Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Why not Khokhas Everywhere?

Street-vending through kiosks (khokhas or dhabas) or mobile vendors (chabri wallahs, truck, bicycles or motor cycles) are all legitimate activities which allow the poor opportunities. All societies through history have had these activities.  An unemployed person can with a small amount of money buy some fruit and serve it on a small platform or a cart.
Used to be a time we would see these vendors all over Pakistani cities selling all manner of things. There was guy selling the most awesome wire puzzles that I wish had kept. There used to be the guy in bicycle who used to be only supplier of used Marvel comics and science fiction books.
As teenagers, we used to walk or bike to local khokhas to learn how pick up all manner of goods as they were conveniently located and often cheaper than bigger stores. They were also willing to do things like give you one cigarette from a pack or one biscuit from a pack as opposed to buying a whole packet.
Then somewhere in the 80s when we seriously adopted the suburban DHA model, all roads were widened to make way for the cars. Many of my favorite khokhas were taken away. I wondered where the owners had gone till one day I found one of the vendors in dire straits forced to beg. 
Later our pristine suburban neighborhoods got very exclusive and the mobile vendor who used to visit us earlier were now diligently stopped by the police as well as private security. Various forms of hawkers (the guy with the churun (a spicy paste or powder), or the vendor carrying the rubbery candy with which he made bicycles or figures, or the kulfi wallah) disappeared. I wonder where they are begging now?
Meanwhile bureaucrats who ran cities became increasingly wedded to the American Suburban model with endless single family homes and broad avenues for cars. Of course, they kept prime areas for their government owned housing and government-subsidized leisure clubs as well as plots for themselves. The poor did not fit into this scheme. The masters of the city with their perks and plots therefore got even more strict with the street vendors. Police were told to vigorously eradicate all forms of poverty—poor housing and street vendors—from the line of sight of speeding cars.
Occasionally a street vendor shows up on a side street but in a matter of hours you will find some policemen throwing him out. YouTube even has videos of policemen in Karachi upsetting carts of street vendors destroying their inventory. DHA the pinnacle of good estate management will not allow any street vendors.
Meanwhile we in policy circles began to measure poverty and continually talk of poverty eradication. Donors forced us to initiate many poverty alleviation projects. We have BISP where we are giving them conditional and unconditional cash transfers. We have skill development agencies in every province and at the federal level and we also have funds to foster skill development.  We also have several large microcredit-providing agencies and several banks that these agencies finance.  
So, what is it that people do with the few thousand rupees that these programs give them? There are no studies on this question. Mostly people ad lib, “they start their own business.” And most frequently, the business is thought to be a sewing machine. One wonders how many sewing machine businesses can the poor run?
So, the next question is “where can they set up this business?” Here the consultants have no answer. Weakly they say “at home?” But poor homes are so small and their families large. Do they have space to operate? Besides, their clientele would be the neighborhood? Or will the spend time peddling their wares? And how, when no such activity is allowed? 
I have personally pushed for the liberalization of street vending business for the last 15 years. I have presented this proposal to prime ministers and the chief ministers. They liked the idea until the bureaucrats shot it down. “Why?” you would ask. I can think of no reason other than power and hubris. 
Unlike Pakistan the rest of the world has a huge number of street vendors in their cities. Scanning some recent research on the subject I found these estimates of the number of street vendors in some major cities in the world. 
Street Vendors
Mexico City
Kuala Lampur
Street vending is a legitimate entrepreneurial activity for the poor. It also adds to city life as many of us have felt when we go to Manhattan, London, Singapore or Bangkok. It adds vitality to and vibrancy to the community promoting mingling opportunities among the most diverse segments of the society. It also extends the range of goods available and promotes price competition which serves the community with both more goods and services and at lower prices. It also promotes street safety as it puts more ‘eyes on the street’
Many well-known entrepreneurs took their first steps as street vendors to grow large businesses. Vienna Beef is a large company that makes hot dogs, sausages and other food items started out as a street vending company. A heartwarming story from India is making the rounds about a blind man, Bavesh Bhatia who has developed a multi-million dollar business starting off as a street vendor.
Is it not time that we allowed street vendors everywhere in our cities. Every street and street corner should be allowed to have a street vendor. Cars must be made to give space to the poor. And there is no reason to associate street vending with poor sanitation and aesthetics. A careful and good policy can be developed to develop street vending cleanly and aesthetically. We can work out a good policy for street vending.
I find it strange that there are street vendors within a stone’s throw of the White house, the Congress and Washington DC landmarks and none on Constitution Avenue Islamabad. If hawkers hang out near Buckingham Palace and the Parliament, why can’t there be khokhas next to the Governor’s house, Gymkhana, Punjab Club and the Corps Commander house in Lahore. 

