From Karachi: Cities for Cars or People?

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 (BRT) 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. Arif has shared this piece in view of his concern for Karachi’s environment. The picture top right has been borrowed from here.


Filed under Citizens, Environment, Karachi, Media, Pakistan

5 responses to “From Karachi: Cities for Cars or People?

  1. PTH

    thanks Arif for this excellent post. For a change this piece indicates solutions – this is a welcome development. We are just too critical all the time and that lets us overlook the need for searching solutions

  2. Amena Saiyid

    Arif, Karachi is not the only city stuck in this predicament. In Washington DC, the capital of the supposedly most powerful country in the world, there is unbridled growth with no planning for transit or roads. Every year, politicians in Maryland and Virginia gather, moan about lack of funds, throw away millions on expanding roads, but no efforts are made to expand public transport. Developers fill the coffers and the politicians, be they local, state or federal, then approve plans that will bring in more housing. The roads are near breaking point, the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has been rated D- by the nation’s engineers, all because these issues are not sexy enough to be given attention.
    I am so glad you wrote this article because too often people think building roads so they can drive their humbugs is the solution. developing mass transit solutions is for the poor, the ones who can’t afford it. its obvious the us is not the only country in love with cars. It’s a mentality that needs to be changed. It is obvious that is the case in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan. Let me tell you it is no different out here.
    Amena or mb

  3. Amina Gillani

    aro – great article — thanks a lot — munni agree entirely with your comment —

    in london there was a great furor about the imposition of congestion charges but the mayor did a lot to improve the bus system and i think central london really is a lot more happy without that many cars.

    i must also say that the congestion charge has various cons logged against it by commuters who can either drive in or rely on the train system. since the trains have not been improved (deplorable state to say the least) those commuters rightfully see the charge as an unfair tax which they cannot really afford.

  4. i do agree in principle with looking for the kind of solution implemented in cities like Bogota. i say “in principle” because, being an auto-commuter so to speak, i wonder how much zeal i would display if forced to use my own two feet or, heaven forbid, a public transport system where i would have to rub shoulders with the (ughh) proles.

    The fundamental problem is, and will remain, that of transport. The modern world relies, for its smooth running, on the transportation of millions of people from point A to B. Then back from B to A. And often, in between those two journeys, trips to points C, D, E, and so on.

    In an underceveloped country like Pakistan (still struggling to reach a state of modernisation considered by more economically advanced countries to be outdated a generation ago), the volume of daily human movement in our cities is going to increase. We are decades away from even imagining that we can ever be the kind of economy which is based on electronic commuting.

    This may sound like a futile exercise in futuristic urban theory, but perhaps urban planners need to focus on breaking up the city into more manageable and self-contained chunks. Rather than allow Karachi, for example, to spread willy-nilly like a virus, industrial concerns should be made to provide accomodation for their workers as close as possible to the place of work. A larger number of commercial hubs should be developed, so that half (or more?) of the city’s white collar workforce (the bulk of private car owners/commuters) aren’t all heading towards the same area every morning. vaghaira vaghaira

    As you rightly say, simply widening the transport conduit solves little. More thought needs to be spent on improving the lives of people. Sadly, in a country like ours, “the people” in this context usually refers almost exclusively to the well-to-do.

  5. Kent Hakull

    Great post Arif!

    I’m soon to do graduate research regarding downtown Pedestrianisation;

    As cities have to be developed in their own context, planners must understand what people economically want, socially need and are politically willing to support in order to facilitate the city’s own way of development.

    Solutions are many and available, but making it happen is a complicated affair.