IN the name of development, Pakistani cities are experiencing a surgical transformation in the urban landscape. After the completion and launch of the first section of the Lahore Bus Rapid Transit (popularly called jangla bus by ordinary folk for its dedicated right of way), swift initiatives are under way to launch similar projects in other cities.
Karachi is all set to ‘benefit’ from this so-called universal recipe addressing the transport and commuting challenges faced by the city’s over 20 million residents.
Before we review the pros and cons of what is called the Karachi Mass Transit Master Plan (KMTMP) 2030, it would be appropriate to examine the present situation. Ever since the closing down of the Karachi Transport Corporation and Karachi Circular Railway in 1996 and 1999 respectively, there has been no focused effort to facilitate the increasing commuters in this sprawling metropolis.
Complex problems can be resolved through a combination of simple solutions.
As per a report by a senior Karachi police official a few months ago, the number of operating buses, minibuses and coaches on intra-city routes is in the vicinity of 8,000 — a ridiculously low figure when compared to the conservative tally of the 24.2 million work trips per day.
Qingqis and larger editions of CNG rickshaws provided some relief until they were ordered to suspend operations for safety reasons. Frustrated by the inaction on the part of authorities, ordinary people of the city resort to two-wheelers. Whereas the city has over 1.8 million motorbikes — as concluded by a study — it is not considered the best transport solution.
Public-sector input and investment in the transport sector has mainly focused on congestion-relief projects including grade-separated flyovers, underpasses and signal-free corridors. But without any addition to the public buses and minibuses, these roads became totally congested, dominated by private cars that increased at the phenomenal rate of over 600 per day. Billions of rupees have been spent in public-funded projects without commensurate benefit to the citizens.
The Lyari Expressway, a poorly designed and inappropriately executed scheme, alone has accounted for around Rs13 billion without any comparable advantage to the city. Traffic jams, incidences of road rage due to ineffective traffic management and callous driving attitudes have resulted in fatal accidents, loss of resource and the commuter’s time. An increase in psychological disorders among road users and passersby has been observed.
Keeping alive its tradition of coming up with high-spending grandiose schemes, the combine of the federal and provincial governments, donors including the Asian Development Bank, and a well-known realtor of the country have joined hands to have a Bus Rapid Transit plan for Karachi. Ninety-two kilometres of six BRT corridors, 43km of revitalised KCR and 41km of rail-based rapid transit on three corridors constitute the core hardware to be delivered through this plan. The estimated cost of this mega venture is around Rs160bn.
The plan would require enormous adjustments in existing services and land use. For example, small- to medium-scale evictions of settlements, businesses and structures of multiple categories would be needed to ensure right of way. In many cases, the existing flyovers, road shoulder spaces and green belts will be destroyed, partially or completely, by the passage for the BRT corridor.
Shahrah-i-Shershah Suri, the central road in North Nazimabad with a spacious green belt, would be reduced to a fraction of its width. The issue of the resulting traffic congestion on existing roads, integration of multiple BRT lines under multiple sponsors, the linkage of existing modes of transport, the challenge of jurisdictional coordination and cost recovery of this colossal investment, fare levels and the cost burden on commuters, emerging land use issues and the urban management response are important matters that should be studied and resolved, before any step is taken to implement the plan.
A capable and reasonably independent management authority is also needed to manage this complex service with multiple owners, investors and stakeholders. Disappointingly, the Sindh Mass Transit Authority, created for this task, is evolving at a slow pace.
From the citizen’s perspective, the questions related to commuting options are very different. Many of them have not been addressed through the KMTMP 2030. Scores of studies by independent researchers have shown that there are many measures that must be taken.
These include: affordable fare levels; the segregation of fast-moving through traffic from neighbourhood-bound local traffic; adequate spaces for pedestrian movement; suitable local roads for internal connectivity and bicycles; regulation of freight traffic and large vehicles; an increase in the number of buses; the allocation and creation of car and motorbike parking spaces; integration of non-motorised transport; regular repairs and carpeting of roads; proper illumination of streets; maintenance of bus stops; and ensuring an improvement in driving attitudes.
In other words, several short- and medium-term actions are needed without delay.
Complex problems can be resolved through a combination of simple solutions. KCR can be revived by starting a train service in the morning and evening peak hours by operating some half a dozen trains between Pipri and City Station on the existing tracks. This service will be able to attract city-bound passengers from Gulshan-i-Hadeed, Steel Town, Landhi, Malir, Korangi and Shah Faisal Colony.
If aligned with local minibus and CNG rickshaw routes, this option can provide useful relief to residents who spend hours on the congested Sharea Faisal/National Highway during peak hours. Low-cost alternatives to restore other dedicated tracks can be worked out while minimising evictions and focusing on the right of way for safety.
A simple increase in the bus fleet — as promised by many city and provincial leaders in the past — can bring about enormous relief. Appropriate management procedures may be adopted to engage a private operator to run these buses in a commercially viable manner. Larger CNG rickshaws and Qingqis must be scrutinised for safety. Ordinary citizens, including students, domestic workers, labourers, office workers and others, are regular subscribers of this mode of transport due to its cheap fares and ready availability.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2016