A woman boards a bus near Nagin Chowrangi | Tahir Jamal/White Star
A woman boards a bus near Nagin Chowrangi | Tahir Jamal/White Star

Karachi is constantly evolving but, unfortunately, city planning has failed to keep up with the metro’s changing dynamics. How can we move past ‘solutions’ such as signal-free corridors, which benefit only a segment of the citizenry, and towards urban mobility planning that is more people-centric?


It is a day like any other in Karachi.

There is a seemingly never-ending traffic jam at a signal during rush hour. Buses are jam-packed, even during the coronavirus pandemic. And most vehicles are at a standstill; the exceptions being motorbikes that miraculously manage to find ways to move forward.

As the signal finally turns green, one takes a sigh of relief and rushes towards a signal-free corridor. These corridors have been a godsend for people travelling in private vehicles. But Karachi is more than commuters such as myself, driving around in their own cars.

While zooming through these signal-free corridors, one passes high overhead pedestrian bridges. A political party’s banner on one of them reads, “Haq dou Karachi ko [Give Karachi its rights]”. Another points out that Karachi, the highest tax collector in the country and the pivotal revenue engine of Pakistan, has long been ignored by those in office.

Pedestrians, many of whom are returning home after a long day at work, lethargically climb up the bridge’s stairs, before walking to the other side and hiking down.

Indeed, it is a day like any other in Karachi.

These pedestrians will likely be back here tomorrow. They’ll be here in a couple of months, when the summers will be in full swing. And they’ll still be here, long after the banners demanding Karachi’s haq have been replaced by newer political slogans.

Where else would they be? They have nowhere else to go.

***

Karachi is constantly evolving. Thousands enter the city every day, looking for opportunities and a brighter tomorrow. And the metropolis continues to grow — both physically and in terms of population. Unfortunately, city planning has failed to keep up with Karachi’s rapidly changing dynamics and diverse citizenry.

A 2019 study, quoted by Bloomberg CityLab, found Karachi’s public transport system to be the worst in comparison to 99 other major cities around the world. The public transport system, the Bloomberg article added, “serves less than 42 percent of Karachi’s commuters, relying on decades-old, overcrowded buses that use the roof as a second deck for passengers at times.”

Just a year before this damning article, another 2018 World Bank report had found that, “There are over 12,000 buses, minibuses, and coaches plying on 267 routes in the city.” The bus fleet has been decreasing in size without any other mode to adequately replace it, the report had further found.

For a mobility or transportation plan to be effective, it is critical to understand the difference between planning for people and planning for traffic and vehicles. The daily traffic nightmare on Karachi’s roads is a testament to the lack of people-centricity of the transportation plans to date.

Things have continued to worsen. Karachi had over 400 planned bus routes at one time; reportedly less than 165 are in use today. And, according to the State Bank’s The State of Pakistan’s Economy report (2018-19), “the number of minibuses in the city has also fallen, from 22,000 in 2010-11 to around 9,500 at present.”

The State Bank’s report had further estimated that 8,000 more buses were required to meet the immediate demand alone. Instead, the numbers have continued to drop.

To transform Karachi into a livable, competitive megacity, it is critical that these issues are addressed and the city is developed keeping in mind its diverse population’s needs. We need to rethink our city planning. A big step in that direction would be forming a ‘Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan’ — a planning practice that has transformed cities around the world.

TOWARDS A ‘SUSTAINABLE URBAN MOBILITY PLAN’

Illustration by Samiah Bilal; based on the ‘Sump poster’ by Eltis, a European observatory on urban mobility
Illustration by Samiah Bilal; based on the ‘Sump poster’ by Eltis, a European observatory on urban mobility

The European Commission (EC) has been one of the biggest promoters of the concept of a Sump. According to the EC’s website, “A Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (Sump) considers the whole functional urban area, and foresees cooperation across different policy areas, across different levels of government, and with local residents and other principal stakeholders.” The definition adds that a Sump ensures “a variety of sustainable transport options for the safe, healthy and fluid passage of people and goods, with all due consideration for fellow residents and the urban environment.”

This approach has been successfully applied around the world, and could similarly do wonders for Karachi and Karachiites.

One of the biggest differences between sustainable urban mobility planning and traditional transport planning is the former’s people-centricity.

For a mobility or transportation plan to be effective, it is critical to understand the difference between planning for people and planning for traffic and vehicles. The daily traffic nightmare on Karachi’s roads is a testament to the lack of people-centricity of the transportation plans to date.

