It’s a common wisdom that the impact of rise in oil prices goes far beyond travel and commutation and affects every aspect of life. The change also impacts the rich and poor differently, with the latter income group with suffering more than the former.
A cursory glance on the decennial (2012-2022) increase in petrol prices reveals an increase of 145.25 percent from Rs. 101.42/litre to Rs. 248.74/litre. Discussions with persons of low income groups, various experts and anecdotal evidence suggests that the recent obscene price hike will take its toll on the education of girl child, erode the nutritious intake of food of a family and will reduce the expenditures on health of elderly and increase in the numbers of foot path dwellers. To push the point further, the cost of food basket increases from Rs 1,805 to approximately little more than Rs 3,000 at bare minimum. In 2012, the ration pack price for a family the size of seven individuals for a month used to cost Rs 4,000 approximately, is now Rs 8,300 approximately. In both cases, it’s an increase of 100 percent with bare minimum nutrition value. The lower middle-class families who for a long time now have stopped buying fruits, are now also considering cutting down on one meal to save money. A sacrifice that will also result in a rise in malnutrition adults and children in the long run.
The Linkages of Transport Issue
Specifically, when it comes to the question of the exorbitant rise in petrol prices, it once again brings the old and yet-to-be-answered question back on the table: Why most of the citizens are deprived of an efficient, affordable and decent transport system?
The decision makers usually see the issue of transport and commutation in isolation with the social realities of masses and hence the solutions offered are usually expensive, acontextual, counter-productive and unsustainable. The neo-liberal mindset infested planners usually suggest the purchase of expensive buses, heavy investment on transport related mega infrastructure projects and gender insensitive operationalisation of the plans to solve a more complex issue.
The transport issue of urban centres has definite linkage with a number of fast changing social realities of the society. Just to name a few: the shifting demographics of the Karachi city, the variations in family structure, the evolving pattern of dwellings and the spatial distribution of livelihood opportunities – all have an instrumental connect in defining and reshaping the travel and commutation discourse of Karachi city.
Historically, Karachi with a current official population figure of 16.05 million (of Karachi Division) has had a higher growth rate: way beyond average national growth rate. Keeping aside the reasons for this extravagant growth and the authenticity of current official figures (beyond the scope of this article), the phenomenon puts high demand on all aspects of civic life and transport is no exception to it. Just to have an idea of the humungous growth there was a total addition of 8,944,318 person in urban Karachi between the census periods of 1941and 1998. The momentum of the growth can also be judged by the fact that between the census periods of 1951-1981 (i.e. in 30 years) 4,139,673 persons were added, while total addition between the census periods of 1981 -1998 (i.e. 17 years) is of 4,131,103 persons. This colossal growth has bearing on transport sector as well. Owned by three private sector companies, there were 20 to 50 large buses in Karachi, in 1947. In 1955 the number of tram cars was 157 however the service got closed down in year 1974. The question here is does the transport sector has the capacity or necessary support to cater to the changing realities?
Then there is a transition in family structure which is which is grossly understudied. Same holds true for all other institutions and those include education, health, marriage, sports, parenting, and deviance and crime. So, it’s a society in transition. According to the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 Survey, 89 per cent of families in Karachi are nuclear – a significant spike from 1989, when the figure was at 54 per cent. Some of the reasons for opting for a nuclear family structure by couples is a want for undisturbed education of children, challenging and different lifestyles of other members of joint family system and a wish for a better life style (i.e. upward social mobility). The independence of the separating couple comes at a loss of support structure and more dependency on physical movement on independent modes of transport. Thus, affordability, security and availability of the transport to commute to job place and educational institution dictates the choice of residence for the separating couples.
For a commoner, dwelling, and travel and transport are as integral as Siamese twins. It is mentioned by noted architect and urban planner Arif Hasan that low-income group constitutes 68 per cent of Karachi’s population with a fluctuating density of 6,000 persons per square kilometer. It is also interesting to note because of the shortage of housing that between 1998 and 2011, average household (HH) size has increased from 6.7 percent to 7.3 percent, which is due to a shortage of housing and not because of any increase in fertility rates. It is also a fact that 88 per cent of the houses are built on 120 and less square yards and houses built on 400 to 800 square yards are 2 per cent of the total houses and they occupy 21 percent of the total 36 percent of the residential land of Karachi. And when sky rocketed land prices force people to live on periphery their woes increase. Living on periphery means increased cost of transportation, associated discomfort and more time spent on commutation. It also means that women who have to look after families cannot work. The travel cost increases and hence it becomes economical to rent a place in the center of the city.
