Karachi now has 30kms of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service and over 250kms of regular bus routes, served by a fleet of 300 air-conditioned buses | Photos by the writer


Political parties across Pakistan have invested in bus-based transit systems over the last decade.
Published June 11, 2023

When you set fire to a public bus, what burns first? Plastic, rubber, diesel, glass, metal and electrical wiring? The taxpayer’s money? The livelihood of the driver and the fare collector? The hard work of the transit agency staff? Or the dignity of a thousand people who commuted in that air-conditioned bus every day?

To find out the answer, I have to go to a bus depot in Karachi’s UP Morr.

Karachi is no stranger to burning vehicles. Images of charred, smouldering bus carcasses the morning after riots are etched in our collective memory. A speeding minibus on April 15, 1985, blew the powder keg of the city’s political-ethnic tensions when it ran over the 20-year-old Bushra Zaidi, and was swiftly burnt.

Buses have remained both symbols and victims of the city’s ethnic fault lines in the decades since then, as demonstrated by the bus burnings which occurred on May 12, 2007 and December 27, 2007. Against this backdrop, the burning of a bus in Karachi on May 9, 2023, is neither unprecedented, nor remarkable, as an act of political rage.

What is unprecedented is what that bus represents — a paradigm shift in how the Pakistani state thinks about, and delivers on, people’s mobility needs. After decades of abandonment, the state has just begun to provide mobility with dignity to its citizens. This was not the metal and tin, privately-owned kitschy contraption of yesteryears that defined Karachi’s past. This was a frail possibility of a more dignified future, manifested in the ruby red, glass-ensconced Peoples Bus Service (PBS) vehicle.

Motivated by competition and realising their electoral dividends, political parties across Pakistan have invested in bus-based transit systems over the last decade. Where have we arrived collectively? Which system is leading the way? And what have we learnt, or not learnt, so far?

In January 2022, Karachi had zero kilometres of functional publicly-funded mass transit. Today, a year and a half later, the city has 30kms of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service and over 250kms of regular bus routes, served by a fleet of 300 air-conditioned buses snaking across the city from Surjani to Seaview, Orangi to Korangi.

 The PBS represents a paradigm shift in how the Pakistani state thinks about and delivers on people’s mobility needs
The PBS represents a paradigm shift in how the Pakistani state thinks about and delivers on people’s mobility needs

For a city clamouring for public transit since the last system, the Karachi Circular Railway, shut down in 1999, this seems to be a mirage. The people’s response, predictably, is a heady mix of disbelief and trepidation. “It won’t last,” is the universal refrain I’ve overheard countless times on these buses.

In two weeks, when the PBS celebrates its first year of operations, and roughly 18 million rides, some of that trepidation may be put to rest, but the fear isn’t unfounded. How did the unimaginable transpire so quickly?

Ground Zero: Nursery

On Google Maps, the PBS depot at UP Morr is a short five-minute walk from the Saleem Centre station on the Green Line BRT. In reality, it feels much longer, because of the crippling fear of the unfamiliar in the harrowingly empty streets of North Karachi on a hot and humid May afternoon. The sight of a stray dog cooling itself in a street puddle has never been more comforting; pickers, rummaging through garbage along a school boundary wall, never been more reassuring. By the time I reach the entrance to the depot, I am drenched.

I’m here to meet Mustaqeem, a PBS staff member who was present on-site at Nursery where two of the buses were caught between the protestors and the police on May 9. Mustaqeem recalls getting a frantic call from a bus driver at 3:45pm. Protestors at Nursery had halted a PBS Route 1 (R1) bus going south. The driver was allegedly beaten up and bus keys taken from him.

The ticket-issuing device, along with collected cash, was taken from the fare collector. On the opposite track, 50 metres south, a north-bound Route 3 (R3) bus had also been stopped and pelted with stones. As passengers disembarked from the latter, a tear gas cannister, fired by the police to disperse protestors, broke through the glass and detonated inside the bus. Two other buses had been damaged — at Nagan Chowrangi and Sohrab Goth — but the buses at Nursery needed to be rescued.

A team of about 12, including technical staff from PBS, left the Mehran Bus Depot in Model Colony in an ambulance — there would’ve been no other way to make it through Sharae Faisal in this situation. They arrived at about 4:30pm to two immobile buses, with slashed tires.

