NON-FICTION: URBAN MOBILITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS

Published March 6, 2022
A typical public bus, overloaded with passengers, plying the streets of Karachi
A typical public bus, overloaded with passengers, plying the streets of Karachi

Karachi’s Public Transport: Origins, Evolution and Future Planning by urban planners Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza and the Urban Resource Centre (URC) is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding and addressing the challenges of public transport in the city of Karachi.

Offering a historical account of the various phases of public transport provision in Karachi, as well as rich, empirical material shedding light on contemporary challenges, the book serves as a valuable resource for researchers, planners and residents alike.

The book is structured broadly into eight chapters, each authored by a combination of the writers. The first two chapters help set the context; situated against the backdrop of an ever-changing, expanding city, they introduce readers to the evolution of the transport sector in Karachi post-Independence.

Using historical and some comparative data, the authors show that Karachi’s public transport network is immensely inadequate for a city of its size, and rightly argue that long-term, sustainable growth in the city is directly correlated to a well-designed transport system. Without this, the authors warn, vehicular traffic, congestion, densification and overcrowding in inner city areas, along with myriad social and environmental costs, will continue to increase.

The authors demonstrate that current inadequacies in the city’s transport system exist despite repeated attempts to improve it. They show that successive governments have invested in public transport, supported new transport policies, experimented with public and private initiatives and introduced public-private partnerships, yet these have repeatedly run short of their intended goals.

A recently published book deeply enhances our knowledge of transport in Karachi, offering fertile ground for debate and discussion on how to improve public transport provision going forward

While the authors attribute the failures to a lack of political will, changes in government policies, lack of government subsidies and corrupt practices — factors that are commonly highlighted in evaluations of the transport sector — it is their attention to the more granular details that makes this book a more informative read.

For instance, they show that parties interested in running transport services are unable to obtain formal financing for vehicles from banks and have to turn instead to informal moneylenders (an aspect that is entangled with the city’s ethnic politics). This increases costs of operation which — alongside other constraints, such as extortion payments that have to be paid to the police and regular operations costs — inadvertently incentivises the overcrowding of vehicles, minimal expenditure on maintenance and on-boarding of untrained staff.

The authors also problematise the association of efficiency and success with private provision of public transport. Despite the plethora of institutional arrangements for public transport provision, they find that it has come to be widely believed in policy circles that the private sector alone can offer effective public transport solutions for the city. This has been the case particularly since the late-1990s, after pressure from international development institutions.

To me, the authors’ analysis suggests that there is a need to move beyond the public-private dichotomy, and better understand the constraints/ reasons for past failures, with scope for improvement present across both sectors. And the explanations of past failures — whether related to the absence of attention to maintenance budgets, the unanticipated impact of CNG policies, empty government promises to provide subsidies and limited engagement with different stakeholders including transporters — is what we need to focus on to develop more effective solutions.

Chapters three and four examine the variety of ways in which a range of stakeholders — commuters, businesses and the public sector — have responded to the growing transport crisis, with some snippets on the challenges they continue to face.

Both chapters provide a glimpse into the ways in which people are coping with the absence of a well-functioning transport system: the growing reliance on Qingqi rickshaws (multi-seater vehicles pulled by a single motorcycle) until they were banned by the Supreme Court, exponential increase in motorbikes for commuting, the use of pick-and-drop arrangements and new ride-hailing services (available for more well-to-do income groups).

Although Chapter Four, ‘The Ride Hailing Culture: The Widening Gap Between the Haves and the Have Nots’, draws out the benefits and costs of ride-hailing apps, it also felt somewhat incomplete. As a reader, I wish the authors had elaborated further on their findings and analysis of such services.

Chapters five, six and seven form the heart of this book. Based on primary research, Mansoor Raza draws out transport-related challenges from the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders, and subsequently transports the reader to the lives, aspirations and everyday struggles of Karachi’s residents.

We learn about the journeys and views of actors as diverse as taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, truck drivers, cargo drivers, mechanics, police constables, environmentalists and bankers. Meanwhile, the seventh chapter focuses exclusively on the accounts of female commuters.

Each chapter offers valuable insights from stakeholders whose knowledge and experience is frequently missing from planning practices and interventions. The authors make a critical argument: transport planning exercises will have limited success without understanding and integrating the voices and roles of these varied actors, across both formal and ‘informal’ sectors. This is a challenging task given the multitude of interests at play, yet one that requires urgent attention if any long-term improvements are to be expected.

For me, personally, it is the chapter on women’s transport issues, written by the URC and Anadil Iftekhar, which illustrates how the absence of a well-functioning public transport system continues to rob residents of their dignity, well-being and any social and economic opportunities associated with city life.

Comprising 15 summaries of interviews with female commuters — including students, blue- and white-collar workers — this is a painful read. Dealing with the daily threat or experience of harassment, overcrowding in buses, vehicle breakdown, irregular bus timings, theft, absence of integrated fare systems that drive up costs, and the absence of pedestrian infrastructure, the very act of everyday travel induces — as stated by the authors — great discomfort and “an intense paranoia every day before, during and after their journeys” for most women.

Travel conditions also continue to dictate women’s educational and labour market opportunities. This chapter inadvertently raises questions about class privilege, the absence of women’s voices in decision-making processes and the high social and economic costs of existing transport arrangements. It is an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of the differences in men and women’s travel patterns, and the constraints to mobility that women continue to face.

The last chapter by Arif Hasan analyses findings across all the other chapters and offers recommendations for the way forward. It provides a detailed account of the reasons why government programmes have failed in the past, their impacts on the city and the steps that are required to make Karachi a “pedestrian and commuter friendly city.”

For anyone interested in improving the public transport system in Karachi, the chapter provides conceptual, institutional and programmatic recommendations, which should be used as a basis for further debate and action.

At the end, the detailed appendices with the original questionnaires, interview transcripts and lists of key stakeholders, flyovers, bridges and underpasses also warrant recognition. These are excellent resources for students and researchers interested in studying and understanding the city’s transport system.

On the whole, true to their commitment to the city of Karachi, the authors offer a detailed examination of the city’s transport histories and challenges, making sure to include the voices of a wide range of actors, while proposing alternative visions and directions for growth.

I do wish that there had been additional analysis and discussion at the end of each chapter after sharing research findings. The conversation on Karachi’s public transport would also benefit from additional comparison with other cities.

Nevertheless, this is a book that deeply enhances our knowledge of transport in Karachi, offering fertile ground for debate and discussion on how to improve public transport provision going forward. It is certainly a highly recommended read for all those with an interest in Karachi’s transport.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate in urban studies.
She tweets @FizzahSajjad

Karachi’s Public Transport: Origins, Evolution and Future Planning
By Arif Hasan, Mansoor Raza and Urban Resource Centre
OUP, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190706395
266pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 6th, 2022

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