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Taking the bus around town

Published Jul 24, 2012 02:54pm


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For the sprawling, dysfunctional, 20 million-strong metropolis that Karachi is, one has to appreciate the efficiency of its mass transport system.

Now, of course, when I talk about the mass transport system, I am referring to the large intra-city bus transit system. As unrefined, informal, and crass as it may seem, it is this system which supports the commuting needs of residents from various areas all over the city.

With the rising cost of fuel, vehicles and general transportation costs, it is this system which provides a cheap and reliable form of transport, which is largely managed in private hands.

However, the system is perceived very differently by residents of the city. For example, pedestrians, motorbike riders and car drivers will most definitely complain about the way they are driven on the road, having no regard for cars and bikes alike.

Many will even talk about the transport mafia that exists, making success impossible for new entrants in the industry. Some people may even call the overall system inefficient. However, my view is formed upon by a certain incident that forced a deeper insight into the business model that exists.

A certain bus journey of mine got extended by a snooze call, the embarrassing details of which I would rather forgo to focus on the industry itself. But that journey took me across a major chunk of Karachi, some areas which I might not ever visit otherwise.

I sat on the route W-21, which basically begins its way from Qayyumabad, going through DHA and heading to its final stop near Manghopir, crossing areas such as Sharah-e-Faisal, Liaquatabad, and, most intriguingly for me, Qasba colony and Kati Pahari, a bully pulpit for ethnic and political violence in recent days.

To give a small overview of how the industry itself works, all buses follow a specific route (the W-21 in my case), which cater to certain areas of the city. These routes are largely owned privately, many being established for decades. When people state the transport mafia perception, it all starts off with barriers to entry in creating new transport routes. It involves permissions, approvals, participation of bus and terminal owners, and finally ongoing publicity and route adjustments to make it workable.

I, personally, would disagree with the transport mafia aspect as there have been cases stated where new entrants have established themselves successfully. However, it is the difficulty of the start-up tasks involved which undermine success more than any other factor.

After taking on an established route, two critical factors involved are the participation of bus-owners, whose vehicles will cater to the defined course, and the fleet management aspect of the terminals.

After some digging for the economics of it, I discovered that a used, operable bus can be purchased from starting prices of Rs 600,000 on which bodywork is done to suit the budget and required capacity for the route. Drivers and conductors are hired on daily wages, numbers dependent on their arrangement with the owner. While all vehicles come with the standard diesel engine, most operating on the roads have switched to CNG.

Originated in Lahore, a unique innovation allows the diesel engine to be converted to CNG which would otherwise require an engine replacement. This conversion helps operators save up to 50 per cent on fuel costs. Maintenance costs depend on the condition of the vehicle, and its upkeep. But summing up, one vehicle can provide an average return of up to 50 per cent a year.

One can understand the method to their madness at a closer look, but the general public perception of operators is not very positive, and they understand it is so.

Given the implications of a vehicles size, even the slightest hit incidents often bring out public wrath and fury upon drivers. Many bus drivers have fallen victim to being beaten by the public over the slightest of issues.

In addition, strikes in the city bring a lot of damage to these buses, which are set ablaze very frequently by strikers of different parties.

One of the drivers I met stated an incident where his bus was stopped by youths who tried to threaten him off the bus to set it on fire, but he resisted.

“I own the bus and it is my livelihood. I resisted getting off, even though they had a gun pointed at me. Eventually they just went away.”

That being said, not all his peers are so lucky. But on a more positive note, drivers and terminal operators assist and coordinate on such days when the risk factor is higher.

Also, it must be noted here that operating a bus on an established route has fewer barriers to entry and is a more possible enterprise than pursuing a new route.

The other critical aspect is the bus terminals and their fleet management. Referred to as ‘Adda’s’, bus terminals can be owned privately, or by the cantonment or district authority, such as the case in DHA, and they manage the flow of the vehicles on the road. Given the large size of land required to accommodate the vehicles, the cost of land involved is relatively high and makes the whole project more capital intensive.

As an observer, I saw a group of down-to-earth, pragmatic operators and drivers making the best of what they had. There were arguments, scuffles, jokes and laughter, but in the end they all went back to their respective tasks, all in one stable flow.

Although because of Ramazan, most of them were more aggressive towards each other than normal, but I guess that was largely acceptable to everyone there.

Contrary to what may be perceived, I saw a very efficient, although slightly informal, fleet management system. Every incoming and outgoing vehicle has tokens issued which determine its timing and position on the route, with specific time limits to reach stops. If a vehicle is late at a specific stop, it has to pay a penalty which goes to the terminal owner. This is what prevents buses from stopping at every few meters to pick up passengers, only going to specified stops on the route. Well, at least for the majority of it.

Terminal owners also manage their accounts with local traffic authorities, with traffic tickets and penalties being managed by them. For this service, terminal owners charge Rs 110 per vehicle every time it is parked at the stop.

There is no doubt that this business is overall a very profitable enterprise, and while the system still has major room for improvement, one must understand that for a privately-owned industry lacking educated human resource which is inhibiting its growth and upgradation, they are doing the best with what they have.

