Jakarta traffic

“Jakarta’s Traffic This Morning” by Chandra Marsono.

If there is one truth that has followed me from San Francisco to Seattle to Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Nairobi, Kampala, Kuala Lumpur and now here, today, in Jakarta, it is what is all around me as I type this in the back of my taxi to the airport: traffic.

In the Bay Area I would never ever hit the freeway between 3 and 5. It just wasn’t worth it – a twenty minute trip into the city easily turned into two hours. Fortunately, with a combination of bicycle, bus, and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), I was able to get around just about everywhere without a car. Not so in the greater Seattle area, where carlessness equals immobility. The commute from Issaquah to Seattle should take just twenty minutes, but during traffic hour(s), again, it shoots up to two hours. Unlike the bay area, there is no public transportation to rely on save a meager network of buses that can extend your commute time all the way up to nearly three hours.

You would think that this is a first world problem, right? That wealthy Americans are too eager to spend their disposable income on expensive cars and pricey gas?

The worst traffic I’ve ever seen in my life has been in some of the world’s poorest major cities: Phnom Penh, Nairobi, Kampala. An attaché with the German embassy in Uganda told me that most cars in East Africa are brought in used from East Asia. Hence, why you never see a car on the road less than 10-years-old and why she was able to buy a sweet Toyota Rav 4 for about $4,000. Great deal … and the affordability of used cars in Uganda and Kenya means that members of the up-and-coming middle class are able to spread their business ventures outside of major cities. But it also means that it takes about 45 minutes to drive through Nairobi’s urban Uhuru Park and just 10 minutes to walk.

City planners and government officials have been unable to expand road infrastructure to meet the boom of car owners. More accurately, they’ve been unwilling to demand the heavy taxes and car registration costs that could finance such projects. Now that cell phones have become ubiquitous in Africa, owning a car is the true sign that a person either is or isn’t part of the seductive middle class. Politicians up for re-election know that a family who entered the last governmental term without a car and now relies on it daily will feel an immense sense of progress. But, a new dissatisfaction has entered the public consciousness – too many cars, too little roads.

Jakarta is the epitome of this dissatisfaction. Three days ago the Jakarta Post ran a two-page spread interviewing notable residents of the cosmopolis – Betwawis, as they call themselves – about what they expected of their new mayor, Fauzi Bowo. Of course, the volleyball champion wanted better sporting facilities and the chess champion wanted an international chess tournament, but what they all agreed upon was just one thing: macet, or ‘traffic jam’.

This city is a nightmare. Its livability index should be negative 10. When I asked Serenity a few days ago whether a particular place was near or far she answered, ‘David, this is Jakarta, there is no near or far, there is just one big parking lot.’ True.

I sense a lot of optimism around Fauzi Bowo, who was just inaugurated as Jakarta’s new mayor yesterday. His campaign strategy emphasized that Jakarta needed an expert to fix its livability challenges. According to one statistic, 92% of Jakarta’s land is already developed, leaving only 8% of free space to negotiate a unified city. Bowo definitely has the credentials. He earned a master’s degree in architecture and urban planning from Germany’s Technische Universitat Braunschweigh and a Ph.D. from Universitat Kaiserlautern, also in Germany. He’s fluent in German and English and has years of political and administrative experience in various sectors of Indonesian politics. No one doubts his abilities, least of all Bowo himself. The protests at his inauguration yesterday were not against Bowo nor his platform. No, they were in fact pre-emptive – warning the city’s new leader that he better keep to his many campaign promises.

It won’t be easy. Dealing with Jakarta’s traffic issues is going to require some very unpopular policy: more road tolls, higher car taxes, and even more high speed bus lanes. These sectioned-off lanes are the arteries of TransJakarta, the city’s best shot at rapid transit. They take up the two middle lanes of many of the city’s major roads and are exclusively dedicated to clean, comfortable, and air-conditioned buses which stop at modern subway-like stations connected to the outer sidewalks by pedestrian bridges. The whole system runs like a dream and yet, most residents of Jakarta can’t stand it. They say that TransJakarta is to be blamed for the city’s mushrooming traffic – that taking away that third lane from each of the major roadways is what is responsible for the congestion. Meanwhile, the shiny red buses of TransJakarta speed by with plenty of room inside. The universal lesson? Once you have a car, you’re unwilling to let it go and opt for public transportation instead, even if it consistently saves you both time and money.

People view their cars as more than just vehicles, they become part of who we are. They say something of our identity and our world view. As an AP reporter in Phnom Penh told me, there’s just no way that a young middle-class Cambodian who invested everything so she could have the status of car-owner will forego that status and support a mass transit system.

Eventually things will get that bad. At least I hope they do. Otherwise there is no way that smart leaders will be able to convince their constituents to support smart planning.

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