Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road has always had its share of traffic, but lately the main thoroughfare that connects central Karachi to its major port is in a state of near constant gridlock.
An elevated street eats up two of the road’s three lanes, but it’s empty — part of an incomplete project to create express lanes for public buses that was supposed to finish three years ago. It’s one of many towering structures scattered throughout the Pakistani city that were part of the latest plans to bring a modern transportation to Karachi, one of the world’s fastest-growing cities and the third-biggest by population.
Karachi ranks as having the worst public transport system globally, according to a 2019 study by car-parts company Mister Auto. Roads are filled with potholes, not all traffic signals are automated, and it’s common to see drivers running red lights. And yet the former capital is home to Pakistan’s main ports and the regional headquarters for companies such as Standard Chartered and Unilever , helping it generate half of the nation’s tax revenue. Those funds, however, get distributed to other parts of the country. The city’s outgoing mayor Waseem Akhtar said last year he had only 12 per cent administrative control of the city and a lack of funds.
“Karachi, despite its importance, is a political orphan,” said Arsalan Ali Faheem, a consultant at DAI, a Bethesda, Maryland-based company. “The federal government is limited in what it can do, and the city government controls less than a quarter of the city.” The dysfunction came into focus in August when record rainfall flooded many parts of the city. About 64 people died while 10,000 had to be rescued.
In its aftermath, Pakistan PM Imran Khan announced a development package valued at $6.8 billion jointly with the provincial government including the bus project and a circular railway system. The amount is more than $6 billion loan bailout Pakistan agreed from the International Monetary Fund to avoid bankruptcy.
The provincial government’s transport department has admitted it can’t do large projects on its own. Khan’s government announced 162 billion rupees for mega projects, but city officials reported that no funds were ever released earlier this year.
The government said in response that it has spent 24.65 billion rupees up to June, while an allocation of 17.9 billion rupees has been made for the current fiscal year.
The latest attempts follows others to bring Karachi’s transportation system into the modern era. Multiple bus projects have been announced but either they never started or were unable to sustain. Meanwhile, Lahore started a train service last week after getting a similar bus project running seven years ago.
The green line bus project was announced six years ago. It’s now expected to be completed around June of next year, said Asad Umar, Pakistan's federal planning minister and part of a Karachi committee . The delays are hardly an anomaly. The city’s most expensive area doesn’t have access to piped water and relies on water supplied through tankers, also known as “tanker mafia.” “An administrative setup that is unable to provide decent mass transit to the largest city in the country will always be viewed with skepticism,” said Uzair Younus, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.