Stuck in