The R1 had received the bulk of the protestors’ wrath, and the R3, while damaged, was largely spared due to the presence of a police mobile close by. The PBS team divided into two and tried to dissuade the protestors from damaging them further.

Slowly, Then All At Once

High quality public transit in Pakistani cities had not been a political priority for at least a generation. Elected governments in the 1990s barely lasted long enough for plans to firm up. The Musharraf years were marked by a frenzied boom in construction of car-centric infrastructure for the rising, and aspiring, middle class and the wealthy: signal-free corridors, flyovers, underpasses and expressways.

Buses, beyond their flammable value, were politically unsexy: they were needed by the urban poor, and were outsourced, at least in Karachi, entirely to private contractors with no oversight. But the launch, and rapid uptake, of a very different kind of bus service in Lahore in February 2013, with its own dedicated roadway and stations, would cause a seismic shift in the urban transit landscape — buses would become political and desirable.

 The charred remains of a PBS bus that was set ablaze following Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023 | Reuters
The charred remains of a PBS bus that was set ablaze following Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023 | Reuters

In quick succession, provincial governments in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, led by three different political parties, would compete and build four more bus-based transit systems in Rawalpindi and Islamabad (2015), Multan (2017), Peshawar (2020) and Karachi (2022).

Combined, these five systems cost about Rs260 billion to build and were designed to serve about 1.7 million riders per day on a total fleet of a little over 1,000 buses across the six cities. Utilisation rates vary across systems but, at present, the overall network is operating at only half its designed capacity.

Half full, that is. Every day, about 850,000 people across these six cities are able to commute cheaply, with dignity and in relative comfort compared to the alternatives. Collectively, the five systems need roughly Rs11.5 billion per year in taxpayer support to run, leading to an average subsidy of Rs1,100 per month per rider.

Without this support, each of these 850,000 people would either be sitting at home or pay several times more from their meagre incomes for private transport. This amount would fall as utilisation rates improve, and the systems mature to track performance, optimise routes and operations, and generate non-fare income.

But, even with this support, both the construction bill and the annual subsidy required are a pittance, when compared to Rs500 billion spent per year to sustain haemorrhaging state-owned enterprises such as Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Pakistan Steel Mills etc.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes

The chaos and fluidity of the situation at Nursery has been captured on smartphone videos that are either available on social media or were shared with me by the PBS staff. A moustachioed man in a printed shirt, a party flag draped around his shoulders, is inside the R1 bus, parked perpendicular to the road, and manically hitting the driver’s partition with a stick. Outside the bus, a second man in a maroon t-shirt, with the same party flag around his face, is frantically trying to convince others to stop him.

Oye bas karday! [That’s enough!],” a voice yells out, as a fourth man clumsily flings a brick inside the bus, startling the first one.

A bearded man in a white shalwar qameez enters the frame from the left, raising his fingers and warning the group not to touch the bus, but a roar travels through the crowd, and several rocks are hurled at the far end of the bus in unison.

By now, several people have gone inside the bus to coax the raging one out and, as the camera pans, a chilling chant ripples through the crowd: “Aag laga de! Aag laga de! [Set it on fire! Set it on fire!].” In another video, from around 5:12pm, a woman in a burqa and a green headscarf is standing with her arms outstretched in front of the R3 bus, stopping the men around her from attacking it.

It’s hard to construct a neutral, coherent timeline from eye-witness testimonies at an event as emotionally charged as this one, but this much is clear — there was rage, and then there were also incredibly brave people — both protestors and PBS staffers — damming that rage and trying to protect a cherished public asset.

This negotiation worked until maghrib, and the PBS team waited for the police to disperse the crowd. But as darkness fell, a petrol bomb was lobbed inside the R1 bus. The rubber and plastic caught fire and, soon, the bus was up in flames. The inferno gave an opportunity for the police to move in, and the crowd dispersed. A PBS staffer, Salman, seizing the opportunity, turned on the R3 bus and drove it away, on flat tires, into a side street.

In a video from later that night, the technical staff is fixing the tires of this rescued bus in the light of the ambulance they had used to get here. The person recording the video is looking for Salman, while panning across the exhausted but relieved faces of his colleagues sitting on the sidewalk. They all calling out his name and he enters the frame, triumphant, making victory signs with both hands. For a team that spent hours trying to do a thankless job, this is a true moment of catharsis.

