Karachi’s Traffic: The Infrastructure Issues

Traffic jams are becoming common in Karachi. Their main cause is the absence of effective traffic management. However, congestion on Karachi roads can be considerably reduced, management made much easier and environmental degradation for the inner city reversed, if a number of infrastructure projects, which are discussed in this article, can be undertaken.

Karachi has about 15,000 mostly individually owned intra and inter-city buses. There are no bus terminals, bus depots or bus workshops for these buses. As a result, they use the roads for this purpose. A services sector to these functions develops around them. This service sector consists of eating, sleeping, relaxing, massage and toilet facilities for the transporters; mechanics, washing and servicing facilities for the vehicles; and hawkers and beggars for the commuters. All these facilities are performed on the roads. As a result, in numerous key locations in the city (example Saddar and Lea Market) over 70 per cent of road space is used for these functions. In addition to causing congestion and obstacles to traffic movement, it causes large scale environmental degradation and inappropriate land-use changes at important locations along major corridors of movement. Conflicts between transporters, shopkeepers and residents are common wherever these facilities develop in an ad-hoc manner. As a result, many transporters park and service their vehicles outside their homes. This creates problems in their neighbourhoods, since most of them live in the narrow lanes of the inner city, katchi abadis or lower middle income planned areas.

Karachi transporters have demanded space for these facilities for years but without much success. They have also offered to share the cost for the development of these facilities and bear the cost of their maintenance and operation. When Mr. Zia-ul Islam was commissioner Karachi, some work on this issue was initiated. Subsequently, the Traffic Engineering Bureau (TEB) of the Karachi Development Authority has done a remarkable job of identifying and getting notified 32 plots in land hungry Karachi for building terminals, depots and workshops. The TEB has also developed plans and estimates for developing some of these plots on an incremental basis. In addition, the NGO Shehri has filed a case preventing the scale of 12 large Karachi Transport Corporation plots so that they may be used for transport related facilities. If work on these facilities is not undertaken immediately, it is more than possible that many of these plots will be encroached upon. Currently negotiations between TEB, Karachi Municipal Corporation, the transporters and certain NGO representatives are taking place to see how these plots can be best developed.

Congestion is also created by port related heavy vehicle traffic that passes through the already congested roads of the city. Estimates for this traffic vary from an average of 36,000 to 50,000 vehicle trips per day. Most of this traffic consists of trucks and much of it of NLC trailers and container carriers which, in addition to creating traffic problems, destroy the city roads. If the Northern Bye-Pass, which was conceived in 1972, as a link between Karachi port and the Super Highway, is ever built, then all port related traffic can be made to bye-pass the city. However, simply building the bye-pass is not enough. At least 350 metres on either side of the bye-pass will have to be protected against all development. If this is not done, then the bye-pass will become unusable for fast moving through traffic. This has happened to a number of bye-passes built for many of Pakistan’s secondary cities.

The building of the bye-pass will also help in solving other port and inner city wholesale market related problems. In 1951, the Karachi port handled about 2.8 million tons of cargo of which 95 per cent was transported by rail and all of it was stored in the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) yards. In 1991, port activity was 23.74 million tons and over 80 per cent of it was by road. The KPT storage and transport support facilities have not kept pace with the demand and as a result, much of the cargo is stored and handled in informal unplanned facilities which have developed and in open spaces and along wide roads in the area adjacent to the port and the old city. The problems this has created are enormous as any visit to these areas will show.

Similarly, Karachi’s inner city markets have expanded from serving a population of 450,000 in 1947 to serving a population of 10 million in 1998. The expansion of these markets has taken place within the inner city. Much of Karachi’s extraordinary beautiful built cultural heritage has been pulled down to be replaced by warehousing and storage, that this expansion requires, and in the process old community organisations and institutions have ceased to exist and a beautiful built environment has been degraded.  What remains, needs to be salvaged desperately. Studies by the Heritage Cell, Department of Architecture and Planning at the Dawood College, clearly establish that this salvaging is possible if some of the markets, or even if a part of their activities, can be relocated.

The lanes and even the access roads in the inner city are too narrow to be used by the heavy trucks that serve these markets. Cargo is moved by trucks to suzukis, and from suzukis to hand carts and then in some cases it is carried by hand to the storage areas which are, due to shortage of space, increasingly on the upper floors of the buildings. Due to these reasons, traffic movement in the inner city is difficult, to say the least and there is large scale pollution.

