Dhukka start

Karachi is late to the transit party, but finally has a plan for bus rapid transit solutions

Dhukka start
KARACHI – “Why elevated? Direct service! We can make it third generation. At grade!”

I hear someone making this forceful argument as I walk into the the sixth floor of the company that is building the Green Line bus rapid transit project in Karachi. The edges of this urgent discussion seep out from behind the board room’s glass door that has been left slightly ajar. This was no ordinary meeting for the Karachi Infrastructure Development Co. Ltd. Behind this glass door, far from the suspended haze and dust at the construction sites of the bus project, these men—and all board members are men—are hammering out design details that would be critical to the success or failure, of not just the Green Line, but Karachi’s mobility in the foreseeable future.

What went wrong: pre-BRT Karachi

In the world of things that work, Karachi is a pariah, a graveyard of master plans, an open sewer for the alphabet soup of transit schemes and agencies. Its trams and circular railway of yore are now urban myths. The deep green Swedish buses are just a memory. The Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto scheme has been sending us a few thousand CNG buses for about a decade now, but they have yet to hit the asphalt. For the millions who can’t afford to own or hire private vehicles—cars, motorcycles, taxis or rickshaws—the city offers the tenacious minibus or its nimble cousin, the Qingqi. This is the hangover of the 1990s neoliberal wet dream.

How did it all go so wrong? In a 2015 publication titled Responding to the transport crisis in Karachi, Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza explain this as outcomes of half-hearted, knee-jerk state intervention and the economic complexities of running a public bus privately. These factors couldn’t have led to a better situation. Big buses are expensive not just to buy but also to run—fuel prices had been on a steady march north and road surface conditions wore out the vehicles rapidly. Without a subsidy, which was sometimes promised but only sparsely provided during elected city governments, the bus owners started cutting corners. They ditched the automated fare collection system. Scrimped on qualified drivers and maintenance. Competed for passengers. Loaded them up on the roof. Most big buses had been bought on bank loans in the early 2000s but when the monthly payments didn’t come through, the banks turned their backs on dishing any more cash.


And so, the only transport that survived those brutal years were the minibuses. They cost a quarter of the large bus, and were mostly acquired with a loan from a loan shark with ethnic connections (read: Pakhtun). No one thinks they are ideal or comfortable but they are the only ones that could pay the transporter’s bills. With the large buses decimated, and minibuses avoiding certain (read: Mohajir) neighborhoods for safety concerns, the field was wide open for para-transit and hence, the arrival of the Qingqi. This solution was widely embraced by the city’s working class as its fare was higher than that of a bus, but it provided the last mile connection to inner neighborhoods. In five years, the fleet has gone from non-existent to about 50,000. The minibus and the Qingqi are survivors, not producers, of the present broken system.

Leading up: plans and studies

I play this synopsis in my head several times over in the two hours I spend waiting for my interview at the KIDCL headquarters. A map of the green line, and Jinnah’s gaze, keep me company. The KIDCL was set up by the federal government to build the infrastructure for the Green Line. This line is one of the several proposed bus rapid transit corridors in the Karachi Traffic Improvement Project 2030 prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency between 2010 and 2012. The thorough study, based on a 36,000 household survey, proposed six BRT, two MRT (rail-based, mass rapid transit), and a revived Karachi Circular railway to be constructed by 2030, by which time Karachi’s population was projected to swell to over 31 million.

This wasn’t the first time that bus rapid transit had been suggested to Karachi, says transport engineer Malik Zaheerul Islam, who used to head the city’s mass transit cell. Back in 2005, the ADB had suggested BRTs at a time when the phenomenon was gaining global recognition but was fairly unheard of in Pakistan. BRT or as some people call it, the ‘surface subway’, had transformed the way to move giant masses of people in cities of the global south that couldn’t afford to dig to build staggeringly expensive underground subway and rail systems. Brazil proved it as a success. But neither that 2005 report, nor the 2012 Japanese plan, piqued any interest in the Sindh government that had been ruling over Karachi since 2008 through appointed administrators. It would take old-fashioned political rivalry to jolt the Sindh government out of its stupour. Lahore got a shiny Rs30 billion Metrobus in 2013. Two years later, Islamabad and Rawalpindi got theirs for a hefty Rs42 billion. Multan began construction on its first corridor the same year. Even Peshawar got the ball rolling on a BRT line, despite Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s vitriolic hatred of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s ‘jangla bus’. Karachi wistfully looked on.

