Karachi: The Transport Crisis

This post extracts the germane points of The Urban Resource Centre’s recent report on Karachi’s transport problems by Arif Hasan et al and IIED, UK

If the 2011 pre-census house count for Karachi is to be believed, then Karachi is the fastest growing mega city in the world both in percentage and figure terms. Karachi’s population has increased by more than 100 percent from 11 million (the 1998 census figure) to 22 million when the house count was conducted. As such, Karachi contains 10 percent of the population of Pakistan and 22 percent of its urban population. In addition to population, there are other reasons for Karachi’s importance. It is Pakistan’s only port city. It contains 32 percent of the country’s industrial base, generates 15 percent of GDP, 25 percent of federal revenues and 62 percent of income tax. It contains powerful federal institutions in the form of the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Railways, Customs and military cantonments.

All these federal institutions own land, carry out developments on it (including residential and commercial real estate) and employ a large number of persons. In addition to the provincial government (who also owns land), they all have a say in Karachi’s development. The city government controls only 31 percent of Karachi’s land. Coordination between the different land owning agencies is almost non-existent. Karachi is also the capital of Sindh province. It contains 62 percent of Sindh urban population and 30 percent of its total population. This figure is important since the second largest city of Pakistan, Lahore, contains only 7 percent of the population of the Punjab province whose capital it is. Karachi’s large scale industrial sector employs 71.6 percent of the total industrial labour force in Sindh; the city produces 74.8 percent of the province’s total industrial output and contains 78 percent of its formal private sector jobs.

Because of migration from India after 1947 and continuous migration from other parts of Pakistan, Karachi is a multi-ethnic city. It is the capital of Sindh but according to the 1998 census only 14 percent of the population spoke languages local to Sindh as their mother tongue while 48.25 percent spoke Urdu. The Urdu speakers are the post-1947 migrants to Karachi. As such, a predominantly Sindhi speaking province has an overwhelming majority of non-Sindhi speaking ethnic groups in its capital city.

The most important conclusion that surfaces from the discussions in this paper is that there is a link between the nature of city governance, technology used for transport and affordability, housing, land-use, access to livelihoods (especially for women), health and family well-being, on the one hand, and quality transport on the other. In short, transport has to be seen as a part of a larger city planning exercise.


Institutional arrangements for government transport programmes for Karachi have been related to the governance structure at the time at which the programme was proposed and implemented. Since governance structures have changed from time to time, transport programmes have suffered due to a lack of continuity. The transporters, government officials and the public all agree that Karachi needs large buses which alone can provide comfortable means of commuting. However, purchase and operation of these buses is costly and the service cannot be made affordable to the public without the provision of a subsidy.

Government programmes have failed in their objectives for a number of reasons. Without a subsidy government programmes operated at a loss and were unsustainable. Even where government promised such subsidies, they were not provided. There were also maintenance issues such as the use of substandard spare parts replacement which adversely affected the performance of the vehicle. There were also pilferage of funds and a loss of vehicles due to riots and political violence. The government did not permit the private sector to raise its fares in proportion to the rising cost of fuel so as to keep them affordable to the public. As a result, the formal and informally financed private sector was unwilling to invest in conventional transport modes such as minibuses. The result has been a decline in the number of buses.

The courts have added to the transport crisis by ordering all public transport vehicles to convert to CNG. This order was issued without a proper understanding of the availability of CNG or of government plans regarding energy related issues. The various governments in Pakistan (after the order was issued) did not challenge the courts’ decision.

There are institutional issues also. The various government departments dealing with transport in the city have no coordination between them. As is evident from the interviews, they also have serious differences of opinion. In addition, police corruption is rampant because of which public transport vehicles operate without fitness tests and certificates; unregistered (and as such illegal) public transport vehicles operate on the roads and all vehicles who pay a monthly bribe to the police can violate traffic rules and regulations causing traffic jams and inconvenience to commuters.

The free transport policy of the government was a step in the right direction given the problems the city fact at that time. The fact that the individuals or groups wishing to operate a vehicle, had to purchase it on hire purchase at high rates of interest led to the creation of a group of money- lenders controlling the informally financed transport system. The fact that these financiers belong to a particular ethnic group and lent to their own ethnic group members, resulted in the introduction of ethnic politics in the transport sector in the city. If the government had financed these vehicles through bank loans, the situation would have been very different and what Karachiites refer to as the transport “mafia” would have been very different in nature.

