Since 1989, mass transit options for Karachi have been studied to death and every time the same options surfaced. Only their capital and operating costs increase. Two technical options surface. One is the light rail. It is expensive (capital cost US$ 30 million per kilometre) and will take at least a decade to complete. The other is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It is cheaper (capital cost US$ 2.5 million per kilometre) and is quicker to construct and easy to add to. However, the BRT rolling stock would require replacement or major overhauling after every five to six years, whereas the light rail rolling stock would have a 30 year plus life.
In spite of these detailed studies and recommendations, the process of making these plans a reality, always hits snags. Observers blame this on conflicts within the Sindh government on the ownership of the plans, lack of interest on the part of Sindh politicians in following them up, and an anti-Karachi bias in Islamabad. As a result, Karachi’s commuting public is forced to travel in an increasingly uncomfortable and inadequate public transport system which adversely affects the social, cultural and economic life of the city and its security related problems.
To overcome the problems of commuting by public transport, an increasing number of Karachiites are purchasing motorbikes. The number of motorbikes increased from 450 thousand in 1990 to 500 thousand in 2004. In 2010, their number was one million. This means that there are 57 motorbikes for every 1,000 persons. It is estimated that at the present rate of increase, the number of motorbikes in 2030 will be 3.64 million or 115 motorbikes for every 1,000 persons. However, women do not ride motorbikes in Karachi. Many feel that this is a discrimination that prevents them from opting for a better mode of commuting.
To understand the motorbike increase phenomena and the commuting preferences of Karachiites, a small research was carried out. 100 male and 68 female respondents were interviewed at nine different but stops at different locations in the city. Almost all the respondents belonged to the lower income areas of the city. In addition, 25 motorbike users and 25 dealers were also interviewed. A web search for motorbikes available in the international market was also carried out. The results of the interviews are interesting
Seventy per cent of the male respondents said that they would like to purchase a motorbike but do not have the means. The reasons given for wanting to purchase a motorbike are its flexibility and cost and time saving in commuting. 18 per cent of the respondents do not wish to use a motorbike because they or their families consider it an unsafe mode of commuting. The average commuting time (varying between 30 minutes to six hours) is two hours from home to work and back.
Fifty-three per cent of the female respondents would like to commute by motorbike if given an option. 16 per cent of the respondents felt that motorbikes were not suitable for women. 7 per cent said that using a motorbike was against their religion. The rest said that their parents or guardians would never give them permission. Like their male counterparts, the average commuting time of the respondents is two hours from home to work and back. In addition, the respondents also pointed out that women required “women-friendly” scooters since straddling a motorbike seat is culturally not acceptable.
All motorbike users mentioned high levels of air and noise pollution on the road as major problems encountered by them. Other problems identified by them were the absence of proper traffic control systems, bad road surfaces, police harassment, and an absence of a physically segregated lane for motorbikes. 40 per cent of the respondents also mentioned space for parking as a major issues.
Through a web search “green” motorbike manufacturers were identified. The costs of the green bikes, for the most part, are less than the bikes being marketed in Karachi today. In addition, their operational costs are 25 per cent of those for petroleum motorbikes. Hybrid motorbikes, which can operate on both petrol and electricity, are also available. Import duty on motorbikes is 65 per cent and the other taxes (including the flood relief tax) are 41.5 per cent. This makes motorbikes more than 100 per cent more expensive than what they really cost.
The average commuting costs of the male and female respondents work out to Rs 1,570 per month for commuting from home to work and back by bus. Meanwhile, the average cost of maintenance and fuel of the motorbike users works out to Rs 780 per month which also includes social and other business trips as well as commuting to work and back. The respondents also claim that using a motorbike reduces commuting time to less than 50 per cent as compared to using a bus. Many motorbike users also felt that with adjustment to the seat, a motorbike is suitable for three adults.
The above discussion points to the fact that whether we like it or not, the increase in motorbike numbers will be far more than anticipated, especially if women take to using them. In addition, a rail based mass transit system and an improved bus system as envisaged by the Karachi Transportation Improvement Project, will take well over a decade to complete. Phase-1 of the Karachi Circular Railway will be completed in four years. On its completion, it will serve no more than 0.75 of the trips generated in the city. On completion of Phase-2, it will serve 2.25 trips generated. The long time taken to complete this project and its initially small scale will be an incentive for the purchase of motorbikes.
Cost of rail and improved transport systems will also be much higher than today. Similar systems have been put in place in Bangkok, Delhi, Manila and Kuala Lumpur. Bangkok’s light rail caters to 3 per cent of the commuting public and its average fare one way is 25 Bhat (Rs 65). Delhi Metro average cost of a one way journey is Rs 19 (Pakistani Rs 38). A day travel card is Rs 100 (Pakistani Rs 200) and a three day travel card is Rs 250 (Pakistani Rs 500). Kuala Lumpur’s costs are even higher. It is unrealistic to expect that the improved Karachi transport travel costs will be less. This will make public transport even more expensive as compared to commuting by motorbike and this will be an added incentive to purchase one.
The question that arises from the above discussions is whether the use of motorbikes should be promoted as an integral part of the larger mass transit system for the city. This can be done by reducing duties on them; introducing micro-credit programmes for their purchase; promoting the use of green motorbikes; creating conditions for women to use scooters; providing physically segregated motorbike lanes on the main traffic corridors; taking steps to improve safety for motorbike riders; and by accommodating the requirements for motorbike use as an integral part of transport planning, traffic management, infrastructure design, and building byelaws an zoning regulations.