Karachi's transport challenge

Karachi desperately needs a better transport system. Government efforts have repeatedly failed, yet the authorities are reluctant to allow innovative solutions to rule the road.

Arif Hasan's picture
Guest blog by
13 August 2015

Arif Hasan is an architect/planner in Karachi. He is the founding chair of Karachi's Urban Resource Centre

Three-wheeler vehicles known as Quinqis are a popular and cheap method of transport in Karachi, but they cause considerable congestion (Photo: Carol Mitchell, Creative Commons via Flickr)

In transport planning, important issues related to long-term financial and technical sustainability are often missed, due to a conflict between the vision and the reality. This has certainly been the situation in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan, where the rapidly growing urban population has left the city's transport infrastructure bursting at the seams.

Karachi has grown from a city of 450,000 in 1941 to a city of more than 22 million today. The resulting traffic congestion contributes to increased air and noise pollution, leading to health problems, high accident rates, and environmental degradation, as well as affecting living standards, as people are forced to live closer to work.

The situation presents a challenge for policymakers. Since independence in 1947, the provincial and federal governments have invested heavily in trying to provide affordable and comfortable transport to the city's citizens. But they have had little success.

A new IIED Working paper; 'Responding to the transport crisis in Karachi' examines the policy response and looks at the conflict between the vision and the reality. 

The bigger picture

The success of transport policy can depend on the bigger picture. Certain larger political and economic decisions taken by national governments, for example, or the fluctuation in international oil prices, may undermine policy choices, impacting the ability of the system to function, and affordability for the commuting public.

In Karachi, a court ruling intended to reduce pollution from diesel buses resulted in half the fleet being taken off the roads. These issues were not foreseen when programmes were developed.

A range of different bus-based models have been tried in Karachi, but these have invariably resulted in failure. These include the creation of large government-financed public sector companies, various models of public-private partnerships and transferring public sector companies running at a loss to the private sector. 

These attempts have been unsuccessful for a number of reasons, including:

  • Government has failed to provide the subsidies that were an essential part of the plan to the public sector companies and the public-private partnerships
  • Attempts to link with Pakistan's private sector automobile industry for spare part manufacturing and maintenance were not successful. This was due to a failure to develop the necessary arrangements between the private and public sectors 
  • Training institutes for drivers, conductors and mechanics were established but could not be sustained because their budgets were not increased over time as needed due to a lack of resources and flawed institutional arrangements, and
  • Constant changes in local government systems affected the effective functioning of transport planning and monitoring institutions, as there was no sense of long-term ownership. Independent transport related institutions that could have survived were not envisaged.

Liberalised transport

In 1977 the government instigated a "free transport policy", allowing any individual to purchase a bus, get a route permit and operate it.

But loans to buy the buses were not available from the formal sector, so informal financers started to provide loans at high rates of interest. And because of the cost of buying a vehicle, more and more 35-seater 'minibuses' of poor quality were introduced. 

Because of huge losses, the government ended all of its transport-related activities in 1996, and by 2000 the only buses operating in the city were some 25,000 minibuses.

Over time, the minibus financiers and their clients (as in many other cities in the South) have developed into a powerful interest group who have violated rules, regulations and government policy decisions thanks to their informal relations with the police and local government departments.

As a result, the transport sector is in a state of anarchy, with badly maintained buses that operate without the required safety certificates from the transport department.

Environmental measures backfire

In 2005, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered that all vehicles running on diesel be converted to compressed natural gas (CNG) for environmental reasons. This was welcomed by the government as it reduced its oil import bill and by the transport operators as CNG considerably lowered their costs.

CNG use subsequently increased by 300 per cent. As a result, there were severe shortages of CNG, leading to rationing, which made it almost impossible for CNG buses to run every day.

Reconverting the CNG buses back to diesel was too expensive, so many of the operators converted many of their vehicles into trucks, pick-ups and/or contract carriers, or simply took them off the roads. As a result, the number of buses operating in Karachi has declined to fewer than 10,000 today, creating immense problems for the commuting public. 

Innovative solutions

The market has responded to this crisis in two ways. Motorbikes have become more affordable, through hire purchase schemes. This has led to the number of motorbikes increasing from 500,000 to 1.65 million between 2005 and 2013.

And there has also been a dramatic increase in three-wheeler vehicles that can carry six people (known as Qingqis), owned by groups and individuals. The government has attempted to ban them and their future is now the subject of a court battle, with the final judgement yet to come.

Qingqis are the preferred form of travel, especially for women who feel more secure in them. If hired by a group, their affordability compares well with the minibuses. However, along with the motorbikes, they cause considerable congestion on the city roads. 

As the city waits for the implementation of the government's recent Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) scheme to take shape along five corridors across the city (which may take many years to complete) the number of motorbikes and Qingqis, which do not need subsidies to buy, run or maintain, continues to increase.

Women left stranded

Women are the worst affected by the transport crisis. Many do not work as a result and the decision of those who do, and the job they opt for, depends very much on the easy availability of transport. Many say they are too tired from commuting to carry out the household duties demanded of them. 

Increasingly, families now prefer to rent nearer the city rather than own a house on the periphery due to the cost, time and discomfort of commuting. This is leading to the inner city informal settlements becoming more densely populated, creating serious conditions of overcrowding.

As Karachi embarks on its BRT proposals, it has to learn lessons from its past. It has to decide whether to promote motorbikes and Qingqis, or not. And also, to see how it can integrate the owners of the minibuses (who have immense knowledge of the city and operating transport) into future plans.

Arif Hasan (arifhasan37@gmail.com) is an architect/planner in Karachi. He has been involved with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) since 1981 and is the founding chair of Karachi's Urban Resource Centre (URC) and a member of the executive board of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. More details: arifhasan.org.

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