For a city of over 23 million, the transport sector is not only incredibly important for Karachi for economic reasons, but also for social and environmental justice. Sustainable transport is a blanket term for transport strategies for the type of vehicles that occupy the roads, the nature of fuel used, the infrastructure itself such as roads and railways that support vehicles and pedestrians, to name a few. Such strategies typically advocate for transit-oriented development (TOD) model designed to maximise pedestrian mobility, cost-efficient public transit, decarbonisation, and minimise traffic and congestion. A consensus exists somewhat on how the cities of tomorrow must have fast strategic modes of transport to enable maximum urban mobility. This agreement takes on another dimension when viewed in the context of rapid urbanisation and the present climate crisis, with the fossil fuel dependent transport sector in developing countries alone responsible for 30% of the CO2 emissions, according to UNECE. While the development sector and experts on the subject all over the world turn to green transport alternatives, coming up with new green technologies and pushing for the use of sustainable biofuels, it is imperative that we devise similar sustainable plans for Karachi. To achieve this, we must identify the economic, administrative, and urban realities that have affected and continue to affect transport plans and policy formation in Karachi.
A 2005 Supreme Court order to shift from diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG) can serve as a good opener to highlight how policy proposals must take into account the technicalities and long term implications of policy implementation. While the order was passed and put into action as a pro-environment and economic measure, since CNG incurred a much smaller bill for the government, the measure inevitably caused massive CNG shortages (Hasan, 2015). This prompted many bus operators to convert their buses into pickup trucks or stop running them in the city altogether since they could not afford to reconvert the vehicles back to diesel. This resulted in a further decrease in public transport with only less than 10,000 buses left in Karachi to move the city's residents around (Hasan, 2015). A good way forward is to introduce a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, success stories of which can be found in many cities in the Global South like Curitiba, Brazil. While BRT services in cities like Peshawar and Lahore – Peshawar BRT and Orange Line Metro Train respectively – are appreciated for providing high-standard and affordable transport for the lower-income class, the two also attract a fair share of criticism. In addition to frequent reports of how the two projects have caused a waste of resources and over-spending due to weak management and various delays, there are also concerns about poor economic returns with the Metro bus going into a loss (Adnan, 2020; Khan, 2019). According to Nomad Ahmed, an architect and planner at NED, current BRT and transportation models ignore other modes of public transport such as motorbikes, rickshaws and chingchis (2019). These models also fail to consider the locality that would allow maximum people to avail the transit service and end up being under-utilised. One such case is that of the Lyari Expressway, generating a construction cost of about Rs.23 billion, but used by only 40,000 vehicles (Ahmed, 2019).
The lack of affordable transport along with poor urban planning practices is especially inconvenient for a city like Karachi where more than about 70% of its large population is employed in the informal sector (Hasan, 2021). The problem is further amplified by the unequal population distribution in the city where low-income groups often residing away from the city centre and owning no private transport, end up spending a lot on their daily commute. Furthermore, many women find their employment and academic opportunities restricted. They are not allowed to work and/or due to an absence of safe commute and in the cases that they do work, they must limit themselves to work-from-home or workplaces that are nearby. As a woman living in Karachi who has to attend classes on campus at least one hour from her residence and owns no private conveyance, arranging safe commute options has been a persistent problem for a good part of my degree. My university adopting an online teaching model during the pandemic has, sadly, offered me some respite.
In the most simplistic terms, the federal, provincial, and city level authorities must realise the economic and social need for sustainable and cost-effective public transport. More importantly, there must be clear and unambiguous efforts to implement transit-oriented development models that strive to make Karachi an inclusive space for all. Developing the infrastructure that carries all vehicles and pedestrians is as much important as is investing in BRT systems. Without considering the rickshaws and the chingchis, the neglected road network, no safety and maintenance checks on the transport vehicles, poor city drainage, and an in-depth financial evaluation of fares and vehicle taxes, initiatives like BRT only further economic and social divide by turning into money-making enterprises for the rich.
Adnan, I. (2020, May 24). Metro bus faces Rs.500m loss during lockdown. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from Tribune: https://www.google.com/amp/s/tribune.com.pk/story/2228091/1-metro-bus-faces-rs500m-loss-lockdown%3famp=1
Ahmed, N. (2019, December 11). The BRT Problem. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from Dawn: https://www.dawn.com/news/1521624
Climate Change and Sustainable Transport. UNECE. (n.d.). https://unece.org/climate-change-and-sustainable-transport
Hasan, A. (2015, August 13). Karachi’s Transport Challenge. International Institute for Environment and Development. https://www.iied.org/karachis-transport-challenge?utm_source=pocket-app&utm_medium=share
Hasan, A. (2021, January 3). Karachi’s Street Economy. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from Arif Hasan: http://arifhasan.org/culture/karachi-ch/karachis-street-economy#:~:text=The%20city's%20informal%20economy%20employs,are%20vital%20to%20its%20processes
Khan, I. (2019, April 3). Damning Report of Public Money Waste on Peshawar BRT. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from Dawn: https://www.dawn.com/news/1473563