Tuesday, 7 September 2010

An Unsharpened Perspective of Traffic Congestion in Jakarta

aLocal media here in Jakarta has devoted much time in the last few weeks to a problem which the city administration has been focusing on. A problem which any sane person would have deduced long ago was the problem most worth spending time and resources on. It would seem that in recent years the ridiculous spike in the number of two-wheeled vehicles hitting the streets, thanks to increasingly friendly financing schemes, has allowed those who travel around in private automobiles to turn around and say, 'we've got to do something about all these motorbikes bottlenecking the roads'. It doesn't take an overly logical train of thought to reach the following conclusions: a) those who have benefited the most from motorcycle sales are those who are chauffeur driven around the city in luxury cars and b) private cars are still the worst problem out there; that they are slightly more attractive to look at and much safer doesn't alter the fact that the worst traffic jams are caused by endless lines of cars containing their driver alone.

From what I've read, the recent special brainstorming session to combat traffic congestion, involving various related government personnel, could be best described as how to expensively state the bloody obvious. As a daily user of the busway, and other forms of public transport available in the city, I feel vaguely qualified to state my own opinions on the issue. The internet is chock full of lists already, and they can be annoying, but I feel a list is a useful way of trying to articulate what will ultimately still be an unsharpened viewpoint.

1. Forget about other forms of public transport and keep developing the busway

The busway obviously has plenty of friends, the fact that it is so popular is evidence enough. However, its detractors are many and varied. In such instances, I can't help but be suspicious of powerful individuals with agendas working behind the scenes to derail a public project for the greater good. One commonly voiced complaint that rallies much support is that the busway's dedicated lane means worse traffic in other lanes. Again, it doesn't require a very analytical mind to realize that this is a patently false argument. A quick glance at any backed-up queue of cars in Jakarta will show that most of the cars are occupied by one person, whereas the busway buses, including the articulated bendy buses, are rarely not filled to capacity. Citizens of Jakarta: get out of your cars and on to buses. Those members of the public who think a more agreeable alternative is a mass rapid underground train service, as has been scheduled for construction, don't seem to be wearing their thinking caps. If they are worried that traffic got bad when the busway lanes were under development, wait till they see what happens when an enormous network of tunnels is being built under the city.

In a city where infrastructure has crossed the minds of those in charge so late in the day, the busway is the only option that makes sense. So what if it pushes private motorists off the road? Isn't that part of the overall objective?

2. Tax them

I have met both motorcycle and automobile owners in Indonesia who consider themselves to be 'poor'. It is possible that such groups of people face cash flow problems, and it is also possible that they don't spend their Saturday nights eating swordfish soup, but in a country such as Indonesia, they don't quite fit my definition of 'poor'. If you are climbing the vehicle ownership ladder, you are upwardly mobile, albeit at times at a very gradual rate of ascent. I do know that every minimum wage earner I've ever encountered has a first priority of converting money earned into a motorcycle, and while it may seem like callously crushing the dreams of the underprivileged, it shouldn't be as easy as it is for minimum wage earners to get that dream off the ground. The figure most often quoted is IDR 500,000 to pay the down payment on a two-wheeler, which by today's exchange rate is just over US$55. It is also approximately half of the lowest legal monthly salary for Jakarta. While I don't believe motorbikes are the only problem, nor the biggest one, plaguing the city's roads, they need to be more heavily taxed, with that money going straight back into the coffers of the department of transportation. It's naive to imagine that the public officials in charge will then go on to use the funds to make visible improvements to public transportation in a seamless process, but the ideal has got to be in place before it can be realized.

People who drive cars should be dealt a more stinging blow to their wallet in the form of taxes. I don't know what it presently stands at, but whatever that figure is, it needs to be increased ten-fold.It should get more and more painful with each addition to a private fleet of automobiles. If someone can afford to own more than one car, they should be able to afford prohibitive taxes. If not, they need to be thinking about taking that money and investing it in a higher education fund for their children instead.

3. Teach them how to drive first

I have acquired two driver's licenses in Indonesia, so I can speak with personal experience when I say that it is easily done. All you need is enough money, pure and simple. At no point was I ever asked to go near a vehicle, let alone display my driving prowess. Nor was I ever asked to complete any kind of written test. If memory serves correctly, the most attention was paid to making sure I looked neat and tidy for my license photograph. Imagine how many motorists in Jakarta would be instantly removed from their wheels/handlebars if asked to submit to the kinds of rigorous testing procedures extant in the UK? Most of them. Extremely poor adherence to a highway code also means more congestion. Zigzagging especially, but also the idea that a traffic light is there to give a hazy reminder that this is in fact an intersection, and if traffic charges forward blindly from all directions, it will become gridlocked. So often do you see a picture on Jakarta's streets which could be placed under the word 'bottleneck' on Wikipedia. That is, a vast number of vehicles congested at a central point, with a wide open space on the road behind it.

This is one area where outside help is called for, as the people currently issuing licenses would fail to obtain one in any country where knowing the highway code is a prerequisite to getting behind a wheel. Perhaps the prospect of calling in foreign professionals to teach the local professionals how to do their jobs properly has issues of pride attached. Swallow it.

4. Stop charging peanuts for parking

In most parts of the city you can park a car for a flat fee of between IDR1,000-2,000. Even in better regulated carparks, this is somewhere near the hourly fee. Again, why are the very people who are causing all the traffic problems not being charged for it? The more expensive it gets to drive a car, the more people will be forced to think about carpooling, public transport, or simply just going for a walk if they get really bored.

5. Outlaw jalopies in all shapes and forms

It's no secret that many of the vehicles currently taking up space on the roads are hardly fit to be there, they are eyesores, deathtraps, and the worst polluters. The only way this can be resolved is by dealing severely with the worst offenders. Cars that are apparently better suited to act as fog machines at a discotheque should be immediately impounded, as should public buses which are such rust buckets, that it is only the rust which is still keeping the bodywork together.  Again, it may seem as though these are the people who can ill-afford to lose their means of transport/livelihood, but they have had ample warning. The first legislation put in place to regulate emissions emerged nearly a decade ago. The three-wheeled Bajaj with their two stroke engines are deadly polluters as built by their manufacturers, yet they can be neatly converted to gas powered engines. Why hasn't the administration made this easier with tax breaks and subsidies? The blue gas Bajaj, which have also had their interiors refitted to be more spacious and pleasant, are in too scant supply, while their filthy red antecedents are still a boon to many who need a relatively cheap means of traveling a short distance. 

6. Enforce laws for more than a month at a time

Herein I believe, lies the real key to cleaning up the mess that are the roads as used by Jakarta's motorists. Time and again, laws get passed, and time and again after a brief burst of activity where people are ticketed for infractions, laws are forgotten and we are left with streets that more closely resemble scenes from a science fiction dystopia than the capital city of a country whose economy has been going from strength to strength in recent years. The recent 'sterilizing' of the busway lanes is a case in point. While many offenders were punished for invading the busway's space at the start of this month, during the last week, most of them seem to have crept back into the lanes, in plain view of uniformed policemen. It seems as though there are set lists of violations to watch out for during one month, which don't necessarily carry on into the next month. As though traffic ordinances were of a temporal nature. In recent memory, motorcyclists have been asked to make sure they wear proper headgear, yet at the same time, children riding pillion bareheaded go unchecked. Clearly there is something wrong with the attitude toward highway code enforcement, and as with a better method of testing for licenses, outside help seems like the only answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment