Karachi is perennially hot and sticky, but this summer has been hotter and stickier than usual.
As I set out hoping to ride on the newly-inaugurated Peoples’ Bus Service, the season’s first major monsoons are still a day or two away, which means breathing through sheets of stifling humidity. I’ve only walked 50 yards to the Nursery bus stop, but my kurta is drenched. Sweat steadily trickles down my face as I squint, hoping to spot a red moving pixel in the distance.
Buses are unglamorous at best and undesirable at worst. You wouldn’t notice the blue-striped, white bus in New York City if it hit you in the face on a crosswalk, despite there being almost 6,000 of them in the city. Or the almost 4,000 yellow, lilac and blue gentle giants of Istanbul that silently, almost apologetically, glide past you in traffic. When they aren’t unremarkable, like in case of the kitschy, bellowing metal contraptions that masquerade as buses in Karachi, you wouldn’t want to set foot in one if you had any alternative.
For a public transit enthusiast, I must confess that I didn’t love buses much either. Conceptually, buses have survived in one way or another, across the world, for around two centuries, even as their form has evolved. Despite this remarkable resilience, they’ve never been the poster child for public transit, except in recent years with the facelift they’ve received in the form of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
Karachi has got a bold, new bus service. Its buses are spanking new, air-conditioned and ruby red. That’s the good part. But the service is already falling into habits that have doomed public transport initiatives in the city before. Here’s how to make it count this time…
Internationally, no mayor shows off their regular city buses. Most tourist maps show subway/metro systems and skip out on buses altogether. There are hardly any souvenir fridge magnets featuring buses. Perhaps the only exception to this rule, as I learnt earlier this year, is London. If I had a fleet of sleek 9,000 radiant red buses set against a grey and dreary sky, I’d take some pride and joy in that too.
This probably explains why I could hardly contain my joy when giant cutouts of red buses started propping up along Sharae Faisal. I had heard about this project from the former provincial transport minister, Syed Awais Ali Shah, exactly a year ago, but I didn’t believe it until the administrator, Murtaza Wahab, posted videos of the buses arriving at the Karachi Port.
Throughout the week since its launch on June 27 though, I count more cutouts than the actual buses during my commute. So, on this hot and sticky Saturday afternoon, as I spot a moving red pixel in the distance, I feel the acidic mix of cautious joy and latent anxiety rise through my gut to the back of my throat.
The ruby red bus pulls up, gently, and the doors swing open, releasing a gust of chilled air from the inside. I take one short step from the asphalt to the soft rubber floor of the bus and the automatic doors swiftly swing shut behind me. Anyone who has ever taken a bus in Karachi would appreciate this one giant leap for the city’s commuters.
I have just begun to feel the joy of the cold air-conditioned air on my face when a small girl in a tightly wound headscarf, maybe six or seven years old, gets up from her mother’s lap in the front section, stumbles and empties her guts out on the bus floor. I’m not sure if it was the heat, the humidity or our shared anxiety, but her vomit instantly baptises Karachi’s newest bus service.
Besides the giant cutouts and some flashy PR, the service seems to have been hurriedly launched in the face of rising fuel prices (and rising public anger) and the impending second phase of the local government elections in Sindh. Four key elements of a scheduled bus service — timings, route, stops and fare — are all a bit hazy right now. Other elements, including communication, staff training and service quality, are also patchy at best. While any new service, understandably, has teething issues, it is the combination of structural issues, and the ghosts of at least three similar failed attempts in the past, that makes one question the sustainability of this initiative.
The sidewalk at the stop I boarded the bus at, Nursery, is dug up. The grey structure is still dishevelled. Except for the red and white painted kerb, nothing about this stop says new service. The map for Route 1 identifies 38 stops along the roughly 30km corridor and Nursery is one of them. The bus, however, stops again 200m ahead, and then again, about 400m ahead, before reaching the next notified stop, FTC. From there to Tower, the bus would make far more than 38 stops, sometimes stopping in the middle of nowhere to drop off a loud passenger. In the absence of clearly notified and marked stations, each stop is a negotiation between an aggressive passenger, a clueless conductor and a pliant driver.
