One of the many civic problems that have plagued Karachi for a long time has been the lack of an efficient, smoothly functioning public transport system, which has engendered several other issues in its wake, including problems related to traffic congestion. To resolve the difficulties posed by traffic congestion, over the years, various governments have tried to manage the issue through the construction of flyovers, underpasses and bridges. This approach did alleviate the situation to an extent, but it proved to be a short-term measure to deal with the problem. With regular increases in the city’s vehicular population, the utility of these concrete structures in easing Karachi’s traffic woes have decreased with the passage of time.
Added to this is the problem faced by millions of Karachiites, who use public transport as they continue to suffer, travelling in overcrowded, sub-standard buses that take forever to reach their destinations. Keeping in view this state of affairs, what Karachi clearly needs is an efficient and affordable public transport system that not only eases problems faced by those who currently use public buses, but is also able to attract those who normally use private vehicles. This will ensure that the vehicular population on Karachi’s roads decreases, thereby easing traffic congestion.
In this regard, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s initiative to start a dedicated bus lane for the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) is a step in the right direction. The 22.4-kilometre track from Dawood Chowrangi in Landhi to Numaish Chowrangi in Saddar is expected to reduce travelling time by half. Although the project is still in its very initial stages, it is already being hoped that it will become operational before 2014. The BRTS envisages around 200 large buses running on either side of the road’s green belt at an interval of a few minutes with around 13,000 passengers being able to use it every hour. The project will be carried out under a public-private partnership at a cost of two billion rupees.
Although this move seems to be a well-intentioned one, the authorities will have to be wary of the potential snags that they may run into. Previous projects to revamp the city’s public transport system have failed spectacularly. The fate of the Karachi Circular Railway is there for all to see — a project that never saw the light of day despite being in the news for a long time.
There will also be a need to remain wary of the vested interests that have huge stakes in the city’s public transport system as it exists at present and who may not wish to see this project succeed and may try to sabotage it. To counter the challenge posed by these elements, good intentions and proper planning will not be enough. What will be required is immense political will to take on these forces. As Enrique Penalosa, the celebrated former mayor of the Colombian city of Bogota once said: “Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted”. While this project has the potential to benefit the majority of the city’s commuters, at the same time, it can also pose dangers to the interests of what many refer to as Karachi’s transport mafia and this is where the political aspect of the BRTS may come to haunt it.
Keeping in view all these potential obstacles, one needs to temper optimism regarding this positive development with a healthy dose of caution, lest this initiative comes to a naught.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2012.