It would take old fashioned political rivalry to jolt the Sindh government out of its stupour. Lahore got a shiny Rs30b Metrobus in 2013. Two years later, Islamabad and Rawalpindi got theirs for a hefty Rs42b. Multan began construction the same year. Even Peshawar got the ball rolling on a BRT line. Karachi wistfully looked on

Karachi is a poor city, by institutional capacity, political will and governance paralysis.  Its citizens have come to accept this. We don’t get good things, not because we don’t deserve it or can’t afford it, but because the representatives elected to the provincial assembly are not accountable to Karachi’s voters. They know we didn’t vote for them, so they don’t bother to serve us. Thanks to halfbaked devolution, most powers are now vested in the provincial assembly that is loathe to devolve them further to local governments.

It would take direct intervention, and Rs16 billion in the bank from the federal government, to jumpstart real ground work on the Japanese proposal. While the Sindh government had been having several conversations with stakeholders on and off, it would take Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inauguration of the Green Line project to force their hand. Suddenly, the Karachi transit map lit up. A small 1.5-billion-rupee, 4.7km long Orange line will be built by the Sindh government itself. The Asian Development Bank is slated to build the Red Line. The Chinese are eyeing the Yellow. Bahria Town may build the Blue. The Brown, Purple and Aqua, and the KCR, will have to wait for now—but there is reason to rejoice!
"The subway (or rail-based transit) was a 20th century solution to a 20th century city's problem of mobility," says Jamer Hunt, my graduate program director at Parsons The New School for Design, in a conversation on the future of mobility, back in 2015. He was pretty incisive. The growth in urbanization that we've seen, particularly in the global south, has been unprecedented

Tough questions: who and how

When the initial euphoria settled, the city had tough questions to ask. There are five different agencies, with five different funding mechanisms and designs for what is supposed to be an integrated system if it were to ever work. Who’s going to do the integration? The Sindh Mass Transit Authority bill has been lying in the assembly for years. The Lahore system run at a massive subsidy (about Rs3.3 billion for the year 2014-15) and Rawalpindi/Islamabad ran on one for only six months. Does the Sindh government have the appetite to provide similar subsidies to Karachi, given its past record? The question was not if the system would be built, but, like all previous systems, would it survive?

We have two functioning BRT systems, and they have been revered, reviled, discussed and dissected in the local press. But officers of the city’s mass transit cell would tell you this: what works in Lahore and Islamabad, will probably fall flat in Karachi. BRTs became a global phenomenon not because they were the shiny new toy in the transit set. They work in developing world cities because their essence is to be cheap (to build and run), quickly deployed, and flexible. While both the Lahore and Islamabad/Rawalpindi ones were built at lightening speeds, they have neither been cheap, nor are they flexible. Punjab Metrobus Authority’s director-general, in a letter available on their website, defends the hefty price tags, compared to similar systems in China, India, Turkey and France, like this: significant portions of both systems are elevated and required extensive “roadway improvements supplementary to the main corridor” in addition to other features. But that’s precisely what makes them anti-BRT.

“The subway (or rail-based transit) was a 20th century solution to a 20th century city’s problem of mobility,” said Jamer Hunt, my graduate program director at Parsons The New School for Design, in a conversation on the future of mobility, back in 2015. He was pretty incisive. The growth in urbanization that we’ve seen, particularly in the global south, has been unprecedented. Our cities are growing exponentially and amorphously. This uncertainty is not going away. In fact, climate change and its impacts will mean more uncertainty not less. Will the suburban communities of DHA City and Bahria Town on the northeast periphery of the city attract the 3.5 million people they are designed for, or will a lack of potable water spell their demise? How do we act in the face of this uncertainty? Does it still make sense to build inflexible, expensive, hard infrastructure that has little room for flexibility?