Karachi, like other major cities across Pakistan, is rife with examples of a lack of people-centricity in city and project planning. Examples include the signal-free corridors, touted as the gold standard of city planning. In reality, while these corridors may allow traffic to move more swiftly, they inconvenience pedestrians trying to cross the roads and have even increased the number of fatal accidents.

Provincial and federal governments have to understand that the only way to prevent a devastating collapse of the transport system in Karachi is by way of democratisation of mobility.

Such ‘development’ which is not people-centric leads to an unhappy and disrupted city, littered with pockmarked roads and concrete monstrosities, that leave deep carbon prints on the environment. This so-called development also leaves the doors open to chaos and social and psychological disruption, political opportunism and uneven economics.

To address the results of bad planning, governments, by habit, go for stop-gap policies and arrangements that end up compounding the existing mess.

A good example is the personalised transport modes being encouraged through bank loans and leases on cars, and ride-hailing smartphone apps such as Uber, Bykea and Careem. While these services have brought relief to a large section of Karachi’s citizens, they have also shifted the focus towards imports of cars and motorcycles, rather than vast scale availability of a well-established and linked public transport system.

These apps were not introduced as part of a greater mobility plan but at random, with the government shirking its responsibility and passing the buck to the private sector.

Provincial and federal governments have to understand that the only way to prevent a devastating collapse of the transport system in Karachi is by way of democratisation of mobility. Preference will have to be given to sustainable public transport rather than individual car ownership.

This is where a Sump comes in. Such planning goes beyond traditional transport planning as practised in our cities, which usually focuses solely on maintaining roads, awarding tenders for public transport and introducing bus rapid transits (BRTs), and determining fares, routes, permits etc.

VIEWING CITIES AS LIVING, GROWING SYSTEMS

Motorbikes cross a dilapidated road near Gurumandir | Adil Shakil/White Star
Motorbikes cross a dilapidated road near Gurumandir | Adil Shakil/White Star

Currently, multiple government departments and authorities are dealing with transport in Karachi, with very little coordination among them. As per a World Bank study, quoted in the paper Sustainable urban mobility for Karachi – A strategic framework, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) is responsible for the administration of only 40 percent of the roads in the city.

Other bodies, including the National Highway Authority (NHA), the Government of Sindh, the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and the Cantonment Board administer other roads in Karachi.

A Sump encourages these different governing bodies to work together with other stakeholders in the city. Such a plan necessitates planners to view the entire city as a living, growing system, and to understand that social, environmental and economic concerns related to transport are not only interlinked, but influence one another.

In general, a Sump should work on integrating modes such as public transport, cycling and walking to create a more accessible and liveable city.

Women’s safety and mobility on the roads of Pakistan were discussed at length last year, following a gang-rape on the Lahore Motorway in September. The incident sent shockwaves around the country, and was a bitter reminder of how unsafe roads in Pakistan can be for women.

It would also respond to the changing needs of the city. Let’s take bicycling as an example. Of late, and specifically during the earlier months of the lockdown, bicycling really picked up in Karachi. Although this was mostly as a hobby, it showed that a segment of the city may consider taking up biking as a legitimate means of transportation.

Sustainable urban mobility planning would respond to this and explore the possibilities. Can the roads be made safer for bikers? Would biking lanes help? Can the practice be encouraged through marketing campaigns?

‘Cycling Sunday’ is a praiseworthy recent initiative, which started in Islamabad and is being replicated in other cities around the country. In Islamabad, on ‘Cycling Sundays’ (the first Sunday of every month) Jinnah Avenue becomes car-free and cyclists take over.

These events are organised by the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration and Urban Innovation, an organisation working to promote “inclusive and innovative city making”. Part of the idea behind the initiative is promoting safe mobility options for women — a segment of our society that is unfortunately often overlooked in city planning.

THE 'OTHER' FIFTY PERCENT

Karachi is in desperate need of a sustainable urban mobility plan | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Karachi is in desperate need of a sustainable urban mobility plan | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

One of the most important considerations in a people-centric approach in a city like Karachi would, of course, be gender and the mobility of women.

Women’s safety and mobility on the roads of Pakistan were discussed at length last year, following a gang-rape on the Lahore Motorway in September. The incident sent shockwaves around the country, and was a bitter reminder of how unsafe roads in Pakistan can be for women.

It should go without saying that safety should be guaranteed to any and every commuter.

The horrific gang-rape case may have been the worst case scenario playing out, but an overwhelming majority of women say they feel unsafe during their daily commute.

