The 3rd largest city in the world with a population of more than 20 million, Pakistan’s economic center – Karachi – functions with inadequate public transport.
Amina Bai stands in the corner of the road tapping her foot as she waits for the ‘bees number wali gaari’ (20 number bus). The traffic on Shahrah-e-Faisal at 7 pm is excessive, and the drivers express their desperation by honking endlessly. Meanwhile, two traffic police officers try to control the four-way traffic because the signal has malfunctioned – yet again.
This is a typical scene you will see being a resident of Karachi – a city that generates roughly 70% of Pakistan’s total revenue.
“I traveled on these mini busses when they were new, and I travel in them now,” Amina Bai said.
“Although they are in horrible condition, they are the only affordable option I have for transport.”
The 40-year-old woman works as a maid at a house in PECHS. It takes her hours to reach work every day.
A well-designed transport system is the basic need of any city. Unfortunately, Karachi, the economic center of Pakistan, has the worst transport system in the world, according to the ‘2019 Driving City Index’.
It was not always like that. Before independence, Karachi had a government-run transport system, built and run by the British. It comprised of Tramway and the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR). Both the systems were, however, closed later on due to safety hazards and financial issues.
In all these years, the government, both federal and provincial, took multiple initiatives to solve the city’s gravest problem. These included Karachi Transport Syndicate (1957), Karachi Road Transport Corporation (1964), Karachi Omnibus Service (1968), and Karachi Transport Corporation (1977). But, as evident from the crisis the city faces today, none of these worked.
‘Karachi: The Transport Crisis, 2015’, a report by urban planner Arif Hassan and engineer Mansoor Raza states, ‘The number of buses on Karachi’s roads have declined from 22,313 in 2011 to 12,399 in 2014, of which 9,527 are operative.
The unavailability of busses is due to lack of funds, CNG shortage, and absence of a regulatory authority’.
The state the city’s minibuses are in is what can be best described as unsafe.
With metal-framed seats, exposed CNG cylinders, diesel-based engines, and non-existent windows, it’s nothing less than a surprise the buses are still even working. Passengers often have to wait for long intervals for the buses to arrive and in cases when all the seats are taken, you might have to make your way to the roof of the bus. The view is not bad but it is illegal and a serious safety threat.
Additionally, commuters have complained that they have gotten into accidents while boarding and leaving the bus. Some passengers added that they have been robbed in these busses more than once.
Fatima Asad, a medical student at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, says travelling by minibus is frustrating.
“You won’t always get a place to sit, men sometimes come into the women section, and the stares are an everyday thing.”
But Asad doesn’t have any other way to commute. Ride-hailing services are expensive, and rickshaws and chingchis are unsafe. “The 45-minute bus ride and the 10-minute walk to my house are an everyday thing for me,” she said as she turned her head and took a long look outside the window as the bus driver raced to his next stop.
Karachi’s decaying transport system is marked with numerous fallings. Chairperson of the Department of Architecture and Planning at NED, Noman Ahmed, pointed out that there are about 5,000 busses on the road according to a World Bank report.
“But each one of them is in a shambolic state,” he said. “The primary reason for this is the lack of driver education. Most drivers are illiterate and don’t even have rudimentary road sense.”
Ahmed said that these drivers are residents of the city who would take up any job for a livelihood.
“I earn Rs200 to Rs300 every day – the rest of the money goes to the owner of this bus,” 45-year-old driver Siddique Aslam said.
“It [the bus] may look damaged, but it has never given up on me in all these years.”
Aslam said that the engine of the bus was, however, irreparable because these engines have now disappeared from the markets after so many years. “Spare parts for the vehicle are nearly impossible to find today.” Looking at his bus, Aslam says, “This bus will run for 20 more years easily.”
The majority of lower-middle class residing in the metropolitan city rigorously uses mini busses because of affordability. Despite of this, commute through buses sucks up a major proportion of the salaries of people traveling in them.
The middle class and upper-middle-class have switched to using ride-hailing apps, as they are much safer and comfortable.
For the past few years, a number of people have switched to applications such as Uber and Careem.
“Uber has certainly made my life easier; I can call a car anywhere at any time and safely reach my destination. The ride can get expensive sometimes but traveling in congested and unsafe minibuses is out of the question,” says Samia Aijaz, a nutritionist at the Indus Hospital.
Karachi’s roads are heavily congested, and experts predict streets will soon come to a standstill. The solution to this problem is an effective public transport system but it is nowhere to be seen.
In recent years, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and Peshawar have all gotten mass transit services in one form or another but Karachi’s Green Line remains neglected.
For the megapolis, a well-designed active transport system has been a part of every political party’s manifesto, but voters never saw any action. A report by Bloomberg published last year likened the city’s condition to a “political orphan”.
In June 2012, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), in collaboration with Karachi Mass Transit Cell (KMTC), proposed a master plan for the city.
It was the revival of the Karachi Circular Railway and Six Bus Rapid Transit. Amongst those Six BRTs was Green Line. After two years of discussion, the project was introduced in July 2014.
Two years later, the Green Line was inaugurated by Nawaz Sharif in 2016. The plan was to complete the work by April 2017.
By 2019, the Green Line structure from Surjani Town to Guru Mandir was ready, but there are no busses to run on this route.
Munawwar Ahmed, a resident of Guru Mandir, said that the construction of BRT caused traffic jams, accidents, and business loss.
“We couldn’t do anything, so we waited patiently, but now that it is completed, there is no use. It was just good money and time wasted for nothing.”
Multiple assurances by the federal, provincial, and city governments were given.
“The Green Line will be ready by mid-2020.”
“The service will be operational by December 2019,” the government’s statements said.
We’re in 2021, yet the Green Line remains non-operational.
The Orange Line BRT project, which was started in 2016 remains half-finished.
After remaining suspended for around 20 years, the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) service was partially revived couple of months back. The KCR service was started in 1964 and came to a halt in 1999 primarily due to deterioration in service and acute financial losses incurred by the Railways.
“I travel in the KCR daily, it gets me to my destination in less time and the fare is only Rs. 40,” Abdul Basit, a mechanical engineer, who travels to and from his workplace in SITE said. Despite the absence of effective public transport, Karachi has somehow survived in the last four decades. The city’s roads are filled with transport options from rickshaws, app-based rides to chingchi and mini trucks. But due to lack of regulations and investment in mass transit infrastructure, most of the available public transport options are a safety hazard.
The complete apathy of relevant departments in ensuring that safe transport is available for citizens means anything that has an engine and wheels is being run in the city.
The private transport mafia has a stronghold over what will run on the roads, where they will be run, and most importantly what the fares will be charged.
“New busses, subsidized rates are a dream which I don’t even believe in anymore” comments Amina, as she swiftly leaps on the bus that will get her home.
If Karachi can generate 70% revenue without a public transport system, one can only imagine what the city can do with it.
For now, we can only hope that one day, the metropolitan city will have a public transport system that it desperately deserves.
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