Passing the Onus of Responsibility

Privatization of Public Transport in Karachi, Pakistan

By Kashmala Tahir


Provision of adequate public transport is a growing concern for mega cities around the world. While governments have been actively combating the problem of rapid growth and urbanization, the same cannot be said for Karachi, which has an approximate population of 16 million people, making it one of the world’s most populous cities.

Because government has failed to meet the increasing need for sustainable and affordable public transportation, this demand has been met by a non-professional private sector, which has been ‘formalized’, to an extent, by the government. Available transit options in Karachi include mini-buses, rickshaws, and motorbike rickshaws, known as chingchis. Routes for buses and minibuses are approved by the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) whereas chingchi, which carry a significant number of public transport commuters, operate without approved service routes (Noman, Ahmed, & Ali, 2020). This informal sector works on the neo-liberal principle of profit maximization, which results in poor service to the commuter due to lack of regulation and private competition.

Recently, private transport modes, including ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem, have been promoted as a solution, but neither has been successful in solving the transport crisis in Karachi. These private companies started off on a positive note, but rising fares and security concerns provided opportunities for private companies like Swvl and Airlift to emerge in 2019. These new models operated on the same principle as other app-based ride hailing services but instead of cars, this model centered on buses. Through their mobile apps, commuters could book a confirmed seat in an air-conditioned bus and track their journey in real-time. Since one bus could accommodate at least 12 passengers, it was not only cost-effective but also environmentally friendly (Qayyum, 2019). The onset of Covid 19, however, drastically affected demand for Airlift and Swvl (Amin, 2022). Primary users (students and white-collar professionals) were no longer demanding availability of public transport as they had shifted to online modes of school and work.


Airlift and Swvl can be categorized as ‘quasi-public institutions’ (Sletto & Nygren, 2016), which are helping bridge the gap between the state and its residents. After the city’s consistent failure to provide adequate public transport, these private companies deemed it necessary to provide these public services by themselves through the use of seed investments worth millions of dollars. As Shahzeb Memon, General Manager SWVL Pakistan stated, one of the purposes of the company was to take the “burden off the government’s shoulders so they can focus their energies on improving other sectors” (Liaquat, 2019).

This neo-liberal emphasis on self-sufficiency has certain advantages. In Karachi, the lack of safe and adequate public transport poses a wide variety of problems: students and middle-class white-collar workers cannot pay Uber fares on a daily basis and women are deterred from entering the workforce due to harassment faced in mini buses. Privately owned public transport may provide a solution to these problems. A study evaluating the effectiveness of the buses in Lahore, Pakistan, showed that the 61.8% of Swvl’s users were students and 24.3% were private sector employees (Javid, Ali, & Abdullah, 2021). By providing a transportation solution for the city’s most vulnerable residents, private companies like Airlift and Swvl can be understood as social urbanism (Scruggs, 2014).

At the same time, Airlift and Swvl represent a form of demand-responsive transport (DRT), which is in conflict with the welfare model that a state should use for the provision of public transport. The DRT concept emerged in the 1980’s, and recent technological advancements have enabled the concept to evolve into large-scale operations (Javid, Ali, & Abdullah, 2021). However, provision services such as these are dependent on demand and hence profit potential, which is why they should not be considered a full-scale replacement for governmental provision of public transport services.


The advent of app-based ride sharing systems fits within the neo-liberal urban governance model, as it is “premised in part on the development of collaborative arrangements between state and non-state actors through which residents in informal settlements are encouraged to participate in their own governance” (Sletto & Nygren, 2016, p. 965). The development of privately and community-led initiatives to provide public goods is increasingly beneficial to incompetent governments, as such initiatives not only relieves governments of the responsibility to provide basic services but also shifts the blame to civil-society actors in case of failure (Sletto & Nygren, 2016). In late 2019, the Sindh Transport Secretary Ghulam Abbas imposed a temporary ban on these ride sharing services, stating that they were operating without route permits and had not obtained fitness certification. The secretary further said that no one would be allowed to “jeopardise the lives of citizens” (Ali, 2019). These statements were amusing as conditions of governmentally ‘regularized’ buses are deplorable as compared to the bus services provided by these private entities.

Traditional planning approaches long relied on centralized and hierarchical governing approaches where decision-making processes depended on the state. Instead, under neoliberal governance, collaborative governance perspectives look at the interplay between state and civil society and seek to develop collective projects through joint public and private mobilization (Follador & Tremblay-Racicot, 2021). Ultimately, however, this case demonstrates that full privatization of public services is not an effective form of collaborative governance. While collaboration between public and private entities is a welcome development in urban planning, as public participation in development projects enables greater ownership and more creative solutions, the role of the private sector needs to be limited. The collapse of services like Airlift and Swvl demonstrates that the state should seek partnerships with private entities rather than passing off the onus of responsibility on them. Collaborative governance through public-private partnerships can produce new and exciting results, as long as the public welfare remains the priority and responsibility of state actors.

Advertisement for Swvl

Advertisement for Swvl.   Source

Deplorable conditions of government regulated mini-buses                  in Karachi, Pakistan.   Source

Airlift bus on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan.   Source


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