Five ideas to tackle Jakarta's traffic congestion

It's a cliché for expats in Jakarta to complain about the 'macet', the traffic that clogs many roads much of the time and makes trips through the city ordeals of epic proportions. It's also a cliché for new arrivals to to offer a magic bullet solution, usually prefaced by the phrase "If only they'd...".

But I'm different. I don't offer one silver bullet solution. That would be folly. Instead I offer five ideas that each would make things a little bit easier, and if combined would have a significant impact on the congestion of the city's roads. It would be naive to expect they could leave the cities roads unclogged - this is a place of 9.6 million people according to the official count - but they would leave them flowing a lot better than they do at the moment.

Indonesians recognise things have got to change. A recent study from the Jakarta Transportation Agency put the cost of congestion at 46 trillion rupiah ($US5.4 billion). And late last month President Yodhoyono ordered the governor of Jakarta, and five other regions, to fix their traffic problems.

So the will is there; it's now a question of finding the right solutions. Here are my ideas.

1. Get the trains working
Surprisingly for a city of a love-affair for all things petrol-fuelled, Jakarta has quite an expansive train network. The goal of using trains to shuttle people in and out of neighbouring cities has crated a network of inner-city stations that have the potential to be thriving transport hubs.

But the service is woeful. Services don't seem to run to a timetable and often leave passengers waiting half an hour for a service. The rolling stock is packed to the gills, leaving many gasping for air and others surfing on top. And the trip is physically and mentally draining, with trains a haven for pickpockets, beggars, buskers and sellers of trinkets.

So do something about it. Jakarta would do well to invest in new rolling stock to boost the frequency of services. All those commuters who have been scared off trains by the prospect of long waits and a packed carriage would give the service another look, and a significant number will be tempted from their car or ojek. Once the trains are moving, they get to destinations far quicker than any vehicle battling traffic.

Expanding the network is desirable, but a trickier prospect. As mentioned, the existing lines are primarily designed to service Jakarta's satellite cities. Building new lines to look service to suburban areas alone is likely to cost plenty, and prompt plenty of land acquisitions that would cause no shortage of angst. In short, it ain't gonna happen and probably shouldn't.

Quality train services are nothing new to Java. The long-haul intercity services - such as the one from Jakarta to Yogyakarta - are smooth, comfortable and reliable. There's no reason why this similar approach couldn't be taken to shorter services.

2. Expand the bus network
The TransJakarta bus service in Jakarta is more like a light rail service in other parts of the world. It operates on main roads, vehicles travel along dedicated bus lanes, and the stops every half-kilometre or so are elaborate bits of infrastructure cleverly positioned in the middle of the road, accessed by pedestrian overpasses.

The network, which now has 10 corridors criss-crossing the city, is a relatively recent addition to Jakarta's transport, but is its best functioning element. There are few experiences that give you more hope that the chaos can be overcome than sitting on a bus as it zooms past gridlocked traffic.

Which is why the network needs to build upon its success. More corridors servicing more neighbourhoods. There are still plenty of major roads with considerable space to facilitate a bus lane, either through appropriating an existing traffic lane or through claiming some of the land that sits in the middle of thoroughfares.

There is no reason why the density of routes can't be increased so that people can be taken closer to their destination. There's also no reason why the breadth of the network can't be expanded to take in the fringes of the city.

When you're on a good thing, stick to it.

3. Scrap the petrol subsidy
Many countries tax petrol, both for environmental reasons and to boost government coffers. Indonesia does the opposite, offering a generous subsidy for petrol consumers through the state-owned Pertamina.

The policy has disastrous consequences. Rising world oil prices coupled with fixed prices at the pump is squeezing state finances as the subsidy rises to meet the gap. It's likely that other government programs will be suspended to accommodate the petrol payoffs, or alternatively the country will deepen its reliance on foreign aid. According to this report, in the first four months of the year, the state paid 29.2 trillion rupiah ($US3.4 billion) in petrol subsidies.

