What is the last thing a car driver on a thoroughfare in Karachi would like to see next to his vehicle? Most certainly, a young man on a motorbike.
Because young riders in Karachi practically treat the city’s roads as racing tracks — and their race is usually against time. Whereas, the faint-hearted, who share the roads with these daredevils, find themselves foul-mouthing the motorcyclists, while keeping a safe distance from them.
That is every driver’s story in Karachi.
On working days, during rush hours, the bikers wreak havoc on the city — breaking signals, riding over footpaths and always in the lookout for enough space to race ahead with a rat-like agility.
And, their numbers are going through the roof.
But, given Karachi’s more pressing problems, e.g. target killing, in the eyes of the authorities, managing the barrage of motorcyclists in the mega-city seems to lie very low in the priority list of things to fix.
Some facts: Karachi has an estimated population of 22.2 million. In the past two decades, the city has horizontally expanded, massively increasing distances. As of today, 3.8 million registered vehicles are plying on its roads. Half of them are motorbikes. And around 1000 new vehicles are registered every day.
So, who is responsible for this mess? The former administrator of Karachi, Fahim-Uz-Zaman, does not blame the bikers, though admitting that while driving he, too, cannot help but blame them. “What do you expect a common man to do when Chinese motorbikes on an installment of Rs2000 a month saves him the daily drudgery of taking a crammed public bus to work everyday?
Zaman believes a city like Karachi cannot function without some sort of a viable public transport. “When you won’t provide that to the people, they are bound to opt for such quick fixes like buying bikes on installments.”
“Previous city governments have been lauded for building flyovers and signal free corridors, but how do these mega initiatives help the poor?” he asks. “It was all for people with private vehicles.”
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The former administrator says that Karachi’s lower income groups are “paying a lot” for commuting even in the decrepit public buses. So, a viable transport system, with long-term return on investments, is very much feasible for Karachi. “People are ready to pay. Just give them a decent and humane way to travel.”
“We need stricter laws,” says DIG Traffic Dr. Amir Ahmed Sheikh. “In developed cities, even in Dubai, commuters are heavily fined or even imprisoned for breaking traffic laws. But, in Karachi, laws are almost non-existent.”
Sheikh argues that the government should discourage the easy availability of motorbikes as the roads of Karachi can handle them no more. And an automated system should be introduced to bring the traffic rule violators to book. “A city of more than 2 million people cannot be handled ‘manually’ by 3000 wardens” — the force allocated for traffic control in the city.
He says, when a rider is held for violation, the first argument he gives in his defence is by asking a question, are laws made for the poor only?
He claims to have advised the city authorities to introduce hi-tech cameras with face and number plate recognition features in 20 traffic signals of the city, to start with. “Slowly and gradually, we have to move to that level if we plan to bring some order on Karachi’s roads.”
Sheikh also points out that acquiring driving license in developed countries is a big deal, something people celebrate. But the people of Karachi simply do not care to apply for one. “We have a culture that treats license as something trivial. So, to fix such a mindset we need tougher laws and advanced monitoring system so that people know rules and regulations are meant to be followed and not flouted.”
In Lahore, too, absence of an efficient mass transit system has forced a majority of Lahorites to commute in private vehicles, which has put an enormous burden on city roads, besides increasing air and noise pollution — and the incidence of accidents.
The best choice for the common man is, then, a two-wheeler due to low cost and efficient fuel consumption. A motorcycle is the best means of transport for the young in Lahore, especially college-going students because of affordability. Though motorcycle is considered a dangerous ride and most parents do not want their sons to use it, they do not have any other option, except to give them a daily dose of lecture about unsafe riding.
A senior official of Excise and Taxation department, Lahore, says that according to federal government’s statistics department’s annual report, 2010, the number of motorcycles in Punjab crossed 3 million in 2010. He says this number has increased manifold and around 1.5 million bikes are plying on the roads of Lahore only.
Easy availability of motorbikes on installments is also a reason for its prevalence on roads. Another reason is that it is easy to ride a motorcycle in traffic jams.
“Despite having a car, I prefer to pick my daughter from her college on Jail Road on my bike because it’s easy during the rush hours,” says Haji Salman Khan, a resident of Lyton Road.
He suggests the government should establish dedicated lanes for motorcycles. Strict implementation of traffic rules, such as wearing a helmet, using indicators, having all lights in proper working condition should be ensured,” he says.
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Junaid, a traffic warden, while talking to TNS agrees that motorcyclists should be fined for traffic violations. That could work as a deterrent. “Presently, the fine on not wearing a helmet is Rs300, which is not enough. In developed countries, heavy fines stop people from violating traffic rules and regulations.”
Sarfaraz Ahmed, who heads an NGO which trains college girls in how to ride a motorcycle, says his NGO’s registered members have reached about 5000 and college girls have expressed deep interest in learning how to ride a bike. He says women are becoming more independent and want to compete in every field. “We need connecting roads, a better traffic management system, and dedicated lanes for motorcycles.” At present, public transport is not easily available after 8:30 pm.
A city traffic police officer, who does not want to be named, says, “Recently, we have started registering cases against rash and negligent motorcyclists and we are also canceling and suspending driving licenses”.
He says traffic management is ensured with the participation of road users. Public awareness is also an important area, which the traffic police is focusing on.
Traffic Education Unit (TEU) of City Traffic Police educated as many as 45,130 people, including 22,300 students of various colleges and universities during the last three months about traffic rules and regulations.
Ammar Shahbazi is a journalist based in Karachi. He tweets @ammarshahbazi. Ali Raza is a staff reporter based in Lahore.