Some of the passenger aggression stems from confusion over the route. News reports had shared a proposed Route 1 with stops at Jinnah Hospital, Cantt Station, Regal Chowk and Araam Bagh. The actual service doesn’t go to any of them. A more updated route map, shared by the operator on Twitter, shows the service starting from the edge of Model Colony on Jinnah Avenue. The actual bus, however, goes several kilometres deep into the colony, all the way to a railway crossing.
Buses are designed to offer a scheduled and well-defined public service, around which millions of commuters can shape their lives and behaviours. It is a time-tested solution to the vexing problem of urban density and mobility: how do you move millions of people quickly and efficiently? If a bus service starts accommodating individual riders’ requests, or the driver and conductor’s whims, the result is chaos. This is a problem that Karachi’s poorest commuters are all too familiar with.
A defined and published route, with clearly demarcated stops, is therefore the bare minimum that this service needs to offer before customer confidence is eroded. More than a week since its official launch, the Peoples’ Bus Service seems to be struggling with even this bare minimum.
LINGERING ON CHUNDRIGAR
The freshly baptised bus terminates its south-bound journey at Tower. I stay on for the short victory lap over the circular Jinnah Bridge, watching the conductor count the fare from the trip: a little over 5,000 rupees, from about 100 passengers on this single trip. The bus is parked on the bridge off-ramp, right under the shadow of the Art Deco Qamar House, and the driver and conductor take a break.
In another idling bus right ahead, the driver and conductor are eating from a styrofoam box. Shouldn’t there be a lounge for the staff at the terminals for lunch, a break or just to stretch their legs?
I walk up to the bus right at the front, which is about to start its eastbound trip to Model Colony. A rusting, disfigured Gulistan coach crosses my path ominously, reminding me that these city streets are not for the weak.
A few years ago, while teaching a course on public transit at a university, the students and I took a dive into Karachi’s public buses and coaches. Journalist Mahim Maher had just published a fantastic piece on the deep logic that underpins the seemingly informal, chaotic operations of Marwat Coach. Did this method to the madness apply to all private operators? Was there a layer of occult logic behind all this kitschy chaos?
To investigate, we first met with Irshad Bukhari, the menacing-but-grandfatherly president of the Karachi Transport Ittehad. When we asked him for bus routes and stops, he shared with us a bound file with a page for each route. Each page had names of the neighbourhoods that the buses on that route passed through. No maps. No roads. No landmarks. No stops. Just neighbourhoods. This is how bus routes have been conceived, approved and communicated in Karachi thus far. You can check for yourself: go to Google and search for “Karachi bus routes”. See what shows up even today. Hang your head in disappointment.
To map their routes and stops more accurately, the students and I boarded buses on the route 19-D and 20, from their terminal at Shireen Jinnah Colony. Within a few minutes of their departure, we realised there would be no stops. On the entire stretch from Shireen Jinnah to Kharkar Chowrangi, the bus just lingered, almost like a reluctant, drawn-out warm-up before cardio. Passengers hopped on along the way. No one seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere. It was almost idyllic, as if it were a tourist bus and not one that people depend on to get to work and around the city.
This lingering was the symptom of decades of divestment in public transport by the government. For private owners and contractors, the only thing that matters is passenger numbers, since each trip has a fixed cost of fuel, labour (driver and conductor) and bhatta plus challans along the way. The more people they could take on the trip, the higher the revenue to offset fixed costs. Time, efficiency, speed or service quality were nowhere on the agenda — not for the owner, nor the provincial transport department that should have been the regulator.
The bus therefore lingered to get on board as many people as it could. It would stop wherever it would spot a paying passenger and begrudgingly slow down just enough for a passenger to jump off to disembark. Who needs bus stops then anyway? This was a system primed to deliver the bare minimum, as it cannibalised itself. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the routes and number of buses decimated, first gradually, then suddenly.