 A bus stop designed for commuters should have maps, route information and timers indicating wait time. Inset: A dilapidated bus stop at Nursery on Sharae Faisal. Except for an advertisement, this stop displays no information for commuters  | Photo by the writer and illustration by Maaz Jan
A bus stop designed for commuters should have maps, route information and timers indicating wait time. Inset: A dilapidated bus stop at Nursery on Sharae Faisal. Except for an advertisement, this stop displays no information for commuters | Photo by the writer and illustration by Maaz Jan

Paradigm Shift

Rs260 billion over a decade is pocket change for the government. The politically competitive environment of the last decade, and an outsized potential impact, ensured that all players were forced to deliver. The imperative to deliver was also driven by the rising cost of inaction.

From 2000 onwards, the number of private cars and motorbikes grew exponentially, leading to a downward spiral of congestion and more road building, resulting in visibly thickening pollution and a bloated fuel import bill. Lahore’s magical foggy winters were permanently replaced by smog and, according to a 2023 report from the Government of Punjab’s Urban Unit, the largest contributor (83 percent) to the city’s toxic air is transportation, mostly motorbikes and cars.

But this was not a rising-tide-lifting-all-boats competition. This was wrestling-with-pigs-in-a-mud-pit-to-wear-everyone-down competition. Party supporters would drag the opponents’ systems down, and tout their own as the best designed, the best planned or the most financially sustainable. Stickers displaying annual subsidy amounts, down to the rupee, were plastered on systems built by opponents. System specifications would be debated ad nauseam on social media and every faceless Twitter profile was a transit planner and expert.

A decade of this bare-knuckled politicking consumed far more public space than its outcomes would warrant. How do these 1,000 buses country-wide fare against bus fleet sizes of other cities?

Tehran has over 2,000 public buses, Bangkok has over 3,000, Bombay and Istanbul around 4,000, Hong Kong and New York about 6,000, Delhi 7,000 and London has a couple of hundred shy of 9,000. These are cities, not countries, and each of them also have extensive rail-based metro systems and thousands of other private, contracted and paratransit vehicles.

For all the noise generated over the last decade, we have embarrassingly little to show, not just when compared to others, but when measured against our own needs.

 By the time PBS celebrates its first year of operations on June 27, it will have roughly completed 18 million rides | Photo by the writer
By the time PBS celebrates its first year of operations on June 27, it will have roughly completed 18 million rides | Photo by the writer

Which System Is The Best?

Pakistan has only begun to scratch the surface. To build on this momentum, we will need to take a dispassionate view of what we’ve built, and how it’s faring.

I tried to collate data on building costs, system coverage, ridership, fare, vehicles, stops and stations and financial information. For starters, just getting accurate numbers is the biggest challenge, but once you’ve trawled through provincial government websites, countless tender notices, long-winded

funding documents and talked off-the-record with people working at these agencies, some truths start becoming obvious.

First, the best system is the best used system, and on that count ZuPeshawar takes the lead. Despite opening only three years ago, during the pandemic, and being situated in a smaller city than Karachi and Lahore, it has the highest average daily ridership thus far.

It also had the highest price tag, with a foreign loan from the Asian Development Bank, but those are probably the reasons why it’s doing better than its peers — it is better designed and better run. Of all five, ZuPeshawar had the most easily accessible, and updated, information available on its website.

Second, the best system is an integrated system. Here too, ZuPeshawar wins. A single trunk line without a robust feeder service will only limp so far. The Lahore Metrobus is an exception (it was overcapacity before its feeder service was even inaugurated, as an afterthought four years later, in 2017), but all others without a feeder network — Green and Orange Lines in Karachi, the Red Line in Rawalpindi/Islamabad and even the Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore — have struggled to ramp up ridership as quickly as ZuPeshawar did, with its integrated feeder service.

A feeder service is also not just buses plying off-corridor: it includes all aspects of the commuting experience, including bus stops, information systems, payment methods, communication strategy and last mile solutions. The only system that gave all this serious thought, thanks to its foreign consultants, was Peshawar’s.

Third, the best system is a financially sustainable system, and on this count, there are currently no winners. Here’s a universal truth: all transit systems need taxpayer support one way or other — either in the form of dedicated revenue source (tax or commercial) at inception, or through subsidies later. The topic of subsidy was politically the most charged and toxic issue over the last few years, but it turns out all systems, despite what their proponents argued, require subsidies for operations.