Consider the Karachi Circular Railway, for instance. The system formed a loop around Karachi when it was built. That loop today would barely serve a significant working population of the city that has grown from about 300sq km in 1974—when the KCR was built—to 3,600sq kms today. Reviving it requires $2.6 billion, but by itself, the revived KCR would barely have an impact on the city’s transit needs.


The BRT offers an intermediary solution. Build a (relatively) cheap system at grade or on the existing road, with a dedicated track to ensure buses don’t have to interact with mixed traffic, as a prototype for future investment. If the prototype doesn’t resolve mobility needs of that corridor, authorities can tinker with the route, and the only thing that will have to be shifted would be the stations. If it works, and people moving along the corridor ditch their private transit in favor of BRT, one could enhance the system’s capacity, or build an LRT with some adjustments to the grade.

The BRT may be a celebrity right now, but there are no guarantees that it will work. The Delhi BRT was entirely dismantled when instead of relieving congestion, it added to it. For a host of design and institutional reasons, the commuters did not switch to the system, and the loss of a lane along the corridor led to snarling traffic. The concept, despite being appreciated in principle, has become politically toxic. Guangzhou, another highly celebrated system when it was first launched, and had the highest capacity BRT system in Asia, has fallen prey to operational neglect. Mixed traffic now enters the dedicated busway, eroding the benefits of taking the system to avoid traffic. Transmilenio, from the hometown of BRT’s global spokesperson and most ardent champion, Enrique Peñalosa, has become a victim of its own success—overcrowded, under-maintained, not upgraded. The BRT is no magic pill for the mobility needs of a 23 million people city. And making it work here will be an uphill battle.
Big buses are expensive not just to buy, but also to run. The only transport that survived those brutal years were the minibuses. They cost a quarter of the large bus, and were mostly purchased with a loan from a loan shark with ethnic (read: Pakhtun) connections. No one thinks they are ideal, or comfortable, but they're the only ones who could pay the owners' bills

Hammering out details

I am snapped out of my dismay by the disarming voice of Sualeh Ahmed Faruqui, the CEO of KIDCL. He has a strange spring in the step for 6pm on a Saturday evening, after a meeting that went an hour and a half overboard, but he had his reasons, as I’d learn. The meeting had discussed one of the contentious sections of the Green Line: a mostly elevated section from KESC Powerhouse, the starting point, to Nagan Chowrangi, a distance of about 6.5 kilometres. The road has high tension electricity pylons running along the median, a high pressure gas pipeline underneath, three major intersections and nine U-turns along the stretch. KIDCL had suggested closing down the U-turns at a minimum, if the BRT had to run at-grade, along the median, and not be a roller coaster, Faruqui tells me. “The inclination to close the U-turns was not there due to fear of public backlash,” he adds. While an internal debate to persuade the municipal authorities to close the U-turns went on, the KIDCL came up with an alternative to build an elevated structure on the right side of the road, along the entire length, to avoid the obstacles. That suggestion did not sit well with some of the board members, including those I affectionately consider Karachi’s staunch guardians: architect and urban planner Arif Hasan, and chair of the architecture and planning department at NED University, Dr Noman Ahmed.


Arif Hasan and Dr Noman aren’t the only opponents of what could be considered superfluous grade separation. In their feasibility study, the Japanese had also suggested that “it is not popular to use elevated structures” because “low-cost urban transport... is the basic concept of BRT.” The Asian Development Bank, that has been working on a detailed design for the Red Line, has also strongly argued against elevated corridors for BRT. They’ve been supported by Peñalosa and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, who have been consultants for the ADB. A few days earlier, the former mass transit cell director, Zaheerul Islam, whose department had worked with the Japanese on the master plan, had shown me a detailed presentation he had delivered publicly against grade separation along this particular section. There is no reason not to shut down the U-turns in what is still a sparsely populated corridor, if the compromise is an expensive flyover that would blight the neighborhood, he had passionately exhorted. Basically anyone who understands Karachi, traffic, and the menace of elevated structures would warn you against it. Faruqui would know that first hand. His swanky office building stands next to the Gizri flyover that now provides a literal fly over for the denizens of DHA, while the lower income businesses under it continue to fight blight and its externalities. The good news, he tells me, is that they’ve agreed to suggest a redesign of that section. The decision will now be taken by the municipal and provincial authorities. Potential savings from this decision: possibly up to Rs2 billion. For once, I’m happy this isn’t Lahore, and Faruqui isn’t a certain chief minister.