Back in the present-day, the red bus I board takes off exactly at 4pm from Tower, with about 20 visibly delighted passengers. Passengers take their camera phones out to record this momentous occasion. They strike up conversations with strangers, full of marvel and trepidation.
But instead of moving swiftly to the next stop, the bus starts to linger along I I Chundrigar Road. Ten minutes later, we haven’t even crossed the HBL Plaza, halfway through. By the time we reach Shaheen Complex, at the other end of Chundrigar, it is 4.15pm. The bus has covered 3kms, and what would’ve been six stops according to the route map, at a snail’s pace of 12km/hr. This is not because of congestion, or traffic. This is an old habit and a structural misunderstanding of how a bus service should be run, exactly the way it had been for the old buses.
GHOSTS OF BUSES PAST
I would have written off the lingering if it didn’t happen on each of the five trips I took over two days, each time more egregiously than before. On my last ride, from the Model Colony to Nursery, the conductor decides to keep the front doors open and hollers, “Tower! Tower!”, as the bus lingered through the Model Colony Road for a good 10 minutes. I’m not sure if the Gulistan coach that crossed me earlier at Tower was a curse, but the ghosts of all the old buses and coaches seem to be haunting the Peoples’ Bus Service.
I confront the conductor about the door and, after mumbling some excuse, he sheepishly asks the driver to close the doors. To be fair, it may not even be his fault entirely. In his sweat-stained cream shalwar kameez and black slippers two sizes too small, he cut a rather unkempt figure. The night before, the conductor I saw was wearing a uniform. None of the conductors on this Saturday are wearing one. They also appeared a bit lost.
Eager passengers call out to them and ask for tickets. While news reports quoted the transport minister saying the fare would vary from 25 to 50 rupees, all the conductors have on them are booklets of paper tickets marked 50 rupees. Cash is the only way to pay, and if a larger denomination is exchanged, there is a nervous wait to collect enough fare from other passengers to return the change. Occasionally, the conductor shouts out, asking if anyone hasn’t paid for the ride. In the world of bad ideas and awful execution, this is probably the worst way to collect fares in a modern transit system.
Each small failure, or instance of shoddy service, might be forgiven in any other context, but not here.
Karachiites are spooked by the successive failures of such services over the last two decades. Here’s the body count: the city government under Naimatullah Khan imported 32 deep-green, beautiful Swedish buses and ran them on two existing routes. Procured on a discounted commercial loan, their financial sustainability was a non-starter. They disappeared even before Naimatullah’s term was over.
The next mayor, Mustafa Kamal, got 75 locally manufactured CNG buses on three routes, upgraded bus stops and added kiosks for ticketing. Bought from the city government’s budget, they had an annual operational cost of 75 million rupees. Once his term was over, the provincial government refused to fund it and the service petered out.
For years, provincial transport minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah promised 600 buses, but only 10 eventually hit the road in a pilot project in 2018. I only ever saw them once during my commute to work. No one knows exactly when and how they vanished.
Last June, when I met then-transport minister Syed Awais Shah, he mentioned the incoming 250 buses, but I was sceptical. Turns out he wasn’t bluffing after all. We now have a total of 250 buses, imported from China at a cost of 6.5 billion rupees. Ten of these were allocated for Larkana. The remaining 240 will ply seven routes in Karachi. Another 4 billion rupees have been allocated for purchasing more buses in the current fiscal year. Have we finally turned the corner on broken transit dreams?
Buying new buses is the easiest part. It’s a one-off capital expense, provides political mileage through photo ops and requires no structural adjustments. It is the running of transit operations that is the real challenge and requires political acumen, capacity building and cultural transformation. If we don’t want the Peoples’ Bus Service to go down the route of all previous schemes, here is what we will need to do differently this time around.
BEYOND THE BRT
Buses are the cheapest form of mass transit, but there are reasons why they are looked down upon, especially when compared to more expensive trams and trains: they are slow, have limited capacity and usually get stuck in the same snarling traffic on the road that they hope to beat. Luckily for us, cities the world over have been working to address some of these concerns and make buses more effective at moving large numbers of people. A lot of that work is distilled into BRT systems that make buses effectively mimic trains, by providing them dedicated corridors. But this comes at a cost.