Roshan Khatoon, a daily commuter from Shah Faisal Colony to a workplace in Korangi, laments the rigours of a dilapidated and inefficient public transport system. “These transporters do not treat us with any respect,” she says. “The women’s compartment in a bus is all but an arbitrary space that at will is used by men. And there is no concept of buses stopping at designated bus stops…” Groping, harassment and staring are expected parts of many women’s daily commute. And while Roshan blames transporters for their inaction, bad city plan also plays a part.

Making public transport and bus stops safer for women should, of course, be a high priority for planners. But even in the wake of horrific incidents that catch media attention, and the undeniable presence of many that go unreported and unnoticed, planning seems much more concerned about ease of access for vehicles rather than the people within and outside them.

TO BRT OR NOT TO BRT

Solutions devised for Karachi’s transport woes include the upcoming BRTs and railway projects. These projects are mired with questionable planning, poor coordination between the departments involved, corruption and delayed timelines. Adding to the public’s mistrust of the projects are questions regarding transparency, quality, and safety. Many have also raised doubts about the projects’ capacity to effectively meet the mammoth demands of the rapidly increasing population of Karachi.

Agar yeh Greenline aur BRT bun bhi gaeen [Even if these Greenline and BRT projects are fully launched],” one commuter tells me, “Yeh kaamyaab nahin honay daingey [they won’t let the projects succeed].” Who is the they in question, I ask. “The transport mafia and politicians,” I am told.

Transporters in Karachi have historically been seen with suspicion. But Syed Irshad Hussain Shah, president Karachi Transporters Ittehad [KTI] thinks the introduction of BRTs to Karachi would be a good omen for the city. He believes it could help fulfil the city’s public transport needs, which are currently being catered to by far fewer buses than required.

In all likelihood, rather than ‘mafias’ operating in the shadows, it is poor planning that is behind new public transport initiatives never taking off or reaching their full potential.

Some politicians have also blamed KTI for being behind Karachi Circular Railway’s (KCR) ‘failure’ to launch. “Those who accuse us are the ones who have nothing to do with Karachi and are only here to make money,” Shah says. “We, on the contrary, are from the city and care for it,” he adds, hinting towards the rivalries within Karachi regarding who owns the city.

One issue Shah has taken to heart is that transporters have always been treated like ‘outsiders’ in their own city by the government. “The government never bothers to invite us to discuss a transport policy or to seek our advice,” he says.

Sustainable urban mobility planning would make transporters a part of the conversation.

Transporters have historically used (or misused, depending on who you ask) their influence to get their way, often causing further discomfort for commuters. But, in all likelihood, rather than ‘mafias’ operating in the shadows, it is poor planning that is behind new public transport initiatives never taking off or reaching their full potential.

The BRT, in particular, clearly lacks even some basic planning. In a recent Eos article, architect and urban planner Arif Hasan mentioned that only seven percent of Karachi’s commuting public will be able to use the BRTs when they are all completed. He added that the BRTs planned seemingly do not relate to any land-use plans and, in essence, are a recipe for disaster.

THE PRICE OF BAD PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Rush hour traffic at Metropole | White Star
Rush hour traffic at Metropole | White Star

The decaying public transport system exacts a heavy toll on Karachiites. A 2018 World Bank report estimated that Karachi needed around nine to 10 billion dollars in financing over a 10-year period “to meet its infrastructure and service-delivery needs in urban transport, water supply and sanitation, and municipal solid waste.” Of this sizeable amount, six billion dollars were to be spent on transport alone.

But no amount of money without proper planning can solve Karachi’s transport woes.

Karachi’s population has increased phenomenally over the past 22 years and the city continues to grow, with some estimates putting the population at over 25 million. As more people settle into the metropolis, it increases the demand for new and innovative solutions to create a sustainable city (the other pieces of the puzzle are, of course, financial resources and the implementation of the said solutions).

Karachi needs to become a more accessible city for its citizens, who should be able to engage with the city, its schools, public spaces, workplaces, parks, dedicated sports areas, range of services and entertainment — regardless of age, gender and income.

"I always say, there is so much to learn from Karachi’s old neighbourhoods — they are humane and giving, unlike the lost soulless khayabans of DHA." shares Marvi Mazhar.

And so, Karachi’s traffic and mobility plan should take into consideration what kind of a city we want to create, not just for today, but for tomorrow and the foreseeable future. The plan is an important key in the process of creating a sustainable and well-connected people-centric Karachi; a caring city where commerce and communities work in tandem.