Government programmes have not been able to compete with the informally financed private sector for a number of reasons and have suffered as a result. The service provided by the informally financed sector is through considerably cheaper minibuses, low paid and over-worked drivers and conductors, and almost no administrative overheads or paper work. However, this sector has an understanding of the city and its commuters, knowledge of identifying lucrative routes, promoting their interests in dealing with the police, and through the power of their associations negotiating effectively with government agencies. They have managed to provide cheap (though uncomfortable) transport which the government has not.

This immense knowledge of the informally financed sector has not been made use of effectively in government plans. The sector is confident that it can operate large buses successfully if it is provided loans from banks for the purchase of buses and at normal rates of interest; its vehicles are provided protection by insurance companies; and if police corruption could be contained. One of the reasons for police corruption, given by the transporters, is the low salaries that policemen receive.

The railway option, which has consisted of expanding the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR, see here) and more recently of rehabilitating it, has not been successful. This is because the proposals have been far too expensive and for which the federal government has been unwilling to provide sovereign guarantees to the bidders or to loan providing governments and agencies. There has also been an unresolved disagreement between the various state actors in whether to develop and expand the railway network or opt for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. It seems that with the recent Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) Plan this has been resolved. Proposals by the Pakistan Railways and its ex-chief engineer for developing a comparatively far cheaper system built and operated by the Railways, has never been seriously pursued by the various governments between 1989 and to the present times. The reasons for this is the desire of politicians for grand projects that are considered “modern”.

Karachi’s traffic problems are increasing due to the large number of vehicles that are added to its roads every year. Congestion is also increasing due to the conversion of various roads from residential to high density commercial land-use and encroachments by hawkers and informal businesses on corridors on which public transport plies. These encroachments serve the needs of the lower and lower-middle income commuting public. There is also poor traffic management because of the limited number of policemen on traffic related duty. The wardens introduced by the city government to help the police in traffic management was a good and effective idea. As explained in the text earlier, they were removed as a result of Karachi’s ethnicity based politics and its turf related conflicts.

The market response to the shrinking of buses has been extremely innovative. The emergence of the QINGQI (see here); the cost-effectiveness of its design; the manner in which it operates complete with informally created terminals, stands, routes, time-keeping; and continuous modifications to its operations and design (on the basis of the changing context in the city), is a tribute to its entrepreneurship and the understanding of the politics of the transport sector. The emergence of motorbikes and their rapidly increasing numbers is also a market response that has brought about immense relief to Karachi families who own them.

However, both modes are considered unsafe and reasons for congestion and for poor traffic management in the city.

The impact of the transport crisis on people’s lives is enormous. Travelling in environmentally degraded conditions for long hours results in physical and mental health problems. This effects family and social life and limits peoples’ choice of livelihoods (especially for women) since they wish to work in areas that they can easily access through the existing transport system. Increasingly, transport availability and quality is also determining where they would like to live. The market has responded to this issue by informally densifying those katchi abadis that are nearer the city or its main work areas.

The fundamental issue in dealing with the transport crisis in Karachi is related to governance. It has been noticed that an elected local government (2001-2007) was more effective in accessing funds from the federal and provincial governments for development purposes than the earlier bureaucratic system which has now been reintroduced. Decentralisation, as was practiced between 2001 and 2007, has problems because of Sindh’s relationship to its capital city where the city is predominantly Urdu speaking and the province as a whole is predominantly Sindhi speaking. A system is required that empowers the city and at the same time protects the interests of the Sindhi speakers in accessing and controlling Karachi’s enormous assets. Such an arrangement would also help the province deal more effectively with the federal government in Islamabad.


1. The current vision for the city on which basis planning is being carried out is that Karachi will be a “World Class City”. It is recommended that the vision should be changed to Karachi becoming a “pedestrian and commuter friendly city”. This would help in promoting the interests of the majority (who are public transport uses) in Karachi.