Connected through a road length of more than 10,000 kilometers, the spatial distribution of f livelihood sector is very much diverse. The city has a formal economy estimated to be worth USD 114 billion as of 2014, which is the largest in the country. An approximate 56 per cent of employment in manufacturing is in SITE Area, Landhi and Korangi Area and more than 80 per cent of the business service are located in central business area. An approximate 50 per cent of the employment in wholesaling and transport is in the central area. For working class commuters trip lengths is in the range of 20 to 40 km for working class commuters. There are more 24.2 million person trips generated in Karachi every day, out of which at least 60 per cent are realised through the existing system of public transport. An approximate 60 per cent of those trips are made by students in various categories.
Moreover, the city also has an equally large informal sector, which is dispersed throughout the city. For a working-class member, the current commute time per annum is 624 hours, which is equivalent to 78 work days. Therefore, a mass transit of the wider network is absolutely necessary to increase productivity.
Currently, there is an absolute dearth of public transport in the city. As per the research conducted by Urban Resource Center, Karachi, there is acute shortage of reliable, safe, comfortable and affordable public transport in the city. The URC research of the year 2014 mentions that out of more than 3.6 million vehicles, public transport is 4.5 per cent and carries 42 of the total load of commutation, cars are 36.5 per cent and carry 21 per cent of the load and motorcycles are 47 per cent and take off 19 percent of the commuting load.
The Government Response
The government response to the transport challenges evolved over time with the changing realities and with the ideology of the state itself. When the state was the provider various master plans of Karachi helped in developing relevant institutions and took the responsibility of the provision of safe and affordable commutation for masses. When the state became the facilitator and client, various packages, tangentially talked about the transport service with high sounding platitudes.
From the year 1951 to 2006, to respond to fast changing social, economic changing scenario, the planners of the city proposed five master plans. Each plan took stock of the existing demand and supply scenario of various sectors through a set of diverse investigation and research techniques, and subsequently made plans for future by extrapolating the existing requirements. Various master and strategic plans offered profound solutions to the transport woes of Karachi, however nevertheless, the implementation was less-than-satisfactory.
The MRV Plan, 1952
Post- independence, the MRV plan in 1952 was the first ever in the planning history of Karachi. The MRV Plan focused on rail system for provision of commutation service to the dwellers of the city. It proposed a rail-centred and rail-focused bus system, a system of feeder roads, express roads and major roads. To reduce the commutation time and cost MRV suggested the proximity of residential and commercial centres. The MRV Plan emphasised the importance of public transit system and argues that in the presence of a decent and affordable mass transit, people will not use private vehicles and hence parking problem could also be handled.
The Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan, 1958
The Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan in 1958 was housing-focused and also known Doxiadis Plan, named after the name of a Greek Planning Firm Doxiadis Associates. The plan converted a dense city into a sprawl and it also segregated rich and poor areas and since the majority of the population were shifted to satellite towns, it thus put additonal demands on commutation, and hence transport and allied sectors.
The Karachi Development Plan, 1974-85
The Karachi Development Plan of 1974-1985 was prepared with the assistance of UNDP and was the most comprehensive plans amongst all the five plans. The preparation on the plan was started in 1968 and it envisaged a rationale road network, housing, water supply, transport terminals and warehouses, land management, mass transit and ecological issues. Based on the 1985 travel demand forecast, which in turn was based on population, income distributions and the local activities, the plan foresaw a surge in public transport services. Thus, it combined the existing rail-based transport with the proposed enhanced bus transport services. The plan also included a pro-people commutation consideration and very well articulated the continued operations of multi-modal transport services to low income groups in high density areas. The plan however, was not very encouraging towards private passenger cars as it stipulated that, “Private vehicles providing 44 per cent of road passenger miles use 83 per cent of passenger road space, while buses providing for 55 per cent of road passenger miles use only 17 per cent of road passenger space”. However, only the road networks as proposed in the plan were built and that too in a substandard manner. Other components of the plan could not be implemented and nor could the institutional arrangements (KDA) developed for management as stated in the purpose of the project.
Karachi Development Plan (KDP), 1986-2000
The Karachi Development Plan of 1982-2000 was made for an estimated population of 10 million to 12 million, which actually is quite close to the real figure of 1998 census (9.8 million). The recommendation of KDP 2000 was to build a bus transit way network in selected major corridors where the expansion and consolidation of the city was taking place. The KDP 2000 did not rule out rail-based transit but rather instead it suggested carrying out limited preliminary engineering to protect rights-of-way for possible future rail alignments along Saddar-Tower, from MA Jinnah Road to LEA Market and SITE corridors. The rail system is recommended to be supported by extended bus-centred service and a planned bus network was proposed with provisions for bus depots and 18 terminals. It also proposes to implement the institutional changes and financial arrangements needed to support these programs. Like its predecessor, the implementation of KDP 2000 remained dotted and that resulted in more transport issues and collapse of formal sector transport facilities.
