The BRT problem

December 11, 2019

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The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

VARIOUS Pakistani leaders have made bus rapid transit or BRT projects the centre point of their political rhetoric. Often a misleading impression is created that BRT programmes will comprehensively address a plethora of public transport issues. BRT projects sound and appear grand, but considering the cost it often takes to complete them — more often than not with generous help from foreign donors — their efficacy leaves much to be desired.

Take the Lahore Metro Bus; it enables less than 250,000 passenger trips per day against a total of over 12m passenger trips in the city. Even when the Karachi BRT — comprising a total of five bus lines — becomes fully operational, it will cater to only around nine per cent of the total number of passenger trips per day. All five lines of the Karachi BRT will cover a distance of nearly 113 kilometres at a cost of around Rs170 billion, while the cost of the Peshawar BRT is more than Rs55bn for covering a distance of a mere 27km.

What these grand plans tend to ignore is that in their current form BRT programmes in any Pakistani city cannot function without total integration with other modes of public transport, as well as non-motorised options such as bicycles. In thriving megacities, accessibility and physical connectivity are prime considerations for transport planning.

These factors are also vital with respect to social justice. The rich and powerful are usually found to control the public resources that are diverted towards projects expected to generate limited benefits.

Total integration with other modes of transport is necessary.

For instance, in Karachi, the Lyari Expressway was built to facilitate the fast movement of vehicles at a cost of about Rs23bn. The amount is huge, but not more than 40,000 vehicles ply the Lyari Expressway on any given day, while ordinary citizens generate more than 27m work trips that need to be serviced through public transport.

According to a World Bank report, less than 5,000 buses operate in Karachi, serving about 100 routes. Considering the mushrooming of nine- and 12-seater rickshaws in the city, this amount of Rs23bn could perhaps have been better spent on the purchase of more buses for public transport.

In Pakistan, cities often have an uneven distribution of population where high-income groups live close to the city centre or major work locations. Lower-income groups are left with limited options and thus reside far away from their workplaces, ending up spending a sizeable portion of their meagre incomes on commuting.

A factory worker living in Orangi in Karachi spends half of his salary on transport simply to maintain his job, as opposed to a senior executive at a multinational who resides in Defence and has his office in the closely located Clifton area. Such anomalies merit review when planning mast transit projects. Intelligently worked out financial management solutions, such as specialised fuel outlets, fare rate adjustments and motor vehicle tax exemptions for public transport are also options worth considering.

In addition to this, the government can consider raising the motor vehicle tax on private cars so the rich may balance the cost of their luxury with the poor.

Moreover, the bad quality of roads in the country also makes mass transit projects unsustainable. Karachi is a typical example. Lack of periodic maintenance, poor design and quality of construction, frequent inundation by fresh and sewage water have all contributed to extensive wear and tear. These are also becoming the reason for a large number of road accidents. On the other hand, public transport vehicles are usually driven by often illiterate and amateur drivers who may have only a rudimentary understanding of vehicle operations and a less-than-adequate road sense.

Many problems related to traffic jams, congested road space, noise pollution and accidents could be curtailed through proper driver education.

Karachi possesses more than 10,000km of developed road length. Though repair and maintenance are necessary for about two-thirds of this distance, the work can be divided into phases. In the first phase, all major arterial roads should be repaired. The next phase of the project can address the issue of repairs of main roads in commercial locations and key industrial areas. To achieve this, however, the present capacity of municipalities would need to be drastically upgraded.

Tracking devices and street cameras can be used to document traffic offences, especially those committed by drivers of public transport vehicles. The value of non-motorised transport such as bicycles is also very important. For short- and medium-range trips, bicycles can become a cheap and effective mode of transport for city dwellers. This option needs proper facilitation to add value to our commuting choices.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019