Will traffic congestion put a brake on Indonesia’s prosperity?
If you talk to any Indonesian city dweller, sooner or later, the conversation will reach the subject of traffic. I still have to meet the first urban Indonesian who doesn’t complain about the abundance of cars, scooters and other engine driven objects on wheels that occupy the streets of the big cities. A lot of public and private spaces are used in favour of those means of transport. Changing a building you own to a shed for scooters became a lucrative business, for example. In the near future things need to change, or the cities will become completely jammed.
The people of the Indonesian cities complain with a reason. The traffic here is not just chaotic, as is normal in the South-East Asian mega cities, but it has gotten worse in the last decade. Policies such as a monthly car-free day have been instated in Jakarta, but lack effective enforcement. Will Indonesia’s rising potential be smothered in its pollution and traffic jams?
Walking next to a road in Indonesia’s cities is not to be recommended. Not only because pavement seems to be forgotten when building the streets, but also after a short walks it feels like smoking a pack of cigarettes. Furthermore, the distances are often long and crossing the streets is synonymous to a near death experience. Thus, walking is not considered as a real option.
The rising wealth allowed more and more people to afford a car, motorbike or scooter. Furthermore, fuel is not heavily taxed as in Europe, in contrary, it is greatly subsidised. On first sight there are no incentives to leave your car at home. Or maybe there is one: the many hours that it takes, in slow traffic, to reach your work. Sometimes it can take hours to cover a dozen kilometres. A few days ago it took us, for example, more than 45 minutes to cover a distance of five kilometres by taxi in Yogyakarta. When it rains, and it can rain cats and dogs here, the traffic jams only increase.
Progressive initiatives, in for example Jakarta, as one car free day a month (even in Amsterdam, a yearly car-free day has proven to be unfeasible) and a minimum of three people a car in rush hour in designated areas are only a drop in the ocean. This last regulation led to the existence of professional car poolers; people at the side of the road at the border of those designated areas. For a few cents they are willing to fill your car and will get out in the areas were the minimum-three-persons-a-car-rule does not apply anymore. Substantial policies are needed to keep up with the rising demand to travel in the fourth populated country of the world.
There are plans to reduce the subsidy on fuel, but this plan is delayed every time. It is uncertain if it will be realized. Most importantly, there aren’t many reliable alternatives to go from A to B. Walking is not a real option in the near future. All the roads need to be adjusted and there are still too many motorised vehicles. Most importantly of all, there is too little public transportation. The strong hand of the government is needed to create a reliable public transport system.
Eight years ago the Transjakarta bus line was instated in the capital. This fast bus on designated bus lanes crosses all of Jakarta and since the busses are very crowded this can be regarded as a popular mode of transportation. Yogyakarta followed four years later. The problem is that the ‘bus lane’ in Jakarta is not only used for busses, if there is a traffic jam, many cars choose the bus lane creating an extra traffic jam. It is unlikely the police will do anything about this. Taking an ankot, small private micro busses, is not a convenient alternative. Even the locals have no idea which route the many angkots take and are not seen as reliable and quick. In crowded cities a subway is most ideal for quick public transport
The problem is that that many Indonesian big cities are built on former swamps. As a person born and raised in Amsterdam, also built on a swamp, I know the difficulties to build a subway in this ground. In Amsterdam, the new subway line became at least three times as expensive as planned, many years delayed and buildings subsiding in the process. As the Indonesian government you would think twice to build a subway line. Other options as monorails, trolley busses, trams or whatever will be invented must be embraced. But, if not, the future of Indonesian big cities are covered in clouds of exhaust gasses.