Karachi Strategic Development Plan (KSDP), 2020
Presented in 2006, the KSDP 2020 called for Public Private Partnership to enhance the performance of service delivery institutions. The plan, which aimed to “to set out a strategic framework” articulated its approach through four objectives: Future growth of the metropolitan, appropriate future housing needs, infrastructure deficit (to improve on), and ensure sustainability by establishing institutions and financial paradigm. The transport sector strategic challenges as identified by the KSDP 2020 are: sustainable mobility, efficient and safe transport system, a policy, regulatory and delivery framework that places economically efficient solutions, and public transport and safety at the forefront. The ‘developing partners’, as mentioned against those specific challenges in the Plan are: CDGK Transport Department, Federal and Provincial Governments, funding agencies, communities and civil society, professionals and academics and transporters’ associations.
The gravity of the transport issue can be judged by the fact that besides above plans various interjections been made to address the travel and commutation issues of masses. Some noteworthy transport related interventions are mentioned below.
Free Transport Policy, 1971
In 1971, the government introduced what is known as the ‘free transport policy’. This policy was introduced because there was an increasing demand for transport from the various katchi abadis developing on the then periphery of Karachi, while government transport only functioned on the main corridor of the city. Under the free transport policy, any individual who could purchase a bus could apply for a route permit. A route permit was for a particular route identified by the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) of the government of Sindh.
The Karachi Special Development Project (1986 – 1994)
The sub-sectorial interventions suggested by the Karachi Special Development Project were in the areas of water and sewerage, flood control and drainage, transportation, katchi abadi upgrading, solid waste management, resource generation, and metropolitan management
Karachi Mass Transit Program, 1990s
In 1990 after a detailed study concluded that both for economic and technical reasons a light rail system was not feasible for Karachi and that buses would perform best and have the necessary capacity to meet Karachi’s expanding needs. The study proposed six bus transit ways (a total of 87.4 kilometres) and identified priority Corridor-1 which was mainly elevated and passed through the Old City and the main artery on which Karachi’s heritage buildings are located (KDA 1990). The project was to be built on a Built-Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis.
Tameer e Karachi Programme, 2004
In the regime of President Mushararf, the then Nazim of City District Government Naimatullah Khan announced Tameer-e- Karachi Program. For the Programme of Rs. 29 Billion, the City District Government Karachi had contributed Rs. 6 Billion, to be spent over a period of four years.
The listed projects, their numbers and allocations for the same, as reported in the media were: road (17) Rs. 682 million, flyovers (two) Rs. 100 million, sewerage (41) Rs. 41 million, water supply (13) Rs. 75 million, besides two consultancies costing Rs. 8 million.
The Karachi Transformation Plan, 2020
On August 20, 2020, the Federal Government of PTI, announced 100 projects under the transformation package have been planned which includes besides others, revitalizing the Circular Railway, completing the metro bus service, and carrying out maintenance of roads and modernizing the city’s infrastructure. Green Line BRT, Karachi Circular Railway and railway line freight corridor from Karachi Port to Pipri were part of the Plan
Plans are a response to the political and economic crises of capitalism for urban built environment. So far it’s a static exercise in which a Master Plan is supposed to be made after every 5 or 10 years. With the exception of KDP 1974-1985, most master plans got out of date by the time when they got published. The problems of Karachi, and transport issue not discounted, are fundamentally social, economic and of related to governance.
Response by commercial sector
It is interesting to note that how absence of mass transit system in Karachi generates two diagonally opposite and stratified responses for commutation by the market forces: motorbikes and Qingqi rickshaws for low-income groups and smart phone app based comfortable rides for affluent segments.
Till 2014, there were almost 50,000 unregistered Qingqi rickshaws in the city, generating a revenue somewhere between 2.5 to 3 million a day by transporting approximately 250,000 passengers and operating from informal ‘addas’. Addas were operated usually under the patronage of the ‘influential’ persons of the area. This solution by market-driven forces, however, is not without its own pitfalls. They are blamed for slowing down of other vehicles and creating congestion. They are used by women who frequently experience harassment, mostly by motorcyclists. The city currently has a need for further 80,000 Qinqqi rickshaws. In the absence of all comprehensive mass transit, this response by market forces is popular because it caters to low income groups, fare is cheaper, there is no waiting time and demonstrates the flexibility to stop anywhere.