For what it’s worth and oft repeated, this sector lacks bureaucratic oversight, or more so government support, which can enable its evolution into a more modern Mass Rapid Transit system, which is the requirement of a strong city like Karachi.

However, in spite of all that may hold back progress, we must appreciate the system which helps the city’s residents not just commute, but also helps facilitate their livelihood on a daily basis.

Muhammad Shayan Lakdawalla is a Multimedia Content Producer at


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (25) Closed

vishnu d dutta Jul 24, 2012 02:53pm
Karachi is a big city and deserves a decent public transport. having a good public transport system can do wonders to the local economy. its a shame that karachi has neither metro, BRTS nor monorail. i hope they are working on it.
Haroon Jul 25, 2012 11:44am
There is no concept of a luxury, semi-luxury or non-luxury buses, though there is a distinction between large buses, mini-buses and coaches. Large buses like routes 2K, 4K, 2D etc have normally a minimum fare of around PKR 10 and maximum (for the last stop, usually a distance of maybe 25-30 KM perhaps) it would go upto PKR 25. Minibuses have slightly higher fares starting from PKR 15 while coaches start PKR 18-20. The distinction between these is less about luxury or space or cleanliness or ease/comfort, but rather speed and stops. Coaches normally don't stop every few meters or so, cater more to long-distance commuters and are speedier.
rasheed Jul 24, 2012 03:11pm
I am still taking bus from NJ to NY. But i remember during my college time in Karachi, i used to take bus with a student fare of 20 paisa, those so called old buses took me from few blocks away from my home to just drop me few minutes to my college gate, i do appreciate and remember as long as i live, because of that transport system i was able to get a proper and an inexpensive education, which was a basic foundation of my higher education in New York. And because of Karachi education and transportation, i am living in a suburb and able to give a better life to my children, who probably will not see any struggle in their life inshallah, once again, i salute and pray for the bus drivers and conductor for their mugferat if they are no longer in this world, those bus driver who helped me become educated and successful in this country, may God give them Janat, Ameen.
aaa Jul 24, 2012 01:03pm
As an observer, I saw a group of down-to-earth, pragmatic operators and drivers making the best of what they had. Your article brings really a relief to me. As such things are almost not observed by people which i believe is a huge blow to these people who are doing their best despite of their bad financial conditions and most probably sickness at home. You have observed in buses and i personally have observed such things many other places. We are so used to repeating each others sentences that we miss completely what we ourselves experience. It goes for many of our departments like police, hospital staff, all sorts of lower labour. A very large number is working very sincerely and quietly. These people are the real heroes to me. And comparison with another country where wages are high is like a slap on these people faces.
Almanar Jul 24, 2012 12:42pm
Karachi Mass Transit system is without doubt very good. You can get from any corner of the city to any corner quiet easily. Problem is the pollution and the traffic chaos they cause. They have also killed the train system which was promised so many a times but never came into being. These CNG kits are dangerous too. One major hit and they can blow up taking with them the lives of people. Despite all the negative issues associated with this system it is still one of the very best in Pakistan.
Tanvir Jul 24, 2012 04:24pm
I am still amazed that the Karachi Bus systems is still so efficient even after so many years of private controlled management and operation. I have traveled in these old buses since I was a child. I am afraid that if the Government starts regulating it, this would make it harder for the small enterprises to make profit and maintain it to be this efficient.
Ashar Jul 24, 2012 04:56pm
No proper bus stops, no proper fare cards and route displayes, no way for people to stop the busses except shout at the top of their lungs, people crushing each other to get in and when in it stinks like an asses ass and no maps for the bus routs for people to understand which one to take or get off where to catch the other one etc etc...and you call this system efficient and one of the best....are you kidding me buddy!!! Do yo uhave any idea of what a mass transit system really should look like and what kind of facilities it provides it's patron?? Go next door to Dubai or Iran for that matter...and see for yourself!
Ahmed Jul 24, 2012 05:20pm
I hope the people running the opeation currently can team up together to make it a better system, there is always room for improvment. 1. stop only at designated stops, no matter what drive at normal speed, respect for traffic and pedestrains on the road. Porper stop so poeple can safely off load themselves, respect of our Pakistani culture, no obsene musics, low volume , etc. no spitting in the bus or form the bus. No graffitis, artwork to reflect social,culture, city, areas within cities, etc. safe and clean buses. Public should also keep the buses safe. No more burning of buses, cars, no matter what.
Shehzad Ghani Jul 24, 2012 05:36pm
Having taken the bus almost everyday between 1997 and 1999 to go to university, I can vouch for the mass transit system. Only recently, however, I was able to appreciate how it all works without really being centrally controlled like the transit system of more developed cities, like London, New York and even Toronto. Fearing corruption if it does go central, I think for now, it is a very good solution for cheap transportation for the city dwellers. Just make sure you find out yourself what the best route is for a certain trip. Google maps unfortunately doesn't have a trip planner for that :)
