February 03, 2015

Addressing Congestion on the Streets of Karachi

Karachi Public Bus Widescreen

Long a bustling, influential city in the region, Karachi, Pakistan’s rapid expansion in recent decades has long outgrown the city’s transit infrastructure. Now with an estimated 23 million residents in the metro area, the city’s overreliance on cars is catching up to it and causing painful congestion and air pollution. As mobility, quality of life, and even financial productivity have suffered, Karachi officials have begun working with the Asian Development Bank and ITDP to help Karachi turn the corner and change the way the city moves.

As the population of Karachi boomed from 450,000 in 1947 to today, the city’s transit and land use planning have failed to keep pace. With hubs of finance and commerce downtown and an ever-expanding city, long commutes became the norm. Even attempts to create new manufacturing centers outside the city for new settlers couldn’t keep up with the massive inflow of residents, first from India, then rural Pakistan. As a result, transit patterns remained heavily dependent on residents traveling toward the city center for work.

Today, Karachi public transit options are few and inadequate. An urban rail line closed in 1999, after years of poor station maintenance and service levels left the system unpopular. The city’s public buses, though numerous, are poorly monitored, unpredictable, and often dangerous. It is not uncommon to see riders climbing onto moving buses, or passengers sitting on top of the bus (see photo above).

Karachi Woman and Children in Qingqi
Small Qingqi rickshaws are popular, but are significantly increasing air pollution and congestion in the city.

In the absence of a good, convenient urban public transport system, Karachi has seen an increasing trend toward private rickshaws (small, three-wheeled motorized vehicles) known as qingqi. Previously informal and discouraged by the government (attempts to ban the qingqi did little to slow their growth), the Sindh Transport Department recently moved to formalize the network, assigning routes and giving licenses. Still, the rise in qingqi  has aggravated concerns of congestion and air quality.

With a historic transportation crisis causing gridlock and pollution, Karachi is looking to make dramatic changes to its transit system to improve life for residents. Working with ITDP and the Asian Development Bank, the city is exploring how a cutting-edge bus rapid transit system could serve to improve mobility and offer an alternative to ever-increasing congestion.


ITDP Indonesia Director Yoga Adiwinarto (left) meets with bus operators, drivers, and conductors to involve them in planning for a BRT system.
ITDP Indonesia Director Yoga Adiwinarto (left) meets with bus operators, drivers, and conductors to involve them in planning for a BRT system.

Starting in August 2014, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) engaged ITDP to develop conceptual design and plan for a BRT system in Karachi. ITDP Staff members from Indonesia and China office  worked in Karachi to analyze traffic data, congestion rates, roads with multiple bus routes, and routes with high frequency and occupancy rates. They combined this data with a consideration of land uses around the main roads and development potential to study which corridor would be best suited for BRT.

To bring the highest benefit to passengers, a ‘direct service’ model was suggested. By allowing buses to enter and leave the BRT corridor at any point (rather than requiring transfer stations at either end to use the dedicated lanes), the system can reduce transfers and extend the system’s reach beyond the corridor itself. In addition, it offers more opportunities for the city and private bus operators to work together to improve transit in the city. By including bus operators in plans for Karachi’s transit future, planners can minimize driver’s concerns about losing passengers and income.

Karachi still has several steps to go before fully committing to the project, but with strong international institutions supporting the project, it’s taking the right steps to start addressing its transit needs.


Colorfully painted, the buses in Karachi are often dangerously overfull.
Colorfully painted, the buses in Karachi are often dangerously overfull.
Congestion in Karachi often leads to gridlock.
Congestion in Karachi causes gridlock with serious environmental, health, and economic impacts.



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