The case for pedestrianisation

Among other things, pedestrianisation will boost the street economy, creating jobs for the youth and local people

No city in Pakistan is free of the burden of chronic vehicle-driven and male-dominated urban spaces. While Karachi is no exception to this, as the centre of the country’s financial hustle-bustle, the city is unable to meet the mobility needs of its residents — car drivers, non-motorised and public transport users alike.

Like other South Asian megacities, Karachi allows motorised vehicles to dominate its landscape. Pedestrianisation is generally ignored as an effective strategy to cure the ailing vehicle-based congestion in cities and improving mobility and access for a vast majority of urban dwellers.

This article analyses the ongoing efforts towards pedestrianisation of the Burns Road and suggests the way forward to make city planning more people-centric.

Thriving in the heart of old Saddar Town, near Regal Trade Centre, Bahadur Shah Market and Urdu Bazaar stretching right up to Pakistan Chowk, Burns Road is situated in the city’s commercial and historical hotspot. Karachi’s oldest food street still identifies itself as the herald of pre-partition culinary heritage. Delhi Rabri and Bhashani Sweets, for example, lend an Indian and Bengali identity to their desserts, respectively. Most other food vendors also trace their history back to pre-partition days and early migrant communities. They have been here ever since.

Given the history of Burns Road and its unrivalled reputation for some of the country’s best gastronomical delights, it wouldn’t be wrong to see it as both a commercial market and a heritage sight. The question that begs attention is: how have the citizens been interacting with the road? Unfortunately, Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) has long maintained a bias for motorised vehicles. Overlooking history and heritage, in 2019, KMC razed many restaurants on account of alleged encroachment on public space.

Street hawkers were pushed into a cat-and-mouse game with the KMC officials and the local police who would visit periodically and threaten to destroy the vendors’ carts if they didn’t move on. As soon as the officials left, the vendors would re-appear. Burns Road has been a lucrative stretch for them and they have occupied it for decades.

With restaurants and vendors lining both sides of the road, the two-way road has functioned mainly as a thoroughfare for cars and motorbikes resulting in frequent traffic jams. This has caused physical congestion and pollution in the area, making it unhygienic and unsanitary for food businesses and hindered its evolution into an accessible food street. This could have been a place where people might freely walk, mingle and interact with the environment.

Recently, however, the city authorities finally undertook a downtown restoration project. Accordingly, Burns Road was pedestrianised. Since January 10, the 200-metre road is closed for motor vehicles after 7pm.

The pedestrianisation of Burns Road, meant chiefly to facilitate its business community, has already elicited positive feedback. Food vendors are reporting that the enhanced accessibility has resulted in increased traffic. Apparently, restricting car access to dedicated urban spaces is beneficial to both businesses and residents of the area.

While pedestrianising a historically significant heritage and public site like Burns Road was necessary, there needs to be a sustained effort on the city government’s part to reimagine and redesign Karachi as an inclusive and people-friendly city.

For a long time, authorities in Karachi have been focusing on suburban housing societies and the provision of signal-free corridors for cars. In this process, we have neglected the inner and historic part of the city.

The way forward

It is important that pedestrianisation of public spaces does not remain limited to food streets but is also included in its urban planning in a way that aids everyday life. Sustainable change in urban policy can only be brought about if pedestrianisation does not simply make for optics or remain limited to a select few streets.

For a long time, authorities in Karachi have been focusing on suburban housing societies and the provision of highways and signal-free corridors for cars. In the process, the dense inner parts of the city have been neglected. Most of the urban planning and traffic management initiatives have focused on resolving barriers to the free flow of cars.

What else explains congestion at heritage sites and other neighbourhoods? Karachi’s lack of investment in a public transport system has made its residents buy or lease private vehicles. This, coupled with the city’s poor public infrastructure, e.g. roads, footpaths, has led to an increase in road congestion and pollution.

Dependence on privately-owned vehicles has also limited the mobility of the large working class. The urban poor barely earn the minimum legal wage to sustain themselves and their families. Restricted mobility not only slows down economic activity but actively disincentivises private sector from investing in the city. Burns Road’s redeeming asset perhaps was its location that kept sustained its businesses afloat for so long despite the car-and-road centric development.

It is important that city authorities, in collaboration with social science scholars, urban planners and city residents work towards creating a culture of pedestrianisation. The street and the sidewalk have lost their significance as public spaces. A new perspective recognising streets as public spaces to be shared by everyone is needed.

Moreover, mobility plans should be developed with both motorised and non-motorised modes of transport. Thus, the interventions should be to build and maintain footpaths, develop pedestrian tracks on roads and invest in public spaces for work and leisure. While investment in a public transport system is essential for Karachi in the long-run, pedestrianisation can pave the way for an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive city.

In order to achieve this goal, there is a need to pursue neighbourhood-level planning. Every neighbourhood and street in a city like Karachi presents a different social, economic and ethnic context that needs to be considered. For a long time, the government has been relying on master plans and associated land-use planning at the city level. Such city-level planning should focus on the strategic front while the neighbourhood planning needs to be carried out at the grassroots level. The absence of functioning and empowered local governments certainly makes it difficult.

However, Karachi has a long history of urban activism inspired by the Orangi Pilot Project, Shehri, and Urban Resource Centre. Many local and neighbourhood level social organisations have been playing an important role in urban management. The city administration and political leadership should engage civil society organisations to pursue people-centric development beyond food streets, facelifts and highways.

Pedestrianisation can also boost the street economy, creating jobs for the youth and local people. As in other cities, women, children and senior citizens are the most marginalised groups in Karachi. The involvement of local civil society organisations can make urban planning more people and gender-centric.

Published in The News on Sunday By Fatima Laraib & Naveed Iftikhar & Uswah E Fatima Political Economy February 14, 2021

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