No fast tracks in Indonesia

Jakarta’s epic traffic jams cost the economy US$3.4 billion in losses per year, a tangle even massive infrastructure building could take decades to unsnarl

Jakarta, April 17, 2017 5:24 PM (UTC+8)
Motorists stuck in traffic at one of Jakarta's main roads. The largest infrastructure spending program in the capital city's history is expected to help but not solve massive traffic jams. Photo: Getty Images
Motorists stuck in traffic at one of Jakarta's main roads. The largest infrastructure spending program in the capital city's history is expected to help but not solve massive traffic jams. Photo: Getty Images

Over the past two decades, Bangkok has made great strides in public transport, building the so-called Skytrain and a subway in the expectation it would relieve the once-canal-laced city’s epic traffic jams. Yet a recent survey still ranked Thailand’s capital the second most congested city in the world.

Mexico City was the worst, but coming in third in the Tomtom Traffic Index was Jakarta, the only major metropolis in the Asian region without a rail-based people-mover. As governor Basuki Purnama remarked at the time: “If you don’t have a train-based transportation system, there will always be traffic congestion.”

Bangkok suggests that is not necessarily the case, which is sobering news for Jakarta’s city planners looking for great improvements when Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems, and a network of three elevated busways open in the next two years.

The first phase of the over-and-under MRT, stretching 21.7 kilometers north-south through the heart of the commercial district, is designed to carry as many as 950,000 passengers a day when it is opened in its entirety in 2018.

The initial 42-kilometer first phase of the LRT, also due to be finished in time for the 2018 Asian Games, will connect the city center with the eastern suburbs along three corridors. When all six lines are complete they will have the capacity to carry 816,000 passengers a day.

Three more partly-elevated corridors are also being added to the 210-kilometer TransJakarta Busway, the world’s longest, which already carries 123 million passengers a year and serves 80 different routes across a city that had been starved of decent public transport for decades.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) speaks in a press conference as Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (L) and Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi (R) during a visit to Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project in Jakarta on February 23, 2017. Widodo on February 23 ensures on February 23 that Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) phase I from Lebak Bulus to Bundaran Hotel Indonesia roundabout will be operated on March 2019. / AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) with Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama (L) and Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi (R) at the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project on February 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Those projects, six new inner city toll roads, a major addition to the notorious Semanggi interchange and a new underpass on one of the main thoroughfares into the downtown area contribute to the biggest infrastructure-building program Jakarta has experienced in its 400-year history.

But long-term Bangkok residents know only too well that even with some of the world’s worst traffic getting people out of their cars and on to trains is a lot easier said than done. Indeed, most of the Thai passengers who use public transport either don’t own vehicles or normally travel by bus anyway.

Jakarta’s problem is not only its 3.1 million cars and the elite’s penchant for dropping their kids at the school gate. The biggest traffic nightmare are the 10 million motorcyclists, many of whom have got into the habit of riding from their home doorstep to office door-front. No public transport system can do that.

Jakarta’s 10.6 million residents make up about a third of the population living in what is known as Jabodetabek, or the greater metropolitan area, encompassing the outlying municipalities of Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi.

More importantly, an estimated 2.43 million commuters travel within, into and out of the city each day, including 1.38 million who take the two to three hour journey to work.  And that’s on a good day when everything is running smoothly and the current construction is not an issue.

Workers construct the new MRT line in central Jakarta April 9, 2015. Millions of Jakarta commuters will have to struggle through the world's most congested traffic for almost another decade, authorities believe, and they may have to wait even longer if $4 billion worth of new railway projects don't work out as planned. Jakarta's gridlocked streets are the biggest headache for the Indonesian capital's 10 million residents and a major hindrance to economic growth, with workers stranded for hours in buses, cars and motorcycles each day. Picture taken April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside  - RTR4XOGA
Workers construct the new MRT line in central Jakarta. Millions of Jakarta commuters will have to struggle through some of the world’s most congested traffic for almost another decade, authorities believe. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Jakarta has one distinct advantage. Unlike Bangkok, it does have a city center, the so-called Golden Triangle business district formed by three major streets – Sudirman, Rasuna Said and Thamrin – where access can be controlled once the MRT has been opened.

That will mean pay-as-you-go electronic road pricing (ERP) in place of the current odd-even license plate system which has worked remarkably well, but won’t persuade motorists and motorcycles to leave their vehicles at home.

Two years ago, Castrol-Magnatec Index ranked Jakarta the world’s most congested city, using GPS data to calculate that motorists made 33,240 stop-starts a year – compared to Istanbul (32,520), Mexico City (30,840) and Bangkok (27,480). Now, with widespread road and train construction, the situation for commuters has gotten even worse.

Singapore has used ERP to restrict downtown traffic since 1998. By 2020 the island state will have introduced a new Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) under which the existing in-vehicle electronic unit will be replaced with a new unit for a range of additional automatic payments.

Jakarta may also be persuaded to increase downtown parking fees, among other measures, but it and surrounding municipalities will also have to provide space for those who use their vehicles to get to the new public transport links.  

Two years ago, Castrol-Magnatec Index ranked Jakarta the world’s most congested city, using GPS data to calculate that motorists made 33,240 stop-starts a year – compared to Istanbul (32,520), Mexico City (30,840) and Bangkok (27,480). Now, with widespread road and train construction, the situation for commuters has gotten even worse.

Even Purnama acknowledges that the MRT and the LRT are not a panacea for a problem that could take decades to resolve, particularly when an average of 470 new cars and 2,900 new motorcycles flood onto Jakarta’s 7,650 kilometers of streets each day.

Motorists commute through a traffic jam in Jakarta on February 4, 2016 near an under-construction flyover (background). Indonesia lacks a mass-transport system, forcing its increasingly affluent 250 million people to rely heavily on private transport, resulting in grinding traffic in the biggest cities. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO / AFP PHOTO / BAY ISMOYO
Motorists commute through a traffic jam in Jakarta near a flyover under construction. Indonesia lacks a mass-transport system, forcing its commuters to rely heavily on private transport, resulting in grinding traffic. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Motorcycles make up more than half of the trips recorded around the city each day, followed by public transport and private cars in equal numbers. But statistics don’t tell the whole story of a problem that costs the economy an estimated 45.2 trillion rupiah (US$3.4 billion) a year.

Indiscipline, poor driving skills, illegal parking and a lack of law enforcement are also major contributors to the congestion, with the horde of motorcyclists effectively controlling the flow of traffic – and contributing to most of last year’s 678 road fatalities.

So what’s the answer to getting people on public transport?  Vice-gubernatorial candidate Sandiaga Uno, a youthful tycoon who gets around in a modest van, says it will come down to technology, but that’s about as far as he is tempted to go in offering a solution.

In the end, he believes it will only happen if younger Jakartans convince themselves it is a cool thing to do.

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