Heritage enthusiast and civil society activist Marvi Mazhar believes that some of the solutions may also lie in looking back at Karachi’s own history. “We have great precedence from the 1970s design of old areas, where back lanes were mutual neighbourhood gathering spaces,” she says. “Sensibility of scale was evident, where marking of demographics and giving access to public spaces was sensitively incorporated. I always say, there is so much to learn from Karachi’s old neighbourhoods — they are humane and giving, unlike the lost soulless khayabans of DHA.”

Karachi not only needs a strategic plan, but an empathetic one, which builds on existing planning practices and takes due consideration of integration, participation, and evaluation principles.

DEVELOPING A SUMP FOR KARACHI

It is critical that the policies and measures in a Sump should broadly emphasise the scope vis-à-vis all modes and forms of transport in the entire urban cluster, including public and private, passenger and freight, motorised and non-motorised, and parking spaces.

The KMC, Sindh Mass Transit Authority and the Sindh Government should not consider it as yet another plan on the urban agenda. It is important to emphasise that a Sump for Karachi builds on and expands existing plan documents. Such a plan would provide a way of tackling transport-related problems in urban areas more efficiently, by availing existing practices and regulatory frameworks.

Our right to freedom of movement is enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution, and more needs to be done to ensure every citizen is given that right.

For a Sump to be effective, a hands-on participatory approach — by engaging Karachi’s citizens and stakeholders from the onset — is also vital. After all, public acceptability is essential for the success of any mobility plan. Planning for people implies planning with people.

A well-integrated working plan development also takes into consideration practices and policies of different policy sectors, authority levels, sister departments and authorities, and is usually driven by the city’s transport department, ideally reporting to the mayor.

Nevertheless, one must remember that the policy scope and relevance of the Sump is not limited to transport, and it is one of its unique features to engage and involve other municipal and regional departments such as land-use, environment, economic development, social inclusion, health, safety, culture etc, in the planning process. It is a substantial challenge to address deficits in integration and cooperation, but is also the main foundation for innovation and improvement.

MOVING INTO THE FUTURE

During a 2015 visit to Karachi, Enrique Penalosa, Bogota’s former mayor, noticed the city’s desperately struggling run-down public transport system, with buses making up less than five percent of the vehicles on the road. Penalosa warned of total collapse if the right steps were not taken to rectify this. At home in Colombia, he transformed Bogota by improving sidewalks for pedestrians and creating hundreds of kilometres of cycleways and dedicated bus lanes, separate from other traffic.

Our right to freedom of movement is enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution, and more needs to be done to ensure every citizen is given that right. There is more to mobility than urban transport. The true potential of the democratising effect of proper public transport, which is given more space than SUVs and cars, has been seen by planners and citizens around the world.

According to the World Economic Forum, the UK and six other European Union countries plan to ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, with Norway planning to take this step as early as 2025.

Where do we stand as a country? Is there a policy in Pakistan? Are there any safeguards to deter corrupt officials and greedy businesses collaborating to suit their interests?

As the world moves forward, we need to focus on transporting Karachi into the future with a Sump. These practices were adopted around the world nearly a decade ago. It is high time we followed suit.


The writer works with the think tank ‘Commonwealth Karachi’. He can be contacted at commonwealthkarachi@gmail.com



GOALS AND OBJECTIVES OF A SUSTAINABLE URBAN MOBILITY PLAN

(As per the European Commission’s A concept for sustainable urban mobility plans, 2013)

A Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan has as its central goal improving accessibility of urban areas and providing high-quality and sustainable mobility and transport to, through and within the urban area. It regards the needs of the ‘functioning city’ and its hinterland rather than a municipal administrative region. In pursuit of this goal, a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan seeks to contribute to development of an urban transport system which:

(a) Is accessible and meets the basic mobility needs of all users;

(b) Balances and responds to the diverse demands for mobility and transport services by citizens, businesses and industry;

(c) Guides a balanced development and better integration of the different transport modes;

(d) Meets the requirements of sustainability, balancing the need for economic viability, social equity, health and environmental quality;

(e) Optimises efficiency and cost effectiveness;

(f) Makes better use of urban space and of existing transport infrastructure and services;

(g) Enhances the attractiveness of the urban environment, quality of life, and public health;

(h) Improves traffic safety and security;

(i) Reduces air and noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy consumption; and

(j) Contributes to a better overall performance of the trans-European transport network and the Europe’s transport system as a whole.


Published in Dawn, EOS, March 14th, 2021

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