Understanding Karachi’s Traffic Problems

Karachi’s traffic and transport problems are increasing rapidly. There are huge traffic jams every day inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of commuters; pavements and even entire streets have been encroached upon at all key transit locations, making both vehicular and pedestrian movement almost impossible; and the ensuing anarchy makes effective traffic management difficult, to say the least.

The reasons for these conditions are obvious for those who have monitored and documented the growth of Karachi. In the absence of alternatives, manufacturing, warehousing and  informal cargo terminals have taken over the narrow lanes and open public spaces of the inner city and are rapidly moving into residential areas and katchi abadis which are spread all over Karachi. An increasing number of heavy-duty-polluting vehicles crisis cross the city to serve these facilities. Again, in the absence of formal bus terminals, depots and workshops, entire pavements and roads are now used for the performance of these functions, and the absence of a rail based mass transit system has congested the main arteries of the city and encouraged an increasing number of commuters to purchase cars and motorbikes, thus adding to traffic volume. These trends are creating massive environmental degradation, inappropriate land-use changes and mental stress and various respiratory diseases and allergies in the Karachi population. It is also destroying the city’s rich cultural heritage; depriving the citizens of recreation and entertainment facilities (or access to them where they exist) and most serious of all, fragmenting the city into isolated rich and poor areas. Added to this is a non-existent sewage disposal system and deteriorating solid waste management.

The city government’s response to these problems so far has been the building of roads, inner city flyovers and expressways. These may ease traffic flows on certain corridors for the time being but will not tackle the issues listed above and as a result Karachi’s traffic, transport and environment related problems will keep increasing with every passing week. It is feared that Karachi may end-up being a commuter nightmare such as Bangkok or Manila, both of which have no shortage of expressways and flyovers and both of which have rail based mass transit systems on a few of their main corridors of movement.

To tackle Karachi’s problems, what is required urgently is a plan for decongesting the city; decentralising some of its functions; segregating through and local traffic and fast and slow moving traffic; removing certain environmentally degrading functions to the Northern Bypass or off the Super Highway; and opening up new areas for the development and/or relocation of inner city manufacturing and warehousing facilities along with area development plans for Saddar, Lea Market and Liaquatabad and an urban renewal plan for the inner city. In short, what is required is a land-use plan where not only land value but also social and environmental concerns determine land-use.

Some of the decisions taken by the local government are detrimental to the implementation of such a land use plan. For example, it has decided to commercialise thirteen main corridors of the city in Phase 1 and 8 in Phase 2 of its commercialization plan. This means a huge increase of traffic and densities and an over-taxing of an already inadequate services infrastructure. It has also decided to build the Lyari Expressway, which in the absence of effective land-use planning and its implementation means massive land-use change and densification of the over-congested Lyari Corridor. Already the factories and godowns demolished in the alignment of the Expressway have relocated in the dense settlements on either side of the river creating further densification, degradation and an increase in traffic volume in these settlements. Informally land speculation has also begun and is likely to play havoc with the city. In addition, if the existing plan of the Expressway is implemented, it will also wipe out an important part of Karachi’s history as embodied in the eighteenth and nineteenth century villages (and the communities that live there) that are to be demolished to pave the way for the Expressway. The decision to curtail the length of the Northern Bypass was also unfortunate as now the Bypass will terminate much nearer to Sohrab Goth on the Super Highway than before, thus increasing congestion on the main exit from the city and considerably reducing the areas to be opened up for future development.

The city government has repeatedly ordered a ban on the movement of heavy vehicles (both of cargo and transport) in the inner city. However, it has not been able to impose this ban and it cannot for obvious reasons. In the narrow lanes between Estate Avenue in SITE and M.A. Jinnah Road, Karachi’s main wholesale markets and small scale manufacturing are located. Trucks have to serve these markets and industry, and hotels for businessmen, and middlemen from other parts of the country and transport facilities for them are (and quite naturally also) located in this area. This economic activity cannot be wished away and its requirements cannot be banned by an order and nor should it be.

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