It is 6:45am on a fine cloudy morning in the world’s third largest city, Karachi. The most hastily moving traffic has started emerging onto the roads, from neighbourhoods and heading towards the city’s educational centres. The vehicles are mainly small cars, big saloon or four-wheel cruisers. The speed of the cars and driving style force the slow movers to the side. The hustle is just to get to the school gate in time otherwise the child will be punished or fined.
Several times a month, you see minor touch-ups or the quarterly major accident takes place on school roads. The trend breakers in this race are the privileged elite, with their armored SUVs and police escorts, making their way through the rush. This is the private class that has adopted private security guard vehicles that mimic police escorts. The elite schools have their own security and management teams as well as police officers standing by to manage traffic.
The rush hour now moves ahead for office workers heading from one corner of the city to the other, where the job centres are located. This is when the real jams start and is compounded by the later additions of the business class who head out as well.
These are the busiest hours for Shahrah-e-Faisal avenue and Shahrah-e-Pakistan as well as the off-shoot internal routes into the city centre. At 1pm sharp, the traffic starts to return as if someone had pressed the reverse button on an old VCR tape. The exhausted people now start moving back, starting from the schools, then government and private and the business hubs. It is only by 8pm that the roads relax.
We are still a “developing country”, with a dwindling economy. Every other regime has informed us that the country’s balance of payments is not balanced. The government does not have enough foreign currency reserves to pay for its fuel bill. The fuel we buy at petrol pumps is paid for in rupees but the government or oil importers have to pay for it in foreign currency which is usually dollars.
Is there any economist, who can calculate the fuel consumption for all the above transportation patterns? It must not be that difficult. An average car in city traffic consumes 1 liter of petrol for 9-10 kms. The big SUVs use 1 liter of diesel for 5-6 kms. An imported 660 mini runs for 13 kms in 1 liter of gasoline.
We just the number of students or vehicles performing the pick and drop to school. Similarly, we can calculate the fuel consumption in traffic jams, and medical problems such as frustration, anxiety and blood pressure caused by long travel hours. Accidents have their own economic cost (loss of livelihood). We can also factor in the use of vehicles, wear and tear, devaluation, lubricant consumption, and tire degradation.
Can some comfort be sacrificed for the greater good? Schools can be persuaded for forced to start shuttle services. It just needs a little effort and logistics planning and supervision by professionals. The same could be done for office workers and business people.
But the ideal option is mass transit. Karachi has, of course, had a long history of planning on this front. We used to have trams, which were replaced by buses. In between, we also had a circular railway system, which stopped.
The first plan was prepared during 1992 and 1993 by the Sindh government’s planning and development department, and the Word Bank. It was supposed to be run by the Karachi City District Government. Initially, twelve corridors were selected across the city for elevated trains.
The Bank advised that first they study how it would affect the environment and people given that the last strip passed through the dense areas near Mereweather Tower in Saddar. The case was sent to the environment watchdog and was subsequently noticed by the federal government’s environment ministry, which objected to allowing the city government to running the system.
The World Bank insisted that if the system were to be owned and properly run, it should be done by the local government, the custodians of the city. The than federal government argued, however, that it was such a big project that it should be done by the provincial government.
They could not agree and the World Bank backed off.
After that, Pervez Musharraf took great interest in Karachi and poured money into its coffers through the City District Government of Karachi. His blue-eyed boy, Mustafa Kamal, was mayor and proved to be a restless soul. But at the center of his idea of easing traffic was infrastructure like underpasses and flyovers at spots where traffic jams were common. He connected all the main routes through flyovers and underpasses to develop what he famously kept calling the “signal-free corridors”.
The only problem with this idea was that if traffic doesn’t have signals in a signal-free corridor, it will move fast. These structures temporally eased the traffic load, but the same flow would get stuck further up ahead on the routes.
So Sharah-e-Faisal is a signal-free corridor, but why does traffic get stuck from Regent Plaza to Metropole, at Marriot, Pearl Continental and at Saddar? If even a single vehicle breaks down on Shahrah-e-Faisal, it causes a traffic jam for miles in the back flow. It is even more fun to travel from Tariq Morr, via Johar Morr to Shahrah-e-Faisal during rush hour. It is the same case with the new submarine underpass which creates blocks further up.
The Lyari Expressway, which provided an alternate off-grid route, took a very long time to complete. But it still isn’t easy to get on it from DHA. You get stuck at Moulvi Tameez-ud-Din Road, Native Jetty, Mauripur and at the toll plaza. So this route takes at least two hours before you even hit the expressway. Similarly, if you are coming from Sohrab Goth during office hours, you cannot easily get through Mauripur Road and Native Jetty bridge to reach DHA.
We need to discourage single-use personal vehicles. Government should encourage investment in mass transit and freight loads must be moved off trucks and on to trains. These steps will not only be people friendly, but also help our environment.
Just a rough estimation: 1 freight trailer truck uses 125,000 rupees of diesel to transport a shipping container from Karachi Port to Peshawar. A train of a 100 carriages that can carry many more similar shipping containers uses fuel of 600,000 rupees for the same distance. How is that for balance of payments?