So, let us not give the poor mere handouts without the space to grow. Street vending is a legitimate right of the poor to claim their share of entrepreneurship. Accept it and allow them to grow.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mobility for all

Pakistan is obsessed with cars and big lovely roads for these cars. For decades, the biggest item in the PSDP has been roads. We have built many highways. Most big cities in Pakistan are connected by a highway. Checking on Google maps I found that travel time between cities in Pakistan is almost the same as similar distances in the US. People with cars are very happy and love to talk about how fast they travel between cities.  It is easier now to spend your time in metropolitan centers playing golf and occasionally visit your farm to collect your rents.

The presumed benefit of all this connectivity to GDP growth and welfare continues to elude the economy. Pakistan continues to grow between 3 and 5 percent far less than the 8+ percent required by our demographic trends. Yet the policymaker seems to think that roads will lead to economic growth.
Within cities especially the favorites there is a continued effort to reduce the travel time for cars. Roads are continuously widened, flyovers and underpasses added and signal-free corridors added to facilitate fast cars. Once again the rich are happy but there has been no visible productivity improvement such as increased output, more commercial and entrepreneurial activity. Inadequate GDP growth reveals that this investment too is not paying off. 

I remember senior policymakers were surprised after all this flyover-building and road-widening for cars, that poor were driven out of the city mobility.  Horse drawn carts, bicycles, pedestrians were left with no room. The extensive car infrastructure is anti-poor. Bear in mind in a city like Lahore with a population of over 10 million there are about 300,000 cars.

Now our leaders have woken up to building public transport. Who can disagree with that? We are building huge lines across Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Multan and I suppose more will come.
Roughly speaking in Lahore, we have spent 2.5 billion on 2 lines.  Three more are proposed. Extrapolating from the existing costs, these will cost another 3 billion. The reason for the high cost is that the metro had to be elevated to preserve roads for cars. There is also an operating annual subsidy which will grow over time.

So, we are subsidizing cars with wide roads and flyovers, and subsidizing those that are lucky enough to live by metros. We are told there are 170,000 people using it daily the Green line that is operating now. Extrapolating again, we can assume that there may be about 1.5 million people when this metros system is completed.

This whimsical policy will at best cater to less than 15% of Lahore’s population by the time it is completed (assuming trend growth in population). 

Is there a better alternative? Indeed, there is. Let us talk about it. 

Enrique Penelosa the famous mayor of Bogota came to Pakistan and talked about it. But did anyone listen? Unfortunately, not! Such occasions turn into events for protocol and key people miss the message. 

Penelosa famously pointed out that cities need to balance the right to mobility with the right to city public space. Prioritizing cars and giving them the wide roads while building metros on platforms to provide more space to cars at a cost of 5 billion USD has many implications:
  1. cars have most of the city mobility space;
  2. most city funding even that for building the elevated metro has been used for preserving the status and speed of cars;
  3. all this expenditure for cars means there is little money for other important activities such as health care, education and community development. 

Penelosa points to mobility as a right for all and for a city to provide some equity in mobility. It is well known that the mobility for the poor is mostly walking and bicycling. Even in our cities, studies show that the poor mainly walk or cycle. Yet our whimsical policies favoring cars has seen to it that there is no space for the poor. 

To make it convenient for cars, the metro is elevated and there is no pedestrian or bicycle access to the metro. Poor pedestrians must dodge cars and then climb 3 floors to catch the metro.

What is needed is a change of focus from cars to mobility for all.  One car takes the space of about 100 pedestrians when you consider the space that must be kept free in front back. In that space 15-20 bicycles can be operated. A bus with a about 80-100 passengers takes about the space of 3 cars.  
Why then should cars be subsidized and not priced? Most big cities smaller than Lahore and Karachi are pricing the use of the car to discourage car travel and encourage other forms of travel. Not only does this meet the Penelosa principle of equity in mobility it also saves city resources for the many other more important uses.

How should cars be priced?
  •            Congestion charges to enter and operate in a city center-- the denser more commercial parts of the city.
  •        In dedicated lanes, they can go faster but at a price. They can even be charged for every mile they use dedicated fast lane.
  •        Meaningful metered parking charges for use of appropriately designated parking spaces.

Technology allows such charges to be collected very cheaply through mobile phones. Such charges allow car users to rationally consider the use of their cars and planning trips to minimize cost to them.
Charging cars in this manner frees up road space which can then be used to
  •        Develop paths for pedestrians and cyclists.
  •        Provide more dedicated bus routes without building elevated tracks.
  •             Provide space for street commerce with kiosks for poor entrepreneurship.

 t   With this little tweak in policy we could have better cities and provide cheaper more people-friendly metros buses. People would also be provided people with more choices of transport such as walking and bicycling. We could also do away with the elevated tracks and flyovers that increasingly are viewed as ugly and expensive city dividers.

It has the added advantage of saving large sums that are now being spent on roads and elevated metros while also giving the city an additional source of revenue (tolls and congestion charges) with which to provide better city services.