Gridlock – Part One : A Jakarta Love Story

The first in a two-part Our Man In feature looking at the serious impacts of congestion in the cities of the developing world. First, we look at Jakarta in Indonesia.

The Bribe and the Traffic Jam

By Thibault Michot

Jakarta, Kinshasa, Mexico City, Moscow, Sao Paulo…  One may wonder what those metropolises have in common but with populations of millions people, they are some of most congested places on Earth.

Jakartans will tell you that this Indonesian mega-city is at its best when it comes to delicious street-food, friendly people, vibrant culture and occasionally decadent nightlife. At its worst however, anyone living or working in Jakarta will confess how the insanity-inducing levels of traffic congestion are such a major component of everyday life. For some time, Bangkok and Jakarta shared the unenviable reputation for having the worst gridlock in Asia. But in the past decade, the Thai capital has decided to tackle traffic congestion head-on through the construction of underground and overground train systems. Even though far from perfect, the nightmarish congestion has eased – leaving just Jakarta in a state of perpetual gridlock.

And the hours spent waiting behind the wheel are not expected to decrease anytime soon.

Actually, according to different studies and city officials, the already alarming situation is likely to get worse. Some forecast the day when Jakarta will reach ‘complete congestion’ sometime in 2014. Cars and motorbikes will occupy every single square metre of road, leaving Jakartans unable to reach anywhere in less than a couple of hours. Paranji has been working as a cab driver for 8 years in Jakarta. He has witnessed a huge difference over the past decade in congestion, and its effects upon his livelihood. As the traffic worsens, and journeys take longer both time and money is being wasted. Worse than that however are the health impacts – increasing stress, road rage and pollution.

Wandering around Jakarta can become a very frustrating experience; the city layout is puzzling to say the least, and congestion is easily some of the worst in the world with horrendous traffic jams sinking the city in total chaos. If you ask Jakartans why their city is so congested, a plethora of reasons will be given. Unchecked urbanization with a labyrinth-like city plan, food vendors wandering around or in the middle of the road, inadequate public transportation, a failed railway network, seemingly countless “Ojek” (motorcycle taxi), minibuses with a liberal interpretation of the traffic laws – not to mention the questionable driving attitude of people in Jakarta that drifts from sleepy to wildly out of control.The only faint light of hope comes from the TransJakarta, a somewhat rapid and reasonably efficient bus way system.

Winnie is 26 years old and an account executive, originally from Jakarta but who has lived throughout the island of Java, mostly in Bandung and Yogyakarta. She recently came back to live in Jakarta for professional reasons, and she confesses how getting around is a headache. Every morning and every evening it takes her more than one hour to get to and from the office. She admits that really feels the loss of time, not simply through the hours lost queuing for buses or stuck in traffic, but also through the loss of motivation and energy this causes. Despite living in a bustling metropolis, Winnie struggles to find the time and energy to play sport or meet up with friends. There is an even darker side to this endemic congestion – such large numbers of people stuck with little opportunity to move attract thieves and other criminals. Winnie recalls a time when stuck on highway with her (female) friend trying to get away from the city for the weekend, they were attacked by an axe-wielding mugger. Fortunately he was scared off before any damage done – leaving Winnie and her friend quite shaken up.

The traffic situation in Jakarta is probably one of the most discussed issues among the overwhelmed city officials. Measures to increase car pooling have already been taken, and people can receive a fine if there are less than 3 people in a car during morning and evening rush hours. Last year, a new tax law to dissuade multi-car ownership was enacted: the local tax office progressively taxes every privately owned vehicle, typically 1.5% of the vehicle’s value for the first one, 1.75% for the second, 2.5 % for the third and 4% for the fourth.

But it is doubtful these measures will be enough to tackle the traffic problem. The vehicle market is skyrocketing in the Indonesian capital. Data shows that there are more than 10 million motor vehicles in the city; estimates vary but in general around 1,000 new motorcycles and more than 350 new cars enter Jakarta every day. Just over the past decade, the number of vehicles has doubled, meanwhile the road system has barely expanded by 10%. In Jakarta, roads make up only 6% of the total city’s land area, whereas in neighbouring bustling Singapore roads account for almost 20%.

This situation actually reveals a difficult paradox for Jakarta’s administration. The taxes collected from the vehicles is the primary source of income for the city: the money generated by vehicle ownership tax and other transport-related fees, account for more than 60% of the city’s total revenue. So at first sight, reducing the number of vehicles on the roads appears a great threat to the city’s budget. But if you look closer, traffic costs significantly more. It is estimated that in 2010, congestion cost the Jakartan economy45 trillion Rupiah (about 1 billion euros) – a figure four times higher than that raised for the city administration.

The result of inadequate city planning is clearly one of major factors in creating such levels of traffic congestion in Jakarta. But the current public transportation system is also a major issue that has to be looked into. There are numerous public transport possibilities on the roads of Jakarta, ranging from the share-taxi system of pickup size bemo, angkot minivan, Kopaja minibuses up to larger buses.  However a passing observer can see clearly how these actually play a significant role in increasing congestion. They can stop to pick up or drop off passengers pretty much anywhere at anytime, immediately blocking the travel flow. Part of the problem here is that typically these drivers do not earn a fixed salary, instead they are reliant upon a share of the bus fares. This then encourages drivers to pick up passengers wherever and whenever – regardless of traffic laws or general considerate driving.

It is believed that the bus operators bribe the police to overlook the infractions of their drivers, and it is here that we reach what could potentially be described as the root of all evils in Indonesia – corruption.

Indonesia remains one of the most corrupt countries in Asia, only beaten by such ‘beacons’ as Cambodia and Myanmar. Despite President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono twice winning election on an anti-corruption ticket, it remains endemic all the way from local to the national government, including the police and judiciary.

It is clear that Jakarta requires a workable mass rapid transit (MRT) system, and such an undertaking has been in discussion for the past two decades. However the political will has been always been lacking, or officials have paid only lip service to the idea. Fears over subsidence have been the usual excuse for such delays, however the true impacts of this are being questioned. The general belief is that, again, corruption is at work.

Large Indonesian infrastructure and constructions firms are reputed to have a somewhat formalised bribery system in place with city officials to ensure they get the best contracts – however this process must seemingly start anew every time the local government changes. It sadly seems all too evident that personal interests are being pursued ahead of the greater needs

Nevertheless, there does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel. There has been a significant step forward with the city having recently sealed a deal with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. A 1 billion Euro loan has also been granted in order to kick off the MRT construction. Initial plans suggest that the Jakarta MRT would be made of two lines. The two lines will run both north to south, and east to west. The first leg of the project, part of the north-south line is expected to be operational by 2016…

This deadline is ambitious, to put it kindly, and many people are highly skeptical. Perhaps most telling is that even this optimistic deadline is a full two years after Jakarta’s congestion armageddon…

Click here to read the second part of our Gridlock series: Gridlock – Part 2 : Hargeisa – The City of Congested Streets

1 thought on “Gridlock – Part One : A Jakarta Love Story

  1. Pingback: Gridlock – Part 2 : Hargeisa – The City of Congested Streets | Our Man In

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