The major markets in the inner city are the Dhan or grain market, the chemical market, the metal market and the cloth market. Almost all their storage is also located over here. The Dhan Mandi is by far the largest of the markets (and the largest grain market in Pakistan) and is represented by Karachi Grocers Association (KGA). The KGA, according to its president, Niaz Ahmed Khan, has lobbied constantly with the government for land near the railway line to where the market can move out. The KGA has not succeeded in acquiring this land. Increasingly storage facilities are now being acquired in katchi abadis or other locations, for both the chemical and grain markets as space in the inner city is no longer easily available. The market operators are fed up of the situation due to the difficulty of vehicular access to their markets and the residents are fed up due to congestion and environmental problems. Residents complain of respiratory and hypertension problems due to markets activities and point out that the chemical market, among other things, is a major fire hazard for their areas.

The construction of the Northern Bye-Pass will open up huge tracks of land. All port and wholesale market related storage and transport activity can be relocated here thus releasing pressure from the inner city. Negotiations with the wholesale market associations can also lead to the relocation of the more polluting or expanding of these markets onto the bye-pass. However, if decisions regarding the planning, relocation procedures and future operation of the markets are left to government officials and politicians, these markets will meet the same fate as the new Sabzi Mandi. Syed Ghulam Jillani, president of the Aarthi Welfare Association and Mehboob Shah, general secretary of the Labour Union of the present Sabzi Mandi, gave a long list of reasons for which they are not willing to shift to the new Sabzi Mandi. The claim that 98 per cent of the allottees of shops in the Mandi are in no way connected to the Sabzi Mandi but are chosen for their connections with bureaucrats and politicians. The shops and other facilities they say should have been owned by the KMC and rented out to the aarthis or allotted directly to them. They also say that the Mandi cannot possibly function without cold storage facilities, which they claim do not exist, and there is no arrangement for telephones and electricity. In addition, no space has been provided for housing the labour to the Mandi either. Mehboob Shah says that only land was required for it (for which they would have paid), and they would have built their homes and acquired infrastructure on their own, as they have done in the katchi abadis where they live today, next to the present mandi. They also have very serious objections to various procedural aspects of relocation, which they claim are corrupt, and to architectural and engineering design aspects of the new mandi. The development of space for warehousing and cargo terminals will stop the ad-hoc development of these activities all over the city and they will also make the revitalisation of the inner city and the saving of Karachi’s built heritage easier.

Another major aspect of congestion in Karachi is related to the movement of 23,000 oil tankers through the city. Oil is stored at Karachi port from where it is pumped to the refinery. From the refinery it is pumped back to the port from where the tankers take it to the interior of Sindh and to other provinces. Most of this movement today is through Clifton, Defence Society and the National Highway. If an oil pipe line, as has often been suggested, is constructed from the refinery to an oil terminal on the National Highway, then these 23,000 tankers will not need to come into the city and their enormous services sector would also move out. In addition to reducing congestion and pollution, this move would also result in considerable savings in energy costs.

The above infrastructure projects are essential if we wish to remove the increasing traffic related environmental pollution and degradation in Karachi. All of them can be carried out incrementally so as to overcome the financial problems that we are told are preventing some of them from being built. Also, by building them to lower standards and improving them over time, we will bring quick relief to the citizens of this city rather than wait for large funds to implement them to higher standards. A Chinese proverb says, “let not the best become the enemy of the good”. Our politicians, planners and citizens must learn to understand the meaning of this proverb, as the unimplementable and unaffordable best is what they are almost always promoting.


  1. yes

    Posted August 9, 2016 at 4:56 am | PermalinkReply
  2. Ananomous

    One question
    Which organization regulates and maintains bus service in Karachi?
    A toxic question but I believe the solution is improved bus public transport.
    People belong to low and middle income group. They will leave their motor bikes if they find a satisfying answer from bus travel.

    Posted December 2, 2019 at 5:07 am | PermalinkReply
  3. The main problems Karachites encounter are traffic, pollution, water, and power. Traffic congestion and frequent accidents are brought on by the poor state of the roads, which is quite inconvenient for the inhabitants. Due to the intense monsoon rains, Karachi has experienced significant devastation.

    Posted July 29, 2022 at 2:33 pm | PermalinkReply

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  1. By Why YOU ARE KILLING KARACHI? - timesglo on August 18, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    […] to meet the needs. Besides their bad condition, they are generally overloaded as well. Moreover, Karachi has traffic problems due to many reasons. Things like overloading vehicles, negligence of rules, Careless driving, […]

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