Cheap petrol means drivers have little incentive to get out of their cars or off their ojeks. And in the long run, vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as biofuels and hydrogen have little chance of entering the market.

The state budget does allow the government to increase the price at the petrol pump, pushing some of the cost of a scarce resource onto consumers. Such a move would be politically unpopular, but is necessary to protect the budget and unclog the roads. The social unrest of scrapping the subsidy entirely would be great, but were the move to take place in smaller increments and the reasoning properly explained to the public, it would be palatable.

4. Allow easier U-turns
In an effort to unclog the roads, Jakarta has taken the admirable step of separating traffic heading in one direction from traffic heading in another. So if you happen to approach a road from one direction and need to head the other, you need to push forward until there's an opening in the road the enables you to carry out a U-turn. Often the next opportunity to do so will be a kilometre or two up the road, which is not an unreasonable distance to travel away from your destination if the traffic is moving smoothly, but is an epic distance when stuck in a vehicular quagmire.

The upshot is that a whole lot more vehicles spend a whole lot more time on the road than they would otherwise.

So relax the turning rules, let people go the direction they want to go, and reduce the length of time vehicles are on the road. While the change would risk creating a new point of chaos, as vehicles more frequently seek to enter or exit their lane, the reality is the slowness of the traffic would provide ample opportunities to do so painlessly.

5. Clear the footpaths for easier pedestrian movement
Many would sooner travel by pogo-stick along a Cambodian minefield than would jauntily wander down the footpath of a Jakartan street. Most footpaths are filled with hazards that disrupt your journey - broken pavement, parked ojeks, flower pots, resting police officers and kaki lima food vendors among them. Add to that the noise, pollution and danger caused by the cars nearby, and you're left with a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

So, what to do about it? Move commercial activity off the pavement, and onto the many side streets and lane ways that come off the main roads. Move the ojek parking bays there, and set up zones for the kaki limas. Remove the advertising hoardings, pot plants and other impediments that might look nice to some but inconvenience many. Stop motorcyclists from using the footpath as an extra traffic lane when the roads are clogged. And redirect some of the funds currently pouring into road projects into improving the state of the footpaths.

As with any change like this, enforcement needs to start soft and get hard. Alternative places need to be established, and people need to be nudged into using them. And if the nudges don't work, then you get a little more forceful. But it needs to happen.

Travelling by Shank's pony is never going to be a substitute for many trips taken by car or ojek. But it will be for some. Shorter trips within the one neighbourhood and trips from home or workplace to the nearest train or bus station would be done on foot by many people - if the conditions are pleasant enough.

So there you have it - five ideas to get the city moving. None of them easy. But none of them too hard. And the rewards at the end are worth it.


Andrew Carr said…
Good ideas. Fixing the sidewalks would also go a long way to improving Jakarta as a tourist experience. It's rather offputting to try and go for a wander and within 100m run out of footpath to walk on forcing you to cross a flood of traffic to continue on.

I never tried the buses when there, but they seemed a very effective system from my position in a cab stuck in traffic jams.
Ari Sharp said…
Andrew makes a very fine point. The problem with the footpaths in Jakarta is sometimes even more fundamental than there being impediments in the way. On occasions, the footpath disappears entirely, leaving pedestrians no option but to walk among cars and ojeks until the impediment-strewn footpath re-emerges.

Separately, couresty of Jakartass - - I've discovered LewatMana - - which allows visitors to watch live CCTV footage of traffic jams from across the city. Sure beats being stuck in it.
Unknown said…
Very good ideas, some of them might come handy to pull a prank, thank you for sharing them.

moving services
viji said…
Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

In Vehicle Networking
daniel p said…
I agree with all except clearing the footpaths - the footpaths are a key piece of the economy in cities like Jakarta, and usually for the underprivileged.

The petrol subsidy is the most egregious, as it is every Indonesian subsidising the wealthy and middle class.

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