January 07, 2009

Finding a way out of Jakarta’s jams

Schoolchildren have become the latest victims of Jakarta’s traffic gridlock, as local officials recently decided to get creative in tackling the Indonesian capital’s notorious traffic jams.

Despite parental protests, city administrators decided last month that classes would start at 6.30am instead of the usual 7am when the school term began on Monday.

The aim was to get parents and students going to school off the roads earlier, which they said would reduce morning traffic congestion by up to 14 per cent.

Companies, added the administrators, would also be urged to stagger starting times from 7.30am to 9am.

But after two days, parents and teachers are already giving the scheme the thumbs-down.

One parent, Mr Tedi Bachtiar, has been feeling guilty about waking his youngest son Barkah up at 5am for the 45-minute car ride to his South Jakarta School. The father of three said he feels like he is robbing his 12-year-old of sleep.

“Most of those in the morning jams are people going to work. Officials should just push the starting hours later rather than earlier, as it’s okay for kids to go home later in the afternoon,” said the 44-year-old.

Local media reports in the past two days have been similarly critical, noting that children not yet used to the new start time are being locked out of school for their tardiness.

And the road conditions? An article in Monday’s Suara Pembaruan afternoon daily captured it best with the headline: “School time pushed forward, but roads still jammed.”

The prevalent cynicism is justifiable. Chronic congestion in the capital and its satellite cities – caused by an excessive number of vehicles, insufficient roads and a fledgling public transport system – has been worsening steadily as regular inflows of job seekers join the 22 million people already there.

There are now more than six million cars and motorcycles on the road, with the vehicle population predicted to rise by 11 per cent a year. The road network, in stark contrast, is growing by less than one per cent each year.

As a result, commuters like visual merchandiser Alvindra Adhikresnia, 25, have been spending longer and longer hours on the road. He leaves home at 6.30am to make it to downtown Jakarta by 9am. In normal traffic, it would have taken just 45 minutes.

Besides polluting the air and stressing out commuters, Jakarta’s jams – which locals call “macet” – are also hurting productivity. And when the rainy season and the yearly floods come to town, traffic can grind to a total halt.

Over the years, the city has built more flyovers and put in place schemes to improve the traffic flow, but to little avail.

For instance, there was the 1992 scheme that restricted the use of main arterial roads during morning and evening peak hours to cars with three or more passengers.

Critics who said that this would only clog up smaller roads were proven right. Car owners resorted to paying street children and the jobless 10,000 rupiah (S$1.30) to 15,000 rupiah to make up the numbers. The practice continues today, and these temporary passengers wait at the entrances of main thoroughfares for their paid rides.

Transport experts believe that the only way Jakarta can avoid standstill traffic is to curb the vehicle population and offer a top-notch public transport system at the same time. “More road space will not lead to a more sustainable means of urban mobility …Wider roads will get congested in a few years,” said urban transportation specialist Harya Setyaka from the non-governmental Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

Mindsets will need to be changed too.

Most Jakarta residents are used to the convenience of having their own cars, and complain that car pooling is inconvenient and public bus routes are limited. It does not help that cars come cheap, costing as little as 70 million rupiah (S$9,300), while insurance is not compulsory and parking fees average 2,000 rupiah.

City officials are trying to do their bit by adding more buses and routes to the Transjakarta busway system, which started in 2004. The air-conditioned buses ply exclusive lanes across the city centre and stop at sheltered bus stops.

The system has met with some success: According to ITDP, some 15 per cent of the 220,000 passengers who use the busway each weekday had switched from motorcycles, while seven per cent had switched from driving.

The city is currently looking to build a railway network spanning the city centre by 2015, a move that urban studies don Deden Rukmana said could reduce the jams.

Dr Deden, an Indonesian who teaches at the Savannah State University in the United States, also advocated a national effort to spread out business and economic activities so that they are all not concentrated in Jakarta.

In the meantime, frazzled commuters can do little but turn to up-to-date information about the jams at newly launched websites such as Macetlagi and BebasMacet – both of which are citizen-led initiatives.

Macetlagi offers video footage of main roads in the business district from 16 cameras placed in buildings, while BebasMacet, which partners a taxi company with a fleet of over 2,000 cabs, picks up such data via the cabs’ global positioning system devices.

The best part is: Users can subscribe to the information on their mobile phones.

The two sites have won kudos online, something that pleased Daniel Lukmanmihardja, 40, one of Macetlagi’s two creators.

“A lot of business people are frustrated with the bad traffic and this is going to get worse with the elections as parties hold their rallies,” he said. “With this, at least people can monitor the situation and either avoid certain routes or postpone their travel.”

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Finding a way out of Jakarta’s jams


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