That’s not the only difference between Karachi’s system and those of Lahore and Islamabad. There’s also a complete rethink of the service model. The ADB’s Red Line, and possibly the Green Line, would be designed as direct-service systems, as opposed to the feeder-trunk models in Lahore and Islamabad (while they’re currently just trunks, there are plans afoot to add service to feed into the trunk lines.) Basically, and the reason why the Lahore Metrobus was called the Berlin Wall, is that in the trunk-feeder model, the BRT runs exclusively along the trunk line from the start to the end. Feeder services may connect with it at different points, but none can physically enter the system.

In contrast, a direct service model allows BRT buses to operate beyond the trunk, and enter and exit from it at various points. Of course there are issues with the latter such as ensuring uniform fare collection outside of the corridor, avoiding the delays of mixed traffic, etc. but this model spares you the fate of the Delhi BRT. The Japanese study recommended the direct service model, given the complexity of the existing bus routes in Karachi. If this isn’t done, they warned, the existing buses, which have fairly well established and complex routes, will ply along the same roads, which would now be a lane narrower. Expect snarling traffic. Building a direct service system, meanwhile, would require a significant reconfiguration of the existing bus routes such as removing redundancies, ensuring simpler routes for people to navigate and understand. And this is a task that falls squarely under the provincial government’s transport and mass transit department.

Besides that, Faruqui tells me, Karachi’s BRT buses will be low-floor, so they provide platform-level boarding not just in the corridor, but also when they’re out of it. While this helps improve accessibility all over the system in general, a small bonus is the reduced cost of platform construction, which are now 70cm shorter. This is not just for the Green Line. KIDCL is helping set standards for the entire system, along with the other stakeholders, Faruqui adds. They’re taking the lead mostly because they’re ahead of the pack. The KIDCL is, for instance, providing consultancy services to the provincial government for the IT systems that would form the backbone of all the lines, primarily because they would be the first ones who would need it. This is the core of my concern regarding integration: how would these five disparate systems come together? Faruqui admits that he was apprehensive about this a few months ago too, but some of these concerns are gradually resolving. For one, the Sindh government has one operational consultant for all the lines, irrespective of who’s building them: a local firm, Exponent Engineering. Secondly, the various consultants are now in conversation with each other, and agreeing upon a set of principles and standards that all line will follow for fare collection, fleet and station specifications, the command and control systems, etc. And while the Transport and Mass Transit Department is coordinating all of this, where is the regulator?

Not there yet. While the assembly drags its feet over the Sindh Mass Transit bill, the new chief minister, Murad Ali Shah, has started putting together a Sindh Mass Transit Cell for the interim period. What this means is that all these agencies are working in a legal vacuum. Without legal cover, the Japanese study pointed out, a citizen could take the government to court over taking away a road lane for buses, since there’s no provision for that at present. Faruqui couldn’t be more emphatic: “the regulator has to be there. If not, there will be ad hoc structures. It’s high time that a regulator is put in place.”

The ball in the Sindh govt’s court

So all the missing pieces of this jigsaw coming together in Karachi point in one direction: the Sindh government. So here’s my TL;DR version for our newly elected chief minister: Dear Murad Sb, here’s a list of absolutely essential to-dos to make this happen: push your legislators to pass the SMTA; develop a comprehensive structure for a regulator with an enforcement mechanism; strengthen the transport and mass transit department’s capacity to coordinate the simultaneous construction of the five lines, and reconfigure the existing route allocations (since they have the authority to do this); and (this might be easier for you since you were a finance minister) figure out how you’d pay for the subsidy in the coming years, starting 2017. Even with all these crucial pieces, making this system work will be a battle and a half. Without it, we might as well give up already. If all of this seems too much to handle, don’t be suicidal, and share some of this work with the elected municipal government of Karachi. Even the Japanese consultants have foreseen the “risk of battles over the public transport responsibility between the [city government] and the Government of Sindh.” This challenge is too big for one department to solve. Karachi deserves better, and you can help set that in motion.

Gulraiz Khan is a lecturer in Communication Studies & Design at Habib University