In countries with barely any functional public transport system, the emergence of Uber and Careem have been hailed by many as the safe, reliable and eco-friendly way to solve transport problems. However, with a dramatic rise in car ownership now consuming almost half of Pakistan’s oil, I have to ask; is Uber really the answer?

Pakistan’s Emissions

You might not see it on CNN, but Pakistan is developing madly. While social development has gone backwards over the last 20 years, our emissions have increased by approximately 123 per cent.

Much of this has been due to an agricultural explosion, but the energy sector has also played a significant role. The Government’s recent approach towards transport has been meagre, just as it was   their recent Intended Nationally Determined Commitment, submitted to the UN.

According to Vision 2025, the Government’s plans will see significant increases in road densities, from 32 km/100km sq to 64 km/100 km sq by 2025.

Interestingly, a National Economic and Environmental Development (NEEDs) study of Pakistan, funded by the UN and developed in 2011, attaches much significance to the transport sector and its associated emissions in Pakistan. According to the report, the transport sector is currently responsible for 21% of the country’s total emissions, and more than half of the oil used in Pakistan, between 2007 and 2008.

Cars in Lahore are stuck in heavy traffic next to the Metro Bus line, which has a road especially dedicated to it. Photo: Dawn News

Cars in Lahore are stuck in heavy traffic next to the Metro Bus line, which has a road especially dedicated to it. Photo: Dawn News

Emissions are growing at such an alarming rate, Pakistan is set to soon lose its gloating rights as one of the lowest emitters in the world (0.2% of total emissions). From the energy sector alone, including transport, we are set to pass 898 MT CO2 equivalent WHEN.

In 2000, when traffic was just bad, there were 4 million vehicles on Pakistan’s roads. By 2010 there were 9.8 million. In 2015, Pakistan has continued its newfound addiction to the motor vehicle; in March this year, we even broke international records for the number of cars sold in a month.

While car leasing and car financing have contributed to the rise in the number of vehicles on the road in Pakistan, there is no wonder more and more people are opting to buy their own cars. Pakistan’s public transport system is sporadic at best, and in most places, non-existent.  While controversial, and expensive investments have been made on the transit systems in major cities in the form of Metro bus and trains, trends in car sales indicate that people appear to continue to prefer investing in their own moving safehaven.

For many people however, especially those in urban areas working in offices, transport is still an incredibly expensive problem. Public transport systems are unreliable, and women in particular find them unsafe. Women in Pakistan also don’t usually ride motorcycles or bicycles.

Cycling in Pakistan’s cities is unsafe anyway, with bicycle lines only recently introduced in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. Buying your own car, even with car financing options available, is still too expensive for most.

Enter Uber and Careem

Into this tumultuous landscape in late 2015 entered Careem, with Uber hot on its heels. Uber entered the market cautiously with an initial fleet of 100, as did Careem. Slowly, both have expanded operations to most major cities in Pakistan, and growing. In Karachi, by the end of 2016, Careem had 375 registered cars, while Uber had 280, 100 of which were new, serving its customers. Careem announced in late 2016 that it had secured 350 Million USD in funding, the highest awarded to any startup.

While Careem and Uber are new entrants into Pakistans transport scene, they have been around for a few years. Uber was founded in 2009, and Careem in 2012. Both companies have vehemently stated that their model promotes more people relying on a single car, therefore reducing the purchase of individual cars by people.

However, shared transport companies are under increasing scrutiny for contributing to traffic by encouraging people to shift away from public transport. Shared transport companies are also exempt from fuel efficiency regulations that are mandatory for most public transport, thereby potentially increasing emissions.

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Pakistan: A Unique Context

Despite the criticism for shared transport companies,  emerging evidence suggests that they might be good for the environment. In a study in Washington for example, it was discovered that Uber and Lyft may have actually contributed to decreasing traffic on the roads.

That may be the case in the US.

In Pakistan, however, reports suggest that the shared transport dynamic has evolved into something quite unexpected. In the context of Pakistan’s growing economy, low literacy rates and high wage gaps, many work as domestic workers, particularly in urban areas, for the urban elite. In many cases, this includes working as a driver, or personal chauffer.

An emerging trend, one that I have noticed myself, is that the upper-middle class car owners are now transferring their private drivers to Uber/Careem. This is to earn an extra income: particularly when  these companies were offering a per hour rate to incentivise drivers. While not being so much of an environmental problem, this is a potential labour problem, since most of the time, the drivers are paid a fixed wage and do not get paid for this extra work.

Smog choking Lahore in 2016. Photo: Dunya News

Smog choking Lahore in 2016. Photo: Dunya News

In another case, I recently got a free upgrade on Careem to a ‘Luxury  Ride’. As I began chatting with the Captain, I was told that he was driving a rental vehicle. This isn’t the first time I heard about this. This actually does increase the traffic and congestion on the road, as these vehicles are now used as ‘rides’ when they would otherwise be dormant. Not to mention the fact that Uber and Careem make buying a car more viable for many hesitant, first-time drivers.

There is also the issue of taxi’s. It’s now common to hear that Uber and Careem are apparently putting Taxis out of business, but one look at roads proves otherwise. There has been little replacement – just an addition of more cars.

The regular shared transport model understandably has changed due to the environment in Pakistan. As Mudassar Sheikha, one of the founders of Careem pointed out, there is a massive demand for better transport to match the growing demand for urban jobs. Shared transport companies are contributing towards employment as well as improving the mobility of people in Pakistan, particularly women, who otherwise struggled with security fears on public transport.

The are even now apps such as ‘Tezz Raftar’ which are for booking Rickshaws and Taxis.

However, whilst Uber and Careem expand operations, it is important to view this in terms of Pakistans growing transport sector that has not been adequately reflected in our climate change policies.

This is probably to protect the Government’s aggressive and expensive investment in public transit systems such as the Metro Bus and Train systems.

Whilst improved public transport is welcomed, it is important that existing structures, of which Pakistan has many, such as the unused Karachi Railway are improved. Uber and Careem are a good solution that improve safety and mobility, but they are not the solution to quelling our rampant growth in transport-based emission.

As Fred Kent, President of the Project for Public Spaces argues:

If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

Anam Zeb

About Anam Zeb