KARACHI MASS TRANSIT: DO-NOTHING IS NO LONGER AN OPTION

TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI (tariqsaeedi@hotmail.com)
Mar 02 - 08, 2009

Implementation of Karachi mass transit plan has become all important to share the burgeoning intra-city traveling burden in the Pakistan's commercial hub, which is sweeping up in the vortex of mounting population. How truly a wise person has appreciated unflinching fortitude of those who despite knowing that their prescriptions on socio-economic maladies fall on deaf ears keep on relating uncalled suggestions. The statement befits repeated warnings of incumbent workaholic city mayor Mustufa Kamal who has reiterated his surprise over old-aged transportation system of the city on several platforms. Recently, he chimed in with a claim during a TV interview that it is alone miracle that is running the city without appropriate mass transit system". With practical knowledge of miseries of commuters traveling within the city daily, one can not term this an overstated opinion, progeny of byzantine political environment of the country. Rather, just a cursory glance over how does a common person endure suffering of commuting in rundown public transport daily corroborates his view. Limited numbers of public busses and negligible intra-city railways further aggravate this suffering.

Numerous five years development plans by planning commission included strategies to cope up with the national and the provincial transportation problems and advised provincial government induction of buses according to increasing needs of pubic transportation. Based on studies by foreign consultants, government functionaries, and autonomous transport associations, these plans never reached at an implementation stage. All seven or eight exclusive transport plans have been unsuccessful in implementing efficient public transportation system within Karachi due to various institutional constraints and infrastructural bottlenecks.

Although, devolution of power made no difference to the fate of urban transport system at least decentralization wiped out infrastructural bottlenecks. By building array of flyovers, underpasses, and integrated networks of roadways, city government has pulled away a major barrier in the way of functional urban transport system. Construction of bus stops alongside main roads across city seems to be another step towards functional intra-city bus services.

However, there still exists political and regulatory problems which are distancing development of integrated, efficient, economically viable, environment friendly and self-sustainable urban transit system in the metropolis with an abnormally rising population of 17 million. Non-cooperation within different government departments is a main obstacle in the way of Karachi mass transit system. Even though, Karachi district government has proved its significance after bringing transformation in an entire outlook of the city, it is incomprehensible then why there is an institutional reluctance to assign unshared command of managing city affairs to city government and its devolved units. There are still 13 civic bodies managing state of affairs of Karachi, creating transparent conflict of commands.

It seems that Karachi mass transit project is not implemented at present because of the very reason of conflict in commands that also draw strength out of political differences. Without under political clouts, transport mafia can not withstand legal actions against them for flouting openly traffic rules. Overlooking of this violation is also a compulsion for the government as there are no or less other alternatives of public transportation modes available with the public in Karachi.

Besides, private parties are running a major transportation system in the city without any financial support of the government, which just ignores their lawbreaking attempts and deficient mini-buses in return. This ignorance results in arbitrary fares, traffic congestion, reduced economic and social productivity of commuters, and environmental degradation.

Induction of public buses, building of circular railways and self-sustainable transport system are envisaged in mass transit project developed for Karachi. A major study of Karachi mass transit in 1990 had failed in attracting investments from private parties. Based on build-operate-transfer, the plan initially envisaged elevated transit way bus system to overcome traffic congestion and later turned it focus to light train system, which had been declared non-viable option by consultants earlier. The consultants ruled out light train a viable option for its high cost per ride in comparison to bus. They estimated 2.5 times high cost which had to subsidize by the government. Furthermore, railway tracks most of them have become out of use across the city are outdated and on broad gauge that can only carry fuel-voracious, slow-moving trains and not modern, rapid moving trains. The stations are to be built from the scratch. All these demand large piece of investments that are not possible without inclusion of private money.

Mass transit, bus rapid transport system, or any other plans sound good, however, until these plans are transformed into calibrated strategies dream of efficient, integrated, economically viable, and environment friendly urban transport system would not come true. Although, formulation of transport policy is imperative to root out bottlenecks and inhibitions in regulation and management of transportation system of the city, previous transport policies are still catching dusts in the morgue of files in regional transport department. One devised in 1991 transport policy could not be implemented either due to dearth of solid strategies or its incompatibility with the then dynamics of transportation.

It is not recommended to sit idly and wait for problems to be resolved automatically as do-nothing is no longer an option what was advised in Karachi mass transit study, conducted almost three years ago. The rising numbers of commuters invokes rapid implementation of mass transit plan lest nuisances become incorrigible and invalidate any plan before its becoming applicable. That has made revision of fleet figures required for public transports many a time as every delay in implementation caused nonconformity of a study with the ground realities. Maybe, city government's plan to introduce 8,000 CNG buses for the metropolis need to be reviewed or inducted with revised fleet figure when the plan finally is executed. It is relevant to note that 6th planning commission's five year plan envisaged over 9,000 buses for over 6.82 million population of Karachi in 1988.

Without public-private partnership, Karachi mass transit system will not be in place as the system needs huge capital which will be a dent on an already squeezing public sector development budget. Despite substantial capital requirement, investments in urban transit projects will have guaranteed returns for efficient and integrated public transports will divert sizeable commuters to the new system. Investments of private parties will in fact cross breakeven point in a brief timeline due to prospective high frequency of commuting via public buses, monorails, and trams.