Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jakarta traffic: Yes, we're probably doomed

The solution to Jakarta’s traffic woes is well-known; the question is: will it be implemented?

Not long ago, the National Geographic Channel made a film about Jakarta in its Megacities episode. It highlighted the growing challenges facing the city (namely traffic, floods & population growth) and what the authorities are actually doing about them.

The film showed some of the successes in combating floods (with the operation of the Eastern Flood Canal) and also presented many forward-looking views on improvements planned for the city.

For a moment there it had me. After watching the film, I became a bit more optimistic about Jakarta's future as a place to work and live in.

Unfortunately that optimism quickly died-down upon my commute to work in the following days.

Recently state owned rail company PTKA announced to its customers that the speed of the trains is being deliberately slowed-down for safety reasons; i.e. to reduce the occurrence of accidents.

The result is of course chaos: train schedule delays have become unbearable. And for me, taking the train to work now could mean arriving 40 minutes late at the office, everyday.

Adding cream to the coffee, on December 14 they announced the cancellation of over 40 commuter train schedules due to “maintenance”, resulting in more hardship for commuters.

Honestly, seeing all this waters down what’s left of my hope on the city’s future. The commuter rail should be the answer to the city’s traffic problems, but in reality it’s been getting far less attention that it deserves.

When a dentist says the solution for your toothache is to just stop eating, that likely means he or she has no clue what to do.

Slowing down trains in the hope of reducing accidents very much corresponds to this analogy. It shows that rail officials are helpless—up to the point of ignoring the basic notion of progress (which is getting from A to B faster, not slower).

Of course the above example only shows a small part of the city’s (and nation’s) broader infrastructure and transportation problem, which stems from a mix of mismanagement, corruption and most importantly a lack of political will by those in charge.

Speaking of which, the latter is leading us to a very dangerous leadership deficit. The norm is to shelve unpopular policies for as long as possible, if not avoid them altogether.

For example, planned train tariff hikes have been cancelled numerous times due to popularity concerns. This obviously deprived us of the resources needed for rail development and problem fixing.

Furthermore the reform of transportation fuel subsidies (which have been causing a serious misallocation of resources) also remains a controversy that has dragged on for years.

Even up to now, we have yet to see concrete action being taken on the subsidies (apart from recent political show meetings and the all too familiar formation of taskforces), although it’s pretty clear that they contribute greatly to excessive use of private vehicles thus traffic gridlocks in the capital.

It is very ironic indeed. The train company is reportedly struggling to come up with 9 trillion rupiahs for making 400km of new rail-lines in Java. But actually that amount is ridiculously small: it’s not even 2% of the money spent on fuel subsidies since 2005.

So it’s no wonder the statistics show passenger train travel miles only growing by a snail-pace 4% per year (in 2004 – 2008), while registered passenger cars and motorcycles grew by a staggering 17 percent per year.

Politicians always portray Jakarta’s traffic woes as a massive and very complex problem. But actually the solution is far simpler than rocket science: limit the use of private cars and build a reliable public transport system (which every other major city in the world has done).

The real problem is that no one is there to make unpopular decisions, so that the mess is only left to grow bigger, bigger and bigger.

If this continues, then we better brace ourselves. Because total gridlock is probably coming.

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