The second response of the market was motorbikes. By the year 2030, we will have the same number of motorbikes as we have total vehicles today: 3.6 million. The prevalent per capita bike ratio is 67 bikes/1,000 and by 2030 Karachi City will have 115/1,000 persons. It is a cheaper means of travel than public transport, provides flexibility, and saves time in commuting. The downside of this mode of conveyance is that it causes congestion on the roads, adding to noise and air pollution, a major source of fatal accidents and gender insensitive, as women, though willing, are restricted to drive because of cultural reasons.
Ride-hailing, or ride-sourcing, ventures are redefining the taxicab experience
In year 2017, an organisation conducted a survey on ride hailing culture in Pakistan. According to the survey, commuters’ preference amongst various buy-a-ride choices is dictated by a range of factors. Some of those include waiting time for the vehicle to arrive, the user friendliness of the app, condition of the vehicle, cost of the trip, security factor (particularly for young women commuters), behaviour of the drivers and probable discounts by the respective service providers. The survey is reflective of change in users’ mindset. Besides concerned about cost, the new consumer demands ostentatious comfort and hence a whole sale subscriber of maximum-value-for-money notion.
One of the reasons for the popularity for ride-hailing services is the ease with which young girls in groups can call the service and can travel in groups. Besides the sense of security, it proves economical for them. The young educated professionals with their ever-increasing engagement with corporate sector also take pride in travelling in a new model, air- conditioned, well maintained scintillating cars as it pampers their much-nurtured class ego.
Despite all the much-trumpeted benefits ride hailing services, there is some obscure critique on it which merits discussion. The spread of ride hailing services could be a good idea for those who can afford it but it makes majority of the population (55 percent of Karachi population lives in katchi abadis) uncomfortable as well. Affordable private a rides is new love of an assertive middle class forgetting the fact that public transport used to be a great equalizer. The siphoning off of money for private cars, public transit loses share which is detrimental for city, society and environment. The posturing of private ride as a viable alternative to mass transit as a remedy to commutation woes, by business magnates, is as a doctor treating cancer patient with sedative: widening further the gap between haves and have-nots of the society.
Mainstreaming Women in Transport Sector
Keeping aside all social and cultural pressures, women are increasingly successful in claiming more space in public spheres as compared to their preceding generations. The causes of this change are interesting and even more interesting are the indicators of the evolving status of women of Pakistan. The changes in demographic indicators show that the actual transition that is taking place is in the priorities of the female population of Pakistan. The desire for job security is slowly replacing the earlier concept of security associated with marriage. Aspiration for mere literacy has been replaced, overwhelmingly by the desire for higher achievements in the educational field. Moreover, attire has changed, vocabulary has transformed and the gender interaction has morphed. Women have become increasingly more assertive about their ambitions, far more than their preceding generations.
However, the changes in the socioeconomic landscape for women have not accommodated in travel and transport arrangements of the city. For instance, less space is available due to segregation and the older design of buses. Female seats are usually occupied by males and harassment is a common experience both in buses, in Qinqqi rickshaws and at bus stops. Even in this day and age women do not feel safe to travel after sun set. The unusual height of foot paths (2ft instead of 1 ft) cause difficulties for veiled women to off-load. Conversation with working women reveals that the unavailability of the transport, not the credentials, often become the sole determinant for women’s choice of job.
It is evident that Karachi needs a decent mass transit system urgently. The lack of provision of mass transit system coupled with exorbitant price hike in petroleum prices, accrues to the disadvantage of low income groups. If not, considered with empathy, this factor is enough to bring the city back to its yesteryears’ chaotic state. The Karachi transport issues cannot be handled in isolation. They have a strong connect with housing, employment, and educational opportunities and other social changes taking place in Karachi. Another important change taking over Karachi is the presence of more and more women in public spheres which again has a bearing over existing transport system. Earlier this gender imperative was not very evident; hence earlier made interventions were not very distinctive about this evolving requirement. Despite increased participation in public spheres, women are not facilitated by the transport sector, adequately. Government response to the issues of travel and transport is not sufficient to say the least. According to some experts even if all the lines of the proposed bus-based mass transit system are operationalised, it will cater only 8 to 10 per cent of the total commuting population of Karachi. And the response of the private sector is only exacerbating the existing gulf between rich and poor. It is also important to note that all development interventions are intrinsically political in their very nature and transport planning and therefore, are either pro-poor or have an anti-poor bias.
The author is a freelance writer, a PhD scholar, Karachi based academic and Board Member of Urban Resource Centre (URC), Karachi. He can be reached at email@example.com. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.