Jakarta’s Traffic Nightmare Goes from Bad to Worse

JAKARTA ~ New laws requiring disabled pedestrians to wear traffic signs have met with frustration and derision in Jakarta, where in the eyes of the law, cars have taken priority over people.

The laws will do nothing to improve road safety or ease the traffic that is choking the life out of the capital city of some 12 million people, and serve only to highlight official incompetence, analysts said.

Within five years, if nothing changes, experts predict Jakarta will reach total gridlock, with every main road and backstreet clogged with barely moving, pollution-spewing cars.

That’s too late for the long-awaited urban rail link known as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which has only just entered the design stage and won’t be operational until 2016 at the earliest.

“Just like a big flood, Jakarta could be paralysed. The city’s mobility will die,” University of Indonesia researcher Nyoman Teguh Prasidha said.

Instead of requiring level footpaths and ramps, lawmakers voted unanimously last month to demand disabled people wear signs announcing their condition so motorists won’t run them down as they cross the street.

Experts say the new traffic law is sadly typical of a country that for decades has allowed cars and an obsession with car ownership to run rampant over basic imperatives of urban planning.

“It is strange when handicapped people are asked to carry extra burdens and obligations,” Institute of Transportation Studies (Instran) chairman Darmaningtyas said.

“The law is a triumph for the automotive industry. It’s completely useless for alleviating the traffic problem.”

The number of motor vehicles, including motorcycles, in greater Jakarta has almost tripled in the past eight years to 9.52 million. Meanwhile road space has grown less than one percent annually since 2004, according to the Indonesian Transport Society.

“Traffic congestion is like cancer,” Institute for Transportation and Development Policy specialist Harya Setyaka said.

“This cancer has developed over 30 years as Jakarta begins to develop haphazardly beyond its carrying capacity.”

A 2004 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency found that traffic jams cost Jakarta some Rp8.3 trillion (US$822 million) a year in extra fuel consumption, lost productivity and health impact.

They also cost lives.

“I once had a critical patient who died because we got stuck in traffic,” ambulance driver Hasanudin said. “But the family wasn’t angry – there’s nothing they can do about the traffic.”

The political elite doesn’t seem too worried either – they move around the city escorted by traffic-clearing police with sirens blaring.

Better still, the super rich hire helicopter taxis to fly from meeting to meeting.

“It’s no longer a luxury but more of a necessity for business people,” said Maria Goretti Lioba, marketing manager for helicopter taxi service Air Pacific.

The company operates two helicopters and carries 50 passengers a month. “Our business is thriving,” Lioba said.

An initial plan to expand Jakarta’s colonial-era rail network by adding an inner-city skyrail has stalled due to mismanagement and funding problems.

Headless concrete pillars for the skyrail still adorn parts of the city, serving only as giant monuments to decades of failed planning and short-sightedness.

Construction of the MRT – a single 14.5-kilometre line from the densely populated south to the centre of the city – will begin in 2011. The Japan-backed project is scheduled to cost $1.5 billion.

Manpalagupta Sitorus, spokesman for MRT Jakarta, which is owned by Jakarta province, said the MRT would carry 400,000 passengers a day by 2020.

“The main idea of having MRT is to change people’s habits from using private vehicles to using mass public transport,” he said.

But the MRT alone would not be enough to end Jakarta’s traffic nightmare, he said.

“Supporting policies, such as limiting the inflow of private vehicles, are still needed to slash congestion,” he said.

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