Fare revenue for most transit systems globally does not exceed 40 percent and the shortfall is made up through non-fare revenue (commercial rent, advertising, merchandise and so on). Pakistani systems are no different or worse on fare revenue but have spectacularly failed so far in mobilising non-fare revenue, either due to legal issues that prevent them from earning through advertising, or through bad financial modelling that doesn’t allocate a recurring non-fare revenue source, like commercial property. On this count, all systems need to step up.

Will the Mirage Stick?

Mustaqeem and I walk through the depot to the far end, passing by rows of neatly parked buses in the yard, and more buses being washed and serviced in covered bays. How often is a bus washed? Every three to four days, he tells me. The frequency has been increased after complaints on cleanliness. This is one of the two depots for PBS — the other one is in Model Colony — and houses roughly half of the fleet.

Of all the systems, Karachi’s PBS feels the most precarious. The buses transpired almost overnight, but the associated infrastructure that ensures service uptake and sustainability — bus stops, signage, tracking and information systems, network maps and payment infrastructure — is either piecemeal, or yet to arrive, or not within the mandate of the transport department.

Bus stops (and pedestrian bridges) in Karachi are designed and auctioned by the municipal corporations and cantonment boards whose jurisdictions they fall under — the provincial transport department has nothing to do with them. Their primary function is to generate ad revenue for the municipality, which is why it’s hardly surprising that they look more like elaborate billboards propped up on sidewalks than providing anything more than shade for a commuter.

In all other cities, the bus stops were brought under the ambit of the transit agency, but that has yet to happen for Karachi. The result is eight different types of bus stops just on Sharae Faisal alone — all dishevelled, all fairly useless.

The tracking system for PBS arrived late due to supply chain issues and closure of ports in China, but a year later, it is yet to be switched on. There can be no dependable and predictable bus service without live tracking. In 2023, commuters will not wait for Godot.

For a city marred by fractured governance and abysmal administrative capacity, the survival of this network is primarily a governance challenge. The PBS is defined less by what there is — the buses — and more by what there isn’t — markers of efficient governance. What will it take for this network to survive?

For The People, By The People

We finally arrive at the charred skeleton of R1, parked in a corner against a wall and flanked by a neem tree. I walk up to it. There’s only a faint, lingering smell of burnt plastic and white ash all around. There’s a lot more wires, bundled and frayed, than I imagined.

I’m sad to see this, but it’s visibly more traumatic for Mustaqeem. It reminds me of the moment when we saw it go up in flames, he says. It’s not my personal vehicle, but in trying to keep this service running day in and day out, we’ve grown emotionally invested in these buses. It felt like a personal loss.

As I leave the depot, I am reminded of the anxiety-inducing walk from the station to here. Is a bus leaving soon, I ask the guard at the gate. I just want to get dropped off at the Powerhouse Chowrangi. That’s the starting point for three lines — R2, R3 and R4 — and from there I would take the Green Line back to Numaish.

In a minute, R3 pulls up at the gate and I get in, wrapping my head around the stories I’ve heard. The doors open to a waiting crowd at the Powerhouse corner and a woman asks if the bus would go to Hyderi. I’d just updated my personal map for PBS, but I blank out at that question. Does it?

I take my phone out and pull up a picture of my map. Yes, it does go to Hyderi! And it also goes directly to Nursery, where I have to get off. Oh nice! I won’t have to switch to the Green Line. As a committed cartographer of this system, I was slightly embarrassed, but also pleasantly surprised. Even though I’d drawn the lines on my screen, the joy of knowing one could go from North Karachi to Nursery in a single seat for Rs50 is visceral.

The fare collector on this bus is a short, jovial young man wearing a bright blue collared polo shirt. The uniform looks cleaner than I’ve seen on other fare collectors. When he pulls up to collect fare, instead of the printed booklet, he has a payment machine, strapped to his wrist, which is printing out electronic tickets!

He’s still collecting cash, but the machine is NFC-enabled [Near Field Communications allows commuters to pay by tapping their cards on a machine], with a camera for QR scanning. Maybe this is an interim solution for digitising fare collection, while the actual system is plugged in, but this is possibly the sign of progress and system continuity that I’d been trying to chase for weeks while I thought of writing this story.

I’m not sure what burns first when a bus is set on fire. But as I get off at Nursery about 40 minutes later, I’m pretty sure what burns the brightest — the passion and commitment of the young people working silently behind the scenes in depots and offices of transit agencies, against all odds, to make this mirage stick.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 11th, 2023