IN an impressive ceremony last month, a new bus service was launched in Karachi to address the difficulties of commuters. Officials said the buses would ply on seven routes. Operations on the first route have begun. Other routes will gradually become functional. Many observers see this as a move towards winning votes in the approaching local bodies polls. After all, Sindh had launched a similar service with 10 buses before the 2018 elections!
A similar government-subsidised venture was launched two decades ago. Several bus routes were created in Karachi. Attractive but expensive buses were imported and operated on these routes with the support of the erstwhile City District Government Karachi. Within a few years, the buses became fewer in number and were eventually phased out. Clearly, it was difficult to sustain government-subsidised transport in the city. But officialdom has learned no lessons.
Whenever citizens question the state of public transport in Karachi, they are told that once the bus rapid transit (BRT) becomes fully functional, these problems will go away. So far, 80 buses are operating on the Green Line from Surjani Town to Numaish Chowrangi. Work on the Red Line has begun — its most ‘notable’ feature being the cutting down of trees, unfortunately. Contrary to what the consultants involved in this project say, it is unlikely that the dream of affordable and comfortable travel will be realised through these buses.
There are many challenges. If and when all seven BRT corridors become functional, they will still cater to less than eight per cent of the total number of passenger trips in the city. They have been built at a very high cost. Loans have been taken from development finance institutions. To run these buses, an annual high subsidy will be needed, which will be next to impossible for the government to provide. Once the financial burden proves too much, the buses will come to a grinding halt — as did the bus services of the Karachi Transport Corporation in 1996 and the Karachi Circular Railway trains in 1999.
Commuters’ problems won’t go away with the new bus service.
Everyone criticises the old rickety buses. But there are multiple reasons why the operating conditions for public buses have been impacted. Rising fuel prices, the poor condition of roads, extortion by traffic police, limited credit facilities for maintenance of buses and virtually no possibility of accessing affordable credit to buy new buses are among them.
Previously, Karachi neighbourhoods were linked to the city centre, industrial zones, educational and major healthcare facilities with public buses, and later minibuses, which provided an affordable and dependable option of commuting. Studies for the Karachi Development Plan 1973-85 showed that about 70pc of passenger trips were accomplished through public buses. Federal ‘B’ Area residents were served by bus fleets taking routes 5C, 6, 6A, 6B; New Karachi 4H; Federal Capital Area and Moosa Colony 5A, 5B and 5D; North Nazimabad 3, 2K, 2D, 2; Clifton 20; Orangi Town 1D, 1C etc. Some buses and minibuses operated almost round the clock. The operators connected with the commuters reasonably well. In some cases, conductors were given instructions to help the elderly and children board the vehicle and alight at their designated stops. Special people were offered a seat out of consideration for their state. Female passengers used buses with few concerns.
Private cars and motorcycles were far less in number. For work, education and recreation, Karachi buses were a common option. Residents could easily change buses to arrive at relatively far-off destinations. Karachi’s low-income settlements were well-integrated into city life thanks to these buses. It is sad then that ordinary bus services are not the focus of transport policy and assistance. In fact, during episodes of unrest, the vehicles are often burnt and vandalised. Through their associations, the affected bus operators ask the government for compensation but are given only partial relief after continuous requests. If we provide an enabling environment, buses and minibuses can serve ordinary residents without being a burden on public funds.
Given our present economic situation, officialdom would do well to rationalise its policies for ordinary buses. Multiple conversations with transporters and an analysis of the situation reveal that rudimentary interventions in the sector can bring about effective revitalisation of public transport. The provision of affordable credit lines to transporters, the development of terminal spaces, drivers’ education and training, checks on traffic police and protection against attacks on buses in case of riots are important. Also, with more buses, tri-wheelers can adjust to feeder routes and strike a working relationship with bus and minibus operators.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2022