a major reason for the current crisis.

“We do not have CNG, we do not have petrol, we do not have diesel but vehicles from all over the world are being inducted in the city and are being registered on CNG. You do not invite 20 guests when you have food only for five,” Mehmood Afridi, the president of the Muslim Minibus and Coach Owners’ Association, is quoted as saying in the report.

The gap between demand and supply in the transport market is being met in one of several ways. Karachi has seen the introduction of about 50,000 Qingqi carriers –– a motorcycle carrying a six-seater cabin –– in recent years. There are also about 60,000 CNG rickshaws running on the city’s roads. Finally, those who can afford it have invested in motorcycles: in 1990, there were 450,000 motorcycles registered in the city, and by 2013 that number had jumped to 1.65 million.

Moreover, the lack of transport options is also altering “the form of the city”, Arif Hasan explains.

“It is becoming cheaper and more comfortable for the poor to rent within the city’s low income settlements than to live on the periphery [due to limited transport options].”

The report recommends that the Karachi Transportation Improvement Project (2010), a proposal prepared with support from the Japanese government, should be implemented, with particular care paid to meeting costs through subsidies and progressive taxes on luxury car owners.

The KTIP proposal would see the Karachi Circular Railway revived, with additional spurs added, catering to 700,000 people daily. It would also see the construction of six Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes, one of which (BRT-2) is already under way.

Figure-4
Figure-4

Finally, the report says that “institutional issues” of various government transport departments having no co-ordination must also be addressed to implement a unified city-wide transport plan.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2015

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