Making Inroads in Infrastructure

By Melody Wilson | July 26, 2011 | Indonesia

Kanthi Koeniger, a freelance journalist in Indonesia, points to the outline of a distant mountain as we enter the city. We are lucky, she tells our group. That mountain is only visible once every six months; the rest of the time, it is obscured by the smog that coats Jakarta’s skyline.

Much attention is paid to the devastating environmental impact of deforestation in Indonesia, the third largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the world. But few focus upon another major pollutant: vehicles.

About 500 cars are registered in Jakarta each day, Koeniger says; others have reported that as many as 7,000 new motorcycles are registered every week in this commuter city, in part because of tax credits for the more efficient vehicles.

Traffic jams are a part of life in Jakarta. Just to get to another part of the city, we have to plan to leave at least an hour early—and that’s on a good day.

Obviously, this is a major infrastructure problem. Approximately 2 to 4 million people commute into Jakarta every day, but there are very few working roads and even fewer sidewalks.

Residents are much more concerned with getting to their destination than with the pollution spewing from their 1.5 million vehicles daily. And who can blame them? They don’t have many other options. Aside from a bus line that seems to benefit only a few office workers while closing off even more roads to commuters, every attempt at constructing a working public transportation system has failed.

Without major public transportation initiatives—including not just trains and buses, but also programs that encourage walking and biking to work—Jakarta’s roads will only continue to swell with traffic.

TransJakarta, the city’s first bus line and Asia’s first bus rapid transit (BRT), opened in 2004. Residents complain that it takes up precious road space and, without enough buses running, makes for a crowded commute. It currently boasts ridership of 250,000—only 5 to 10 percent of estimated commuters.

A US$450 million proposal to build a rail system, MRT Jakarta, passed in October 2010. Construction was slated to begin in early 2011, but the project has already experienced delays.

According to J. Scott Younger, an infrastructure development consultant, “The Jakarta Monorail will be the most significant infrastructure development since the economic crisis of the late 1990s.” But until its optimistic projected finish date in 2016, residents are left in bumper-to-bumper traffic—and some, like The Economist, predict that traffic will grind to a halt by 2014.

A policy known as “3-in-1” attempts to limit the number of cars on the road during rush hour. During certain hours, major roads are closed to cars that do not carry three passengers in more—like the HOV-3 lanes open to rush-hour commuters in my region of northern Virginia.

This policy shows promise. But as a local saying goes, for every law Indonesia makes, Indonesians find a way around it. “Jockeys” make a living riding with commuters. They stand at the entrances to restricted roads, waiting for empty cars; for a fee, they’ll go wherever you’re going.

Purwani Diyah Prabandari, a journalist at Tempo magazine--one of the few objective publications in Indonesia--agrees that significant changes must be made to the city’s transportation planning. She notes the value of the bus system and the 3-in-1 program, but says that most people still prefer to drive their own cars.

Currently, no carpool lots exist to organize 3-in-1 trips. Though carpooling has been very successful where I live in northern Virginia, catching a ride with a stranger in Indonesia is a much more dangerous proposition than in the United States. In order to make 3-in-1 a success, officials need to replace the “jockey” industry with carpool lots, and they need to address safety concerns about carpooling.

In transportation, as in every issue facing Indonesia’s development, corruption rears its ugly head. The Indonesia Procurement Watch accused officials of playing favorites with Nippon Koei, the Japanese firm that received the construction award. Though officials denied the claim, such accusations could serve to extend the time it will take to construct the rail system.

Raden Pardede, former chairman of the Indonesia Financial Stability Forum and founder of the Creco Research Institute, commented in a panel discussion on May 10 that traffic is a sign of economic activity, but he emphasized that the government must invest in transportation infrastructure in order to continue growing.

In the same May 10 panel on economic development, Fauzi Ichsan, an analyst for Standard Chartered, said that the biggest challenge to transportation is land clearance. The Indonesian government has no eminent domain, which significantly slows and restricts the construction of more roads. Finding landholders who are willing to sell their land, and then creating a compensation model for such a purchase, is an ongoing challenge.

From my hotel room on the twentieth floor, I hear a symphony of horns honking and whistles blowing. They are constant reminders of Jakarta’s growth and vitality—and its structural challenges.

View All Posts By Melody Wilson

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