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The cost of rapid urbanisation

To ensure social and physical mobility of the rising population of Karachi, an expansive and safe traffic plan must be envisaged and implemented

The cost of rapid urbanisation

he partial release of census 2017 results has caused anxiety among those following urbanisation trends in the country. According to many, the figures need a thorough review, especially with respect to population of large cities, cumulative urban population and the clarity in defining urban areas.

The Planning Commission predicts the urban population will rise by 50 per cent by the year 2030. Among the various issues that this population may confront, transport and mobility will be of paramount significance. This population’s physical mobility may be a core pre-requisite for its social and economic mobility.

If one reviews the present day scenario and the government’s response to transport planning and management, the situation is dismal. Many of our large cities are experiencing surgical transformation in respective urban landscapes. After the completion of first section of Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi-Islamabad bus rapid transit projects, swift initiatives are under way to launch similar projects in other cities. Authorities in Peshawar and Quetta have already begun planning for such systems while Karachi is all set to ‘benefit’ from this so-called universal recipe for addressing transport and commuting issues of her millions of residents.

If one reviews the present day scenario and the government’s response to transport planning and management, the situation is dismal.

Being the largest city, a more focused assessment of transport planning for Karachi shall be useful as a reference point for other cities in the country. Ever since the closing down of the Karachi Transport Corporation (KTC) and Karachi Circular Railways (KCR) in 1996 and 1999 respectively, there has been no focused effort to facilitate commuters in this sprawling metropolis. As per a report by a senior Karachi police official some time ago, the number of operating buses, mini buses and coaches on intra-city routes is around 8,000 — a ridiculously low number when equated against the conservative tally of over 25 million work trips per day. Qingqis and larger editions of CNG rickshaws provide some relief. Their services are restricted presently under the administrative and judicial orders.

Frustrated by the inaction on the part of authorities, Karachiites have resorted to two-wheelers. A recent report states that although the city has over 1.8 million motorbikes, it is not the best transport solution.

Public sector investment in transport sector mainly focuses on congestion relief projects, such as flyovers, underpasses and signal-free corridors, and ignores expansion of networks of buses and mini buses. Private cars that grow at a phenomenal rate of over 600 a day are dominating the roads. Billions of rupees have been spent in public funded projects without benefit to the citizens. Lyari Expressway, a poorly designed and inappropriately executed scheme, alone has cost Rs13 billion without any comparable advantage to the city. Traffic jams, incidences of road rages due to ineffective traffic management and callous driving attitudes, fatal accidents, loss of resources and commuters time lead to psychological disorders among road users and passersby.

Keeping its tradition of high spending grandiose schemes alive, the federal and provincial governments, the Asian Development Bank and a well-known realtor of the country have joined hands to evolve the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan for Karachi. 92 kilometres of six BRT corridors, 43km of revitalised KCR with Chinese assistance and 41km of rail-based rapid transit on three corridors will be delivered through this plan. The estimated cost of this mega venture is around Rs160 billion. The plan will require enormous adjustments in the existing services and land use. For example, small to medium scale evictions of settlements and businesses will be needed to clear the way. In many cases, existing flyovers, road shoulder spaces and green belts will be either completely consumed or mutilated. The issue of resulting traffic congestion on the existing roads, integration of multiple BRT lines under the aegis of multiple sponsors, linkage of existing modes of transport, issues in jurisdictional coordination and cost recovery of this colossal investment, fare levels and cost burden on commuters, emerging land use issues and desired level of urban management response are important matters that must be studied and resolved, before the strt of the project.

Our cities suffer from poor traffic management. The number of ‘hit and run’ accidents has increased tremendously in the cities. Many important streets in Karachi and other cities have surveillance cameras with meticulous documentation capacity. Little or no benefit is derived from the evidences collected from these devices in the prosecution of traffic related crimes or prevention. At times the death of a pedestrian has resulted in riots due to frustration and anger felt by people against vehicle drivers. Large-scale cataclysm and unrest after the tragic death of students, Bushra Zaidi in 1985 and Madeha Sami in 2005, are two examples from Karachi.

The KMTMP 2030 does not sufficiently address the commuters concerns. Scores of studies by independent researchers have informed that plurality of mobility options, affordable fare levels, segregation of fast moving traffic from neighbourhood bound local traffic, adequate spaces for pedestrian movement, suitable local roads for internal connectivity and operation of bicycles, regulation of freight traffic and large vehicles, increase in the number of buses, allocation and creation of car and motorbike parking spaces, integration of non-motorised transport, regular repairs and carpeting of roads, proper illumination of streets, repair and maintenance of bus stops and improvement in driving attitudes are some matters that should be scientifically addressed and resolved.

In other words, short and medium term actions are needed without delay.

Complex problems can be resolved through a combination of simple solutions. KCR can be revived by starting a train service during morning and evening peak hours by operating about half a dozen trains between Pipri and City Station on the existing tracks. Low cost alternatives in restoring the other dedicated tracks can be worked out by minimising evictions and capsuling the right of way for safety. A simple increase in the bus fleet — as promised by many city and provincial leaders in the past — can bring about enormous relief. Larger CNG rickshaws and Qingqis must be scrutinised for safety. Ordinary citizens, including students, domestic helpers, labourers, office workers and others, were regular subscribers of this mode due to its cheap fares and ready availability.

Pedestrian movement must also be facilitated. Creation of statutes to ensure walking spaces along all major corridors of movement must be the foremost requirement. Traffic cops and volunteers must be designated along pedestrian sensitive zones. Traffic education programmes with a focus on safe driving and road usage must be initiated.

Dr Noman Ahmed

Noman Ahmed
The author is Chairperson of Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, Karachi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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