September 18, 2008

Karachi Can Be Far more Beautiful than Paris: Penalosa

If there was one thing Enrique Penalosa noticed, while on his way from the Quaid-i-Azam International Airport to his hotel, it was that the Karachi roads were wide enough for the bus rapid transport system (BRTS) to be implemented.

Not just that. He also saw the immense potential of turning the city around, that we, as Karachiites, seem to have given up.

“This is a crucial moment in Karachi’s history. You have a fantastic opportunity now to make your city much better, with parks, pedestrian walkways lined with tropical trees, footpaths and bicycle ways. It can be far more beautiful than what Paris and London are because you still have un-built open spaces,” said Mr Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, currently visiting Pakistan under the auspices of the Clinton Climate Initiative (a programme of the Clinton Foundation) and delivering lectures in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

In Karachi, the lecture on Sustainable Urban Development and Mobility was organized by the Karachi Mass Transit Cell of the CDGK and an NGO, Shehri-CBE.

To him, “a good city is one that has parks, and such fantastic ones that even the rich are forced to use them… which has an efficient public transport system that discourages people from using their private cars… where children, the elderly and special people could be out in the open because it is safe for them.”

The best designed cities, according to Mr Penalosa, are in northern Europe, like the Dutch and Danish cities. A “failed”, on the other hand, is one that has shopping malls and where pedestrians are killed by cars.

“People behave in the way they are treated, and most cities do not respect pedestrians,” he remarked.

With his voice resonating to match the passion in his eyes, he almost implored the citizens of Karachi “to learn from the mistakes made by urban monstrosities that are Tokyo, Bangkok and Mexico City.”

To him, the sidewalk is a sign of true democracy. “It’s not just about being able to go out and vote; democracy means where public good prevails over private interest,” when elected leadership has the will to place the needs of the masses above those few who wield the power, that tiny minority who drive cars.

During his three-year term (1997-2000) as mayor, he literally turned Bogota around. A city of seven million inhabitants, it now boasts wide tree-lined sidewalks, bicycle paths, restricted use of cars during rush hours, pedestrian-only zones. But most importantly, he implemented the BRTS (originally developed in Curitiba, Brazil, in the 1970s), called the Transmilenio public transport system. The system that comprises two-part hinged buses and carry 160 passengers each drives on lanes reserved for their exclusive use, at a speed of 30km/hour/direction. But all this was possible because he had all the required powers, he said.

At the moment, 1,027 diesel-powered Transmilenio buses operate in a 84-km road network catering to the needs of 1.4 million passengers per day of whom 21 per cent own cars. There are 114 elevated stations in the centre of the roads. Users pay the fare at the station. The doors of the stations and the buses slide open simultaneously to allow passengers’ entry and exit.

The National BRTS programme has been implemented in six Colombian cities.

“It’s a lie when governments say that they have to make highways, expressways, even elevated ones, and bigger roads to resolve traffic problems. More road infrastructures bring about more traffic jams and wide roads do not necessarily solve traffic problems,” said Mr Penalosa, giving the examples of Seoul and Boston which are demolishing highways they had built earlier.

But he also realised that fighting to put a ban on highways was a losing battle. “I am not going to convince you not to build big roads or expressways, but if you have to, build them for buses.”

He observed that all such decisions are “political” and not “engineering”. “We are making cities for cars, not for people,” he remarked.

“But Karachi can still make amends. You have the space, you can make parks and pedestrian zones, and people will be happy.” He apprehended that after fifty years from now, the children of today might have no parks.

The only way to resolve Karachi’s traffic woes, according to Mr Penalosa, is to embark upon a BRTS which is far more difficult than building trains and subways but 10 times cheaper. “For the BRTS you need strong political will and managerial skills. Without these two, you may not succeed.”

“You will be able to carry 50,000 passengers/hour/direction but let’s do a good job of replicating (BRTS) and have a truly integrated system with good buses, pre-paid stations, exclusive bus corridors, etc.” He favoured the private-public partnership and a system of contracts with traditional bus-owners.

Any half-hearted measures might render the bus system a failure, he warned, pointing out that this had happened in Delhi, where old buses operated along with the BRTS buses thereby compromising the efficiency and speed of the latter.

At the same time, said Mr Penalosa, there was a need for availability of pedestrian bridges, pedestrian walkways and bike ways.

He was sure that if implemented in its true sense, the BRTS would bring down the number of cars plying on roads. “Everybody wants cars. I say let them have cars but restrict their use.”

His suggestions include levying of tax on gasoline yet subsidizing it for public transport; charging of parking fee; keeping cars off sidewalks; having car-free days; and restricting use of cars during rush hours in certain zones of the city.

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Karachi Can Be Far more Beautiful than Paris: Penalosa

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