MZS Jul 24, 2012 07:44pm
What are the chances of having a real mass transit system one based on trains in karachi? Is there any plan to make the cirular rail operable again?
DelhiGirl Jul 24, 2012 09:26pm
Hopefully men don't grope women like they do in New Delhi buses. Barbaric north Indian culture.
malik11397 Jul 24, 2012 11:40pm
They have the best bus service in Karachi.
Salman Ali Jul 25, 2012 12:48am
Thank you for bringing out positive aspects from our every day life. These people are doing a tough, risky job to the best of their abilities. What we as a nation need to do is to focus more on Positives and build on them, rather than wasting time and space on news/discussions on politics andcorruption.
BNS Jul 25, 2012 02:01am
I am very happy to see such article. Yes, this crude looking network of running buses and wagons in Karachi serves the purpopse of a mass transit and is very efficient, though it does not look to be.
N S Parameswaran Jul 25, 2012 03:49am
I am from chennai. For a typical distance of say 10 KM the fare here is INR 18 on a semi luxury bus and about INR 8 on an ordinary bus. How much would it be in Karachi. Hope somebody here will reply
SHAN Jul 25, 2012 04:37am
Old time Karachiite Jul 25, 2012 04:45am
Although I can afford not to, but I still use the bus system for the heck of it, whenever I am in Karachi for vacations. You can get from one corner of the city to any other corner, in reasonable time, for a few rupees. Just have to know the right routes. Althgouh, definitely not as effificient as subway networks of developed western cities, but it still keeps the city running. @DelhiGirl - Because of religious/social norms, men and women have separate compartments in each bus. This mostly takes care of the problem you pointed out.
KhanChangezKhan Jul 25, 2012 12:35pm
The owners of these private macro and microbuses are very powerful. The do not care the public other government laws. A bus route starts from Orangi Town and ends to Khokhrapar do not run accordingly. The conductors gets passenger first from Orangi Town up to Liaqatabad or Hassan Squire only and thereafter from there, a second step to Kohkhrapar to get double fare. If any one says at Orangi Town that he wants to go Khokhrapar, he will not to be allowed for that saying that we are not going up to Khokhrapar. WHY? WHO WILL ANSWER of these disarrangements?
Tabish Jul 25, 2012 06:09am
I have to say that this is probably a very optimistic veiw of our intra city transport system. I mean i recall my days travelling in these buses, both the larger "Bedford" ones and the smaller minis and also my encounters with them every day on my way to work, and i have to the say the word "efficient" is probably the last thing that comes to mind. These buses are not checked properly by the authorities and now with the added CNG threat, the inexperienced drivers and the downright negligent driving, this system requires some serious regulations. Plus the barriers to entry (including vandalism) have also barred the citizens of this city from respectale transport mechinism. Plus i dont see why comparisons with other developed economies should be avoided. Why not follow some good examples set in the transportation business around the globe?
KhanChangezKhan Jul 25, 2012 12:21pm
Why the transport authority concerned ignoring the very very important road of Karachi University, which is completely unacceptable. One can see the situation of this road where he will find the busiest with heavy and light transports in competence to the others, which are much wider in DHA and some other places.
Zafar Jul 25, 2012 07:01am
Great article! Brought back sweet memories of times when I used to hop on those rickety Thames or Leyland buses from Federal B Area and go to Sind Muslim Science College and later to DG Science College. This was also my only means of transportation when going to Saddar Bazaar or any of the movie theaters of the area. Then there was my favorite Paan Wala Bhai or the tea stand. Its wonderful to reminisce about those days when Karachi Municipal Corporation had just bought those shiny new British Leyland double decker buses, alas only to be decimated later. Still I loved the public transit because without it I would not have been able to do so many fun things around Karachi. Later on when my family acquired a car and a motorcycle I moved on but now I was loathing and cursing the same bus drivers that used to cart me around. Despite of all this these guys were some of most honest and hard working people and very big heart at times. I remember some times on my regular routes they would not charge me the fare. I would have to agree that the public bus transit system in Karachi is many years behind the west but at the same time it is many years ahead in common sense and the pride to do the best with what they got!.
Alee Jul 25, 2012 09:46am
it is 12 Rupees for 10 KM here in karachi if one takes a mini bus.
N S Parameswaran Jul 26, 2012 03:18am
thanks for the info. Here also there is not much luxurious about the semi-luxury bus. It has two independent seats instead of the usual single seat for two that is there is normal buses. Also it is low floor with locking doors. So at least in this issue at least we are all in the same boat (oops Bus) Regards
sabeen Jul 26, 2012 06:32am
All of sudden some good points about Pakistan thanx for it, otherwise i was so disappointed to only see negative statements, bad word of mouth and so one. i am a Proud PAKISTANI and i would like to suggest that every country do have a good and bad but it doesn't mean that we should always look at the bad side. i saw good image building of Pakistani culture @ because in my opinion culture needs to be very strong in order to fight
travel toiletry bags Aug 17, 2012 01:11pm
Taking the bus around town can be an experience that can be repeated. It is taking one trip at least