A REPORT recently cited by Bloomberg informs us that Karachi fares the worst out of 100 cities worldwide in terms of public transport. This comes as no surprise.
Consider the Lyari Expressway’s example. A corridor built for reducing travel time for a few thousand cars, it cost over Rs23 billion. Its construction displaced over 200,000 people who were forced to move to faraway locations. With this kind of money, about 2,000 ordinary public buses could have been added to the existing fleet, providing a decent commuting option to hundreds of thousands of people. Now the Malir Expressway is being built to ‘facilitate’ those investing in large-scale real estate on the Super Highway. It will cost Rs42bn. The beneficiaries will be primarily motorists.
Karachi has over 10,000 kilometres of roads. Many important link roads and primary connectors are in a dismal state. For instance, the Shahrah-i-Orangi is in a shambles. Over 1.5 million people live in Orangi but it is devoid of decent transportation even after half a century. Some major corridors in this sprawling area are no more than dirt tracks where vehicles routinely break down. Many other large areas such as Lyari, Baldia and Gulistan-i-Jauhar face the same challenge. Officials cite unavailable funding as the reason for lack of maintenance. It is then criminal to refurbish some corridors simply because they are used by VVIPs and neglect the genuine needs of half the city’s population.
Expensive expressways are not the answer to transport woes.
As the years pass, one finds urban roads turning into spaces for anarchy. Speeding cars, crisscrossing motorbikes, large honking vehicles and scared pedestrians and cyclists are too obvious to be ignored. The solution lies in regulating the roads as the main purpose of the latter is to enable travel including the commute between home and the workplace.
Studies have shown that a well-functioning bus system is the answer to Karachi’s transport problems; it does not need large-scale investments. An improved bus system can function without any new right-of-way development. Normal road maintenance and repair can help operationalise buses. The city already possesses 32 dedicated public terminal spaces which can be utilised in the expansion of the bus fleet.
As the quality of bus service picks up, we will see many among the public move from cars and motorbikes to buses. This may not require the widening of existing roads as buses occupy far less space than cars where the number of passengers is concerned. Four cars can transport about 16 passengers while a bus, which occupies the same road space, can transport as many as 120.
However, a tough task lies ahead of policymakers who would have to regulate car ownership through taxation measures and other urban levies. By creating provisions for bicycles (such as cycle tracks), a genuine non-polluting, non-motorised and cheap mode of transportation could be effectively incorporated in the options available. Walking and cycling are healthy means of commuting for short and medium distances for people accustomed to an unhealthy lifestyle. It would also reduce the level of noise and pollution that are responsible for so many ailments.
Motor cars have infiltrated the lives of the upper and middle classes. Easy availability of auto-finance options and relatively cheap fuel following Covid-19 are some of the reasons. While it has added to the comfort of travel, it is also a perpetual cause of anxiety for car drivers and others on the road.
Motorists become an isolated class which are not part of the public domain. Decent public transport provides a more egalitarian domain where people from diversified income brackets and sociocultural backgrounds share road space. The possibility of interaction is increased and mental peace enhanced if the quality of service is satisfactory. For instance, in the London Underground or buses in the UK capital, people invariably experience better service as compared to cars. When travelling downtown, the underground is fast and efficient. No wonder that lords and paupers alike cherish the same travel experience.
Without an effort by the upper classes to voluntary change over to public transport, little can happen. The fast-increasing number of private vehicles on the roads of Karachi and other big Pakistani cities will soon bring traffic to a standstill, flyovers and expressways notwithstanding. Those who dispute this fact can see the situation in Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok or Manila where traffic jams lasting three to four hours are considered normal. It is for us to decide about the scale of normalcy. Let us hope that the bus rapid transit system shall convince people to switch over to public transport for routine commuting.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2020