2. The CDGK role in the designing, implementing and managing the development of transport should be enhanced. Some form of an elected system should be reintroduced that satisfies the needs of the city and at the same time satisfies both the PPP and the MQM. This will establish the city’s ownership of the transport sector and give the CDGK additional powers to negotiate at the federal level.

3. At present there is a lack of coordination between the different traffic and transport related agencies because of which some of their programmes are ineffective and because of which court orders cannot be effectively implemented. A higher level organisation that brings these agencies together needs to be created along with a police reform that has often been suggest, sometimes planned but never implemented.

4. The ad-hoc densification of the city is resulting in congestion and environmental degradation making the development of an effective and comfortable transport system difficult. It is suggested that the Master Plan Group of Offices (MPGO) be revived and strengthened so as to prepare a densification plan that takes transport (among other things) into consideration. For such an exercise to become possible the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) will have to be made subservient to the MPGO.

5. The JICA Plan should be implemented incrementally as proposed. However, the following aspects will have to be taken into consideration:

  • the government will have to provide the required subsidies to bridge the gap between revenue generated and actual costs. These subsidies can be derived from a small transport tax on petroleum products, increase in road tax on private vehicles of over 1300 cc, a sliding vehicle insurance surcharge (putting the burden on luxury vehicles).
  • land at the intersections of the KCR and the major arteries of the city should be developed as low income housing. This will help in reducing travel time and costs and at the same time make the KCR and the proposed BRTs economically more feasible. In addition, it can also subsidise KCR development and operation and maintenance costs.
  • maintenance processes should see to it that mistakes made in the past should not be repeated. It should be guaranteed that budgets for maintenance are available and that there is no compromise on the quality of spare parts that are used for the rehabilitation of vehicles.
  • part of the JIC Plan consists of BRTs on the major corridors of movements in Karachi. However, majority of the city will remain un-served by the Plan. The private sector (existing at present and planned for in the future) should be supported by developing routes that the JICA Plan will not serve or those routes that link un- served areas to the BRT corridors. To make this possible, a comprehensive transport plan for the city is required which will need to be periodically modified / upgraded.
  • to support the private sector, bank loans for purchase and/or rehabilitation of buses should be provided and insurance companies should be encouraged to insure their vehicles. Proper locations for their depots and terminals should be a part of the above-mentioned larger plan.

6. QINGQIs should be regularised and with their associations routes should be developed for them in a manner in which they can link un-served areas to the main corridors of the city. The possibility of improving their design should be studied by academic institutions and should be made available to the QINGQI manufacturers.

7. A decision should be taken as to whether we wish to promote or restrict the purchase of motorbikes. If they are to be promoted then duties and taxes on them should be reduced or removed. If we wish to curtail them, taxes should be increased. However, it would beunfair to make them more expensive when Karachi has a badly functioning transport system. Motorbikes already need infrastructure such as dedicated lanes, proper car parking facilities and safety measures that have been proposed but never implemented. Similarly, a reduction in the increase in the number of cars is necessary. It is recommended that the import of second-hand Japanese cars should be banned and extra tax on cars should be imposed as a deterrent to the purchase of cars. This would be difficult because of the political power of the automobile and banking (they give loans for purchase of cars) sectors who will oppose such a move. However, this move should be initiated.

8. Hawkers and informal businesses are an integral part of the commuting scene. At all bus stops, inter and intra-city terminals and railway stations, space for them should be provided. The locations where they are encroaching at present need to be replanned to accommodate them in a manner in which they do not adversely affect the existing and proposed transport systems. A number of studies of certain locations have been made with a view of accommodating the hawkers.

9. Through the media a campaign for promoting culture of respect for traffic rules and regulations, especially related to the issue of double car parking, should be carried out. This should also be made a part of primary and secondary school curriculum. But, this can only be successful if space for car parking is guaranteed. Here again, the role of a revived and powerful MPGO is required.

The above recommendations cannot be implemented in one go. Over a 15 year period, this transformation can take place and the process and time line for it can only be successfully managed if the existing private sector consisting of minibuses, rickshaws and QINGQIs is made an integral part of the planning and implementation process.

Please read the Full Report (Karachi: The Transport Crisis) which was funded by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Authors: Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza, links by Editor, image credit tribune.com.pk

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Filed under Courts, Discussion, IIED, Karachi, Pakistan, Partition, SBCA

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