OVER the last three decades, mass transit options for Karachi have been studied to death. Each time the same options have surfaced. Only their capital and operating costs have increased. In spite of this, the process of making these plans a reality, always hits snags.
Observers blame this on conflicts within the Sindh government, lack of interest on the part of Sindh politicians in following them up, and an anti-Karachi bias in Islamabad. Resultantly, Karachi’s commuting public is forced to travel in an increasingly uncomfortable and inadequate public transport system which adversely affects the city’s social, cultural and economic life and its security-related problems.
To overcome the problems of commuting by public transport, an increasing number of Karachiites are purchasing motorbikes. Their number has increased from 450,000 in 1990 to 500,000 in 2004 to one million in 2010. It is estimated that at the present rate of increase, there will be 3.64 million motorbikes by 2030. However, women do not ride motorbikes in Karachi. Many feel this is a discrimination that prevents them from opting for a better mode of commuting.
To understand the motorbike-increase phenomena and the commuting preferences of Karachiites, a small research was carried out; 100 male and 68 female respondents were interviewed at nine different bus stops. Almost all respondents belonged to the lower-income areas of Karachi; 25 motorbike users and 25 dealers were also interviewed. Also, a web search for motorbikes available in the international market was conducted.
Seventy per cent of male respondents said they would like to purchase a motorbike but did not have the means. The reasons given for wanting to purchase a motorbike are its flexibility and savings in commuting costs and time. Eighteen per cent of respondents do not wish to use a motorbike because they or their families consider it an unsafe mode of commuting.
Fifty-three per cent of female respondents would like to commute by motorbike if given the option; 16 per cent of them felt that motorbikes were not suitable for women. Seven per cent said that using a motorbike was against their religion. The rest said that although they would like to, their parents or guardians would not allow it. Like their male counterparts, the average commuting time of female respondents is two hours from home to work and back. The respondents also pointed out that women required ‘women-friendly’ scooters since straddling a motorbike seat is culturally not acceptable.
Motorbike users mentioned high levels of air and noise pollution on the roads, the absence of proper traffic control systems, bad roads, police harassment, absence of a physically segregated lane for motorbikes, and problems of parking space as major issues. Through a web search, ‘green’ motorbike manufacturers were identified. The costs of green bikes, for the most part, are less than the bikes being marketed in Karachi today. Also, their operational costs are 25 per cent of those for petroleum motorbikes. They cause no air pollution and create a low level of noise. Import duty on motorbikes is 65 per cent and other taxes are 41.5 per cent.
This makes motorbikes more than 100 per cent more expensive than their real cost. The average commuting costs of the male and female respondents work out to Rs1,570 per month from home to work and back by bus. Meanwhile, the average cost of maintenance and fuel of motorbike users works out to Rs780 per month which includes social and other business trips, and commuting to work and back. The respondents claim that using a motorbike reduces commuting time to less than 50 per cent as compared to using a bus. Many motorbike users also felt that with adjustment to the seat, a motorbike is suitable for three adults.
The above points to the fact that the increase in motorbike numbers will be far more than anticipated, especially if women start using them. In addition, a rail-based mass transit system and an improved bus system as envisaged by the Karachi Transportation Improvement Project, will take well over a decade to complete. Phase-1 of the Karachi Circular Railway will be completed in four years. On its completion, it will serve no more than 0.75 per cent of trips generated. On completion of Phase-2, it will serve 2.25 per cent of trips generated. The long time taken to complete this project and its initially small scale will be an incentive for purchasing motorbikes.
Commuting costs of rail and improved transport systems will also be much higher than today. Similar systems have been installed in Bangkok and Delhi in the last decade. They cater to no more than three to 4.8 per cent of the trips generated in these cities. Their average one-way fare in Delhi is equivalent to Rs40 in Pakistani currency. For Bangkok, it’s Rs65. It is unrealistic to expect that improved Karachi transport travel costs will be less. This will make public transport even more expensive as compared to commuting by motorbike — an added incentive to purchase one.
The question is whether the use of motorbikes should be promoted as an integral part of a larger mass transit system for the city. This can be done by reducing duties on them; introducing micro-credit programmes for their purchase; promoting the use of green motorbikes; creating conditions for women to use scooters; providing physically segregated motorbike lanes on the main traffic corridors; taking steps to improve safety for motorbike riders; and accommodating the requirements for motorbike use as an integral part of transport planning, traffic management, and building byelaws and zoning regulations.
Arif Hasan is an architect in private practice. Mansoor Raza is an independent researcher.
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