In Pakistan, where traffic rules’ enforcement is weak, we build tens of flyovers and underpasses for each line to maintain grade separation and ensure dedicated corridors. That’s how they got the original slur, the jangla bus. We don’t know the final price tag for the Green Line BRT in Karachi, but it would be easily north of 30 billion rupees. The Red and Yellow BRT lines, funded by the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, would cost half a billion dollars each. That’s over 100 billion rupees at today’s exchange rate. To scale up simple public transit by buses, we need to learn from our own failures and, clearly, need to think beyond BRTs.
The first thing to consider would be financial sustainability. The largest chunk of a bus system’s operational cost, between 60 to 70 percent, is the cost of staff and labour, including drivers, mechanics, conductors, cleaners, transit agency staff and so on. This figure is fairly universal: it comes from two different studies, from the United States and India.
For a new system, it would make sense to keep as lean a staff base as possible. Some of these roles are essential — drivers and mechanics — but others can be rationalised. The conductor in the Peoples’ Bus Service is simply collecting fare. With fare collection digitised, there will be no need for this role. The currently employed conductors should be upskilled for other essential roles, as the service scales up. Bloating the service now with non-essential staff will only lead to its eventual collapse and render everyone currently employed jobless.
There will also be no financial stability with a leaky fare box or ghost riders. Fare needs to be collected pre-boarding. Whether you’ve got a top-up card, like the Breeze Card for Green Line BRT, or a paper ticket, it should be purchased off-board and validated digitally at the time of boarding. For this reason, most cities only allow for boarding from the front of the bus, where the driver can see that every passenger getting on has validated their payment method. Digital payment methods would also open the possibility for targeted subsidies in the future.
Next is service availability. You will not get passengers if your service isn’t available, visible or predictable. Routes and timings need to be locked in and made publicly available, both digitally and at bus stops. Stops need to be defined and religiously adhered to. If there is a bus every six minutes, no one will panic if a bus leaves the station without them. If there are service delays and disruptions, they need to be communicated in real time. All of this is now fairly simple with a centralised tracking system, and the company’s official Twitter account has indicated that this is forthcoming. My only gripe is that it should have come yesterday, when the service was launched.
Lastly, service quality, which includes the customer experience both within the buses and at the stations. The terminus at Tower was next to garbage dumpsters. The one at Model Colony was in a dusty, unpaved ground. Except refurbishment of some already existing stations, not a single new station has been added yet.
The station is not just a painted shelter: it’s a touchpoint that should provide information and a comfortable waiting experience. The Metropole station, where I waited from 10.20 to 10.50pm on a Friday night in vain, was dark, dingy and enclosed. The left side of the station was covered in black painted metal. To see if a bus was coming from the corner, I had to stand on the road, where I was partially also scared of getting mugged. Bus stations should not be designed by people who have never actually had to wait at a station in their life.
The only sense of safety I had while waiting for the bus that night, came from the adjacent flower shop that was lit up and had some staff. The best security comes from the presence of people and light, not just from CCTV cameras. Stations should be large, transparent, well-lit and, preferably, host a tuck shop that would double as a source of revenue, point of sale for tickets and provide ambient safety. Some of the existing stops already have a kiosk structure. What’s stopping the transit agency from reviving them?
Nothing says bad service quality more than chhaalia wrappers littered on the floor of a bus that has just started service. When hundreds of people will use a vehicle each trip, it is bound to get dirty. Doing a quick cleanliness check at the end of each trip will go a long way in building people’s trust and ownership.
None of these steps are rocket science. Some of these things are being done in the same city, with the Green Line. Lahore has been running the Speedo feeder bus system effectively for years. It all boils down to public pressure and the consequent political will. Without a watchful regulator and a conscious operator, we know where all such initiatives eventually go in Karachi. South and out. Here’s hoping the Peoples’ Bus Service doesn’t.
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, July 17th, 2022