by Arif Pervaiz
You don’t need to be an urban planner to figure out that our cities are socially and environmentally unsustainable. At the heart of our urban mess is a paradigm which is geared towards making a city suitable for cars rather than people.
Recent efforts to ease Karachi’s traffic congestion, for instance, by building wider roads, flyovers, elevated expressways, and a much-talked about rail-based mass transit system are unlikely to ease traffic congestion in the long-run because these initiatives are de-linked from social and environmental land-use planning (particularly, housing development), and transport needs of the non-car owning majority.
Consider: While less than five percent of Karachi’s residents own cars (550,000 private vehicles out of a total vehicle population of 1.3 million in a city of 12+ million people, do the math!), city planning and development has been geared towards facilitating private car use at the expense of the needs of the poor.
Close to two-thirds of Karachi’s population lives in over 550 squatter settlements (Katchi Abadis), . It is the poor who suffer disproportionately from road accidents (often because of encroached upon or non-existent infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists), and air pollution – a consequence of being concentrated in “dirty” areas and being unable to afford medical care, and, most critically, lack of public spaces (parks, green belts, walkways, community centers) which experts believe is contributing to erosion of social capital and a major cause of increasing mental stress amongst city residents. The importance city planners and politicians have given to public transportation can be gauged from the fact that the city disbanded its public transportation company many years ago, and shut-down, under political pressure from road transporters, the circular railway service which serviced poorer segments of the city population. Our city administration spends several hundreds of million rupees of scare resources every year on building and maintaining road infrastructure which benefits a tiny population of high-income individual car owners at the expense of the non-car owning majority.
Trying to solve traffic congestion by building infrastructure simply does not work. Ask people who live in these cities[ cities which have used this model, like Bangkok] and they will tell you traffic congestion remains a daily commuting nightmare. . Undeterred, Bangkok has gone ahead and built a subway system at the cost of a tidy USD 125 Million per kilometer and Delhi just opened an MRT system, which experts believe is out of reach of most people it was designed to carry.
Experiences from around the world shows that traffic jams create demand for new road infrastructure which in turn stimulates development around major roads which leads to further increases in traffic congestion and yet more demand for infrastructure. The vicious circle continues , more jams , more pollution and more poverty.
So, what is the way forward? Karachi and other major cities of Pakistan would be well advised to look at the example of cities like Bogota .
The idea was simple but powerful: happiness of the greatest number of people, “We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people…all our everyday efforts [had] one objective: happiness”. The mayor Enrique Penalosa led a huge initiative to clean Bogota’s air, planted trees, built parks, hundreds of kilometers of pavements and sidewalks, libraries, and schools. He declared car free days and introduced restricted hours for cars on main roads – both actions generated mass public support for his actions and allowed people to appropriate their city. He increased vehicle taxes and fuel-surcharge, the proceeds of which the city used towards financing urban renewal and for building a bus rapid transit () system. The hugely successful BRT system in Bogota has become a model many cities around the world want to emulate. BRT systems are relatively cheaper and innovative public transport systems which run buses on an exclusive track serviced by level bus stations, pre-payment system, and shelter, at a much reduced cost than rail-based mass transit schemes.
The way forward is before us. We need to impose the “real” cost of car use on users, create a cheap, accessible, and safe public transport system (such as the BRT), and incorporate environmental and social factors as integral components of transportation planning.
Arif Pervaiz works for The Cinton Foundation’s office in Karachi. A longer version of this article appeared in the Daily News. has shared this piece in view of his concern for Karachi’s environment. The picture top right has been borrowed from here.