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A car-unfriendly Pakistan? Yes, that's how you make livable cities

Updated November 28, 2018

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— Zoha Bundally
— Zoha Bundally

Upper-class sensitivities have forced us to design cities that work for cars, not people.


A recent piece I wrote on the transactions ban on non-filers and its impact on car buyers, as well as on the housing market, generated a series of interesting responses.

Some of us would like non-filers to be kept away from the privilege of owning a car, while others pointed out the exploitative state of our local automobile industry.

That the automobile sector in Pakistan is a sham is no secret. Our cars are poorly built, lack critical safety features and are relatively more expensive than comparable models around the world.

We are not conducting any research and development on new automobile technologies in Pakistan and, in fact, some of our cars are decades old even if assembled last month.

The question is, why are we so fascinated with personal cars to begin with? Our cities, their infrastructure, the middle-class lifestyle and our aspirations all reflect a strong desire for cars.

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Under new urban paradigms and the latest economic and environmental research, this obsession is unhealthy.

Single-occupancy cars are the single most inefficient way to get from one place to another and a bigger cause of congestion and pollution than the street vendors we love to remove to facilitate these vehicles.

Almost like the cherry on top, we have no evidence to suggest that wider roads lead to lower congestion; quite on the contrary, the fundamental law of road congestion states that wider roads will lead to an equivalent increase in usage and therefore have no impact on congestion.

Our fascination with cars has also led us into some of the most ghoulish policy steps imaginable — in most contexts, anti-encroachment and road-widening and clearance operations are toxic to the very concept of city life.

Imaginary Ferozepur Road without the metrobus.
Imaginary Ferozepur Road without the metrobus.

Sadly for us, we have only had a handful of investments in workable transit systems in the country. Not a single Pakistani city can boast of a transit arrangement that facilitates and works for all its citizens.

The recent spate of metrobus systems in Lahore, Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Multan, Peshawar and Karachi are welcome additions, but design and construction are such that they serve as brutalist structures that divide the city.

They are targeted towards political mileage and meant to supplement — not substitute — the dominant model of wide highways, unlimited cars and unworkable cities that we have so painstakingly constructed over the past seven decades.

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Consider the Lahore Metrobus. It runs on an elevated track for several kilometres — a physical travesty that has completely destroyed visual aesthetics of places around it. Where possible, the track was constructed at road level with obnoxious fences on both sides.

Interestingly, none of these strategies accorded priority to buses or people who use them; instead, the aim of both was to ensure the same or more space (number of lanes, lane width etc.) was available to private cars on the same roads.

Both of these strategies necessarily required demolishing all or parts of buildings along the route, narrowing or completely removing sidewalks and eliminating what little greenery existed along these roads.

Imaginary Ferozepur Road with road-level metrobus. Where width was not available, we simply built an elevated path while keeping (or increasing) available space for cars.
Imaginary Ferozepur Road with road-level metrobus. Where width was not available, we simply built an elevated path while keeping (or increasing) available space for cars.

The two pictorial illustrations above should suffice to illustrate the horror of being a visitor to one of the buildings on this road, or a pedestrian, or, quite simply, someone who needs to cross the road on foot.

Ferozepur Road is practically the most unfriendly road for any sort of roadside activity even after the addition of the metrobus; much like MA Jinnah Road in Karachi, it is on the way to becoming a mere “transit channel” with no soul of its own.

With our approach, we are creating cities that have no life, no cosmopolitanism, no interaction between various classes, ethnicities, religions, genders and other groups — and no soul. Our cities are fast becoming sub-urbanised spaces that fail on every metric of actual city life.

Instead, let me suggest an exercise in re-imagination.

Let us remove cars, roads and bridges from our ideas for urban growth and development. While we are at it, let us radically shift towards pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets, narrow roads, lots of formal and informal street activity and bus and transit systems that work.

Let us integrate these modes — foot, bicycle, bus — so commuters can utilise any or all of them on the same trip, reaching their destination without needing a car.

Our middle- and upper-class sensitivities have forced us to design cities that work for cars, not people. Those that work for people, on the other hand, are bicycle and pedestrian friendly and, let me assert, car unfriendly.

Also read: Urban neo-liberalism

The actual departure is in how we imagine, design and construct infrastructure, changing which will fundamentally change our cities.

In other words, we need to reclaim spaces from the boulevards that we have shamelessly stretched through the middle of some of our most vibrant places.

These spaces are not insignificant by any measure. Automobile-centricity has an abhorrently high spatial cost for cities; in Los Angeles, for example, roads and streets alone occupy more than 35 per cent of the city’s total area.

If other car-centric facilities like parking lots are added, the city has devoted more than 59pc of its total ground space to cars.

The figure is 24pc for Lahore and 23pc in Karachi but it doesn’t include parking facilities and has increased rapidly in recent years.

Think of it like this: a quarter of Lahore or Karachi is just roads!

Whatever we reclaim from our roads can serve as sidewalks, bicycle lanes, green spaces and spaces for micro-entrepreneurs and informal businesses and stalls.

These spaces can serve a core city function: that of free flow of people, ideas, consumption goods, music, art and talent.

These flows make the city more livable and help realise the benefits of urban agglomerations that our current infrastructure fails to accomplish.

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Such a change will be workable if complemented with upzoning around key transit corridors. This refers to increasing densities and diversifying usage of construction around the bus rapid transit (BRT) tracks like Ferozepur Road.

To fully realise the socio-economic benefits of the BRT, we have to allow for taller, mixed-use buildings that fulfil residential, commercial and retail functions.

These buildings need lively street fronts — nothing new or strange for our cities — and wide sidewalks that serve their own informal recreational, social and commercial purposes.

Our current model of sprawled sub-urbanisation that necessitates car usage is unsustainable and is contributing to making our air among the unhealthiest in the world.

It costs obscene amounts of money to facilitate car usage, and sub-urbanisation interacts with poor transit facilities to create a vicious cycle of inefficiencies.

We effectively subsidise car owners and drivers to the tune of billions of rupees through infrastructure, environmental degradation, traffic enforcement and management, rescue services and just the space that single-occupancy cars occupy.

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I am not proposing to reinvent the wheel here. This idea builds on a long line of urban theory and practice that developed, partly, in response to large highways and car-centric infrastructure that American cities built in the first half of the 20th century.

The problems of sprawl are well-documented from cities around the world. For instance, the inability of our transit systems to connect people with places makes our cities inefficient labour markets.

Some progressive cities and localities in the US are now taking conscious steps to reverse decades of sprawl and car-centric growth and achieving spectacular results.

If it’s any encouragement, even our friends across the border have had their eureka moment and are now developing concrete transit-oriented master plans for several of their cities to supplement BRTs and other mass transit projects.

Re-imagined commercial road — easy to cross, easy access to transit, multi-modal, inclusive, space for small businesses — and still narrower.
Re-imagined commercial road — easy to cross, easy access to transit, multi-modal, inclusive, space for small businesses — and still narrower.

And what about the automobile industry? Where cars are the only way to access cities, it is unjust to block off low-income segments from buying them under the garb of formalisation.

But if our cities are equitable spaces that enable access without cars, and if we impose the true costs of driving on car owners, the industry will have to transform.

Automobile manufacturers may then be forced to think about why a country of 208 million people, with at least 10 cities of over one million, and large untapped demand for inter- and intra-city commute, produces less than 1,000 buses in a year.


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