The recently launched bus rapid transit system has the potential to be a lifeline for Karachi’s frustrated commuters and could mark the beginning of making the city more livable
It was the end of February, and the city’s mild winter pleasantness was on its way out. A political rally at Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazar, had choked the traffic movement in the area. My rickshaw driver could go no further than the temporary blockade at the Noorani Kabab House on Shahrah-i-Quaideen.
From there, the closest stop on the Green Line, a federally funded bus system, was at Numaish. It was only a mile away, but the short walk felt painfully longer, in the glaring light and heat reflected from the asphalt.
I walked with rising anger at the impunity with which powerful officials, elected and otherwise, routinely cordon off roads and inconvenience citizens. Would the metro bus station even be open? Would they have shut down the entire Green Line because of the rally?
I had no way of knowing: Karachi is not a predictably functional city. We’ve not had a state-run public transit project here in over two decades. We don’t even know how these things function! I would just have to walk to Numaish and find out.
The opening of the Green Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a watershed in Karachi’s recent history. As the only megacity in the world without a public mass transit system, Karachi has had an embarrassing two-decade run bereft of this critical infrastructure. With the Green Line, Karachi had finally turned a new leaf.
The Green Line bus service had opened to some staged fanfare — along with a lot more trepidation. In the city, we’re not used to having nice things. Earlier experiments with mass transit had been prematurely aborted or failed soon after launch. The Green Line itself was marred by years of delays and political wrangling between the centre and the province. This project was too good to be true, and everyone treated it with cautious scepticism at its launch.
At Numaish, there was palpable tension, and a sizable police and media presence. In the distance, you could hear indiscernible political anthems. Amidst all this, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the station was open. Still in disbelief, I went down the cavernous underground station, topped up my Karachi Breeze card, tapped it on the turnstile and boarded a bus. It was really happening.
There were only a handful of passengers. As the bus snaked out of the underpass towards Gurumandir, the sound in the distance became a muffled speech. This was a rally marking the beginning of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s march to Islamabad, but I didn’t think it would start this soon in the afternoon.
As the bus started climbing on to a flyover, the speaker’s voice became more familiar. They must be playing Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s older speeches while people gather, I assumed. The bus climbed higher, and we passed the New MA Jinnah Road, when I thought I saw an apparition.
There was Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in the flesh, just 50 yards away, thundering at the dais, with his back to the passing bus. This felt as surreal as videos of Lahore’s Orange Line trains gliding on the towering pillars over charged Tehreek-i-Labbaik crowds during their seasonal dharnas.
That unexpected moment seemed to symbolise the power of good public infrastructure. It can transcend political figures, egos and events that routinely make our cities, and our lives, dysfunctional. If done well, it can be a great equaliser in our extremely unequal society.
I was not the only person in disbelief. A man on the bus was trying to convince someone on the phone that he could get to Nazimabad if he took the Green Line. Yes, there was a rally at Numaish and, yes, the bus was still running. How? Because it has a separate track. I don’t blame the guy on the other end of the phone for his puzzlement. This is a novel occurrence.
Since the early 1990s, and especially under Gen Musharraf’s rule, Karachi has been firmly shaped for private mobility. Unaccounted billions were spent on building roads, expressways, underpasses and flyovers along “signal-free corridors” so cars (and eventually motorbikes) could effortlessly traverse the city.
What we got instead was more congestion, snarling traffic, longer commute times and a continuous decline in the city’s quality of life and its residents’ productive capacity. To borrow a phrase from legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs, “This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”
Will the Green Line reverse this decay? Will it make Karachi a more liveable, joyful city? Probably not. Not by itself, and not right away. Karachi has over 10,000 kilometres of paved roads, and millions of residents have begrudgingly shaped their lives around motorbikes and cars. Women have been largely kept away from the workforce because of lack of safe mobility. None of this will change overnight with a 23-km bus corridor, no matter how comfortable or beautiful.
Without rapidly building out a transit network that covers a significant area of the built-up city, especially its dense working class neighbourhoods, core markets and commercial centres, the ports and the industrial areas, there will be little change in people’s mobility patterns and behaviour.
Sounds daunting but, at the same time, when you ride the Green Line yourself, you can see some early, and promising, signs of hope.
More than a million passengers took the bus in the first month of its commercial operations and that number is, from anecdotal evidence, rising. That’s hardly surprising given how safe, comfortable and clean the commute is, compared to the current buses and coaches.
The fare, between Rs 15 and 55, is competitive, and a dedicated corridor means the buses have a predictable schedule, and one that isn’t disrupted by rush-hour traffic. Each of the 80 buses is divided into three equal sections: one for women, one for families and one for men. This translates into a lot more space for women compared to the current buses, and as a result, you see a lot more women on the Green Line, either by themselves or with their children.
The presence of uniformed staff makes you feel safer the moment you cross the turnstiles. While there are not heavily armed security guards, I felt safe taking my phone out to photograph the stunning stained-glass stations along the corridor.
This does not mean we have reached our destination or goal of progress. This should mark the beginning of Karachi’s long-overdue transformation into a more liveable city. For starters, the Green Line itself needs to be completed and maintained. Most stations are still incomplete, and only a handful of them have working elevators and escalators.
The three stations south of Numaish, down Bunder Road, once completed, will bring commuters closer to Saddar and adjoining markets, increasing ridership. While the buses continue to be well maintained, the stations need more diligent dusting and cleaning.
Fifty-five minutes from Surjani to Numaish sounds good right now because of no alternatives, but an Express Service along the corridor could shave this time even more. Brighter lighting and streetscape enhancement around each station would draw more riders to the bus, and lend a sense of civic pride to the neighbourhoods it serves along the corridors.
While work has started on the Red Line, the provincial government needs to push the pedal on completing the Orange Line and starting the Yellow Line. In the face of rising oil prices and a falling rupee, public transport is no longer a good-to-have policy choice. It is the only way to protect citizens from imported inflation that punches each citizen in the face every time they fill up their motorbike or car at the petrol pump.
The combined annual subsidy for all BRT (bus rapid transit) lines in the country is dwarfed in comparison to the tens of billions in blanket fuel subsidy that the federal government is providing right now to everyone, including the wealthy.
As the corridors are built, residents and businesses will move closer to them, and especially the stations. You can see this along the Green Line already. Streamers for new apartment blocks publicise their proximity to the stations. Such transit-oriented development, when planned and managed right, can transform the fabric of the city. This planning opportunity must not be squandered.
The most delightful sight on the Green Line is young children with their parents. They are in awe of the sleek, articulated buses, and their joy is infectious. These buses may be as impressed on their memory as the trams and the circular railway are for our parents’ generation.
For these children, and future generations of Karachiites, we need to make sure it becomes their way of life, and not just a fond memory.
The writer is a design researcher and strategist, working in urbanism, finance and education. They can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 10th, 2022