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Will Karachiites ever get an efficient public transport system ?
Khalid, a commuter, travels regularly on his bike from Orangi Town to I.I. Chundrigar Road. He would prefer to travel on public transport but has little choice. “The services are atrocious. The monopoly of the bus drivers is so powerful that they can stop the bus wherever they want and ask you to get off. If the route isn’t profitable for them, they don’t take passengers on. Sometimes you have to change buses several times just because the driver doesn’t want to go any further,” he complains.
But the one thing that keeps Khalid hopeful is the possibility of an improved mass transit in the city — the Green Line, a bus transit system initiated in 2014 by the Nawaz Sharif government.
“With the Green Line, people will travel with comfort and respect. They will get on the bus and know that they will reach their destination in time without worrying about traffic or anything,” says the commuter.
Another commuter, Manzar, says people would prefer to travel in a more safe and comfortable way. “People who travel on the roofs of buses will definitely benefit from a proper bus line,” he says.
All, however, is not rosy about the new proposed transit system. One of six Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors proposed under the Transport Master Plan of 2005 prepared for the Karachi City District (CDGK) Government by the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA), the Green Line is now projected to cost around 20-27 billion rupees — 11-16 billion more than the original estimate. It will cover a 21.7 kilometre track that will start from the KESC Power House and terminate at the Municipal Park also known as Aurangzeb Park (see map). Part of the platform — around 3.45 kilometres — will be elevated and the rest will be at ground level.
Given the increase in the cost of the Green Line, it is likely that the other lines will end up requiring more money as well, which will significantly balloon the cost of the entire project. Depending on the final design, routes and the eventual implementation, the cost of all six BRTs is going to be well over 50 billion rupees. The JICA study had initially calculated the project to cost 36 billion rupees.
Even though Karachi’s BRTs will cost less than the BRTs in other countries (for example Colombia and Indonesia), many experts argue that for the cost, the number of passengers that the Green Line shall serve is very low.
According to government figures, fewer than 30,000 passengers per hour per direction are expected to use the new bus service. Mansoor Raza, a researcher on public mobility and a SZABIST faculty member and Dr Noman Ahmed, the chairman Architecture and Planning at NED University, both point out that even if all six BRT corridors are made operational, only nine to 11 percent of the city’s total commuter population will benefit from the service. Sixty percent of Karachi’s population depends on mass transport. On a daily basis, around 24 million journeys take place in the city, with 80 percent of it on busses and mini-buses.
All talk but no funding
Given that Karachi’s estimated population is between 15 and 23 million (the last official census was held in 1998), any mass transit system, even flawed, would be welcomed by the public.
Dr Noman concurs: “The government has no alternative plan to offer, so any sort of initiative is welcome.” There is, however, one main issue that has still not been tackled by the government — funding.
The required annual subsidy for the new proposed bus service runs well over 100 billion rupees. “The Green Line will only be a success if the government can provide the subsidy,” he affirms. While he notes that the Federal government is bent on making the Green Line work for “political reasons”, the same cannot be said for the Sindh government, which is supposed to find funding for the remaining five BRTs.
“There have been talks with the Asian Development Bank, but they have not progressed,” Dr Noman says.
Raza, too, is unsure if the Sindh government has the ability to come up with the sum. “[The provincial government] has no master plan or supra-body to coordinate the planning, implementation and running of the project,” he points out.
He also explains out that without subsidy, bus tickets will cost between 60-80 rupees, which beats the purpose of a mass transit system that is supposed to serve the working classes.
In Lahore, the government pays 40 rupees in subsidy for each Metro Bus ticket that costs commuters 20 rupees.
Where are the passengers?
Even in a best-case scenario, where the government is able to fully fund all six bus corridors, it will also have to build routes — known as Feeder Lines — to bring passengers from various areas in Karachi to these main corridors. This will ensure constant commuter traffic and that buses are not running empty during off-peak hours.
A lack of a Feeder Line means commuters shall have to come up with creative solutions and they might decide it’s not worth the trouble.
Khalid says that he would definitely use the Green Line only if he’s able to reach its terminals via a connecting bus. “If I don’t have an efficient bus service to take me to the Green Line, I will have to take my bike to the Green Line terminal and park it somewhere.”
Kamran, another commuter, says that “getting to the Green Line bus terminal itself can be a hassle … you need to convince someone to get off their bikes and cars and take the bus.”
For most commuters, such as Khalid, not being stuck in traffic is a strong draw but, once again, Feeder Lines will be essential for commuters to make their decision. “If I can get to the Green Line terminal from my home via a timely bus and reach my office on I.I. Chundrigar Road in half the time it takes me on my bike, I will definitely use the new line. Others who use private transport will also use the Line if it takes into account these things,” he says.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
The Green Line isn’t the first such project initiated by the government. In 1964, Karachi saw its first mass transit system in the shape of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR).
When it was fully functional in the 1980s, the KCR included 24 trains and served around six million people daily. Over time, the KCR’s operations were reduced and, by 1999, most of the routes were shut down. The only route that continued to run and still does is a single line with two trips a day between the Landhi-Korangi Industrial Area and the Central Business District.
The Transport Master Plan of 2005 not only recommended the revival of the KCR along with the construction of the six BRTs, but had envisaged the KCR as the cornerstone of the entire project. The 43.12-kilometre track was initially estimated to cost 2.25 billion dollars, with more than 90 percent of the funding coming from JICA in the form of a loan with 0.2 percent markup, to be paid back over a period of 40 years after construction.
The project had fallen by the way side due to the lack of political will. Recently, however, there has been talk of including the KCR into CPEC-related projects. While this may provide the required political impetus to restart the KCR, Dr Ahmed says that he found it “bemusing that the government would look for Chinese funding when the already available plan prepared by the Japanese is much more viable.”
If the KCR is ever re-built, it’ll serve more than half a million commuters per day but it also comes with a high price tag. The delays itself could cost several hundred billion rupees. In addition, the government needs to offer adequate compensation and rehabilitation to the 23,000 people affected by the construction of the KCR route.
Apart from the upfront cost, the KCR would need billions of rupees in annual subsidy in order to remain affordable to the working classes. Like much of the BRT, there is no reliable source of funding currently available for the project. “It’s not clear how and where the funding will come from,” says Raza.
Dr Noman also points out that the KCR would also have to be “expanded and more routes will have to be added especially for connecting Baldia Town which has a huge workforce as well as North Karachi.”
But, Dr Noman argues, the KCR would be worth the cost — “it’s the best available plan,” he points out, to address the transport woes of the city.
It remains to be seen if the concerned authorities can deliver on all the six bus lines and the KCR. If the Green Line is successful, there would be hope that it would push the government to start the work on the remaining projects.
According to Dr Noman, however, the “government has only just started to think” of the steps that will make decent transport in Karachi a reality. If, however, the government isn’t able to come up with a feasible plan, Pakistan’s largest city will remain deprived of one of the basic infrastructures — and who knows when and if another opportunity will come by again.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017