Traffic and Mass Transit Issues: Lessons from Other Countries

“It is very clear today that solving traffic problems by building more and bigger roads is like trying to put out a fire by gasoline” Enrique Penalosa, the mayor who solved Bogota’s traffic problems

In the last twenty years a large number of Third World cities have made huge investments in trying to solve their traffic problems and in building mass transit systems for their commuters. These traffic and mass transit related projects and programmes have been studied and evaluated by academics, relevant professionals and practitioners and by civil society organisations and a number of lessons have been learnt as a result. Karachi should benefit from these lessons as the government is in the process of constructing large traffic engineering projects for the city and proposing a variety of mass transit systems.

Bangkok, Tehran, Manila, Cairo, to name a few cities, have built hundreds of kilometres of expressways and hundreds of flyovers. Yet, their traffic conditions have not improved. As a matter of fact, they have become worse over time. Karachi today is far better off than them. The reason for this is that traffic problems are not solved simply by building expressways and flyovers but by effective segregation of through and local traffic, fast and slow traffic, pedestrianisation of appropriate prescients and above all by the development of a rational landuse policy and its implementation. For example, the building of the Lyari Expressway will lead to real estate development on either side of the river which in turn will generate over fifty thousand additional vehicles to this corridor once this development is complete. If we had not built the Expressway but had invested in relocating the Metal Market, the Dhan Mandi and the Chemical Market to the Northern Bypass and the recycling industries to landfill sites, we could have reduced about 30,000 vehicle trips per day into the old city. This includes heavy vehicles as well. As a result, we would have been able to provide badly needed amenities to the inner city which are now encroached upon by warehousing and cargo handling spaces for these markets and this would have created an environment for salvaging our built-heritage. Similarly, instead of building the KPT underpass, we could have extended the oil pipeline from the refinery to a point on the National Highway and could have created an oil terminal there. This would have removed twenty thousand tankers which now ply between Shireen Jinnah Colony and the National Highway through the Sunset Boulevard. Scores of such examples can be listed for the city of Karachi which also involve the movement of containers.

Planners in Manila and Bangkok are of the opinion that the failure of their investments in traffic engineering is the result of ad-hoc decisions not based on a comprehensive traffic and landuse plan. In Cairo, there is an opinion that some of the existing flyovers would have to be removed if Cairo’s traffic problems are to be resolved.

All the cities mentioned above have also invested heavily in mass transit systems using elevated light rail and also metro in the case of Bangkok and Calcutta. These systems have not solved their transport problems and nor have they helped in solving their traffic problems either. The reasons for this are that the rail based mass transit systems that have been built are on too small a scale to have a citywide impact; they are too expensive for the lower income groups to use; and they were built on corridors used by the maximum number of commuters although in most cases these commuters come to these corridors from other locations often far from these corridors. In addition, these systems have not decongested the corridors on which they have been built, as they were supposed to. On the contrary, these corridors have become further congested as the light rail stations have become places of interchange between different modes of commuting.

The reasons for these failures are simple. One, light rail systems are expensive and as such Third World cities have not been able to invest adequately in them. As a result, Bangkok’s sky train serves only three per cent of Bangkok’s commuting population; Manila’s serves only eight per cent; Cairo’s only two to three per cent; and Calcutta’s and Tehran’s metro even less. The rest of the population uses run down and often deteriorating bus systems. Two, since these systems have often been built without subsidies and are supposed to operate without subsidies also, they are expensive to use. The average cost of Bangkok’s light rail per trip is 25 Baht as opposed to 5 Baht for a similar journey by bus. The case of Manila is similar. So the poor do not use these systems.

Due to the reasons given above, Latin American cities are now opting, with considerable success, for segregated bus ways which operate in a manner similar to the light rail systems but are much cheaper to construct and as such have a larger outreach. Elevated light rails’ cost about US$ 40 million per kilometre; light rail at-grade about US$ 10 million per kilometre; and an electric trolley bus system, operating in a manner similar to the light rail, US$ 3 to 5 million per kilometre. The trolley bus system is also noiseless and as such causes no noise or air pollution and can be extended with comparative ease as compared to the rail systems. In term of outreach what does this mean? Corridor One, 15 kilometres of elevated light rail, was supposed to be built for US$ 668 million. At-grade we could have built 68 kilometres and we could have built 225 kilometres of trolley bus systems for the same sum. However, the pros and cons of these systems have to be studied keeping in view are socio-economic conditions and lessons learnt from other countries.

The Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) connects all the major work areas of the city where according to the Karachi Development Plan 2000, 45 per cent of Karachi’s commuting public works. It can be turned into a light rail system and can be extended at-grade into the major residential areas which are Baldia, Orangi, North Karachi, and Landhi-Korangi where 68 per cent of the commuting public originates. This seems to be the most rational project for the city along with the development of trolley bus corridors. It is also possible to turn the KCR corridor into a trolley bus system. However, these are issues that the transport engineers will have to decide in consultation with academics and civil society organisations.

Whatever decisions are ultimately taken, it is important that traffic engineering projects are a part of a larger city level traffic and landuse plan and not ad-hoc local level interventions as they are today. Mass transit systems should not be “prestige” projects but should serve the maximum number of commuters in the shortest period of time, and are affordable, even if their “efficiency” is compromised to some extent. And finally, elevated systems should not be built in the inner city where Karachi’s extraordinarily rich built-heritage is located.

The traffic engineering and mass transit projects will change our city unrecognisably, for better or for worse, as they have other cities. For better, only if these projects and systems benefit the bulk of our lower and lower middle income groups who are pedestrians and public transport users and who comprise 70 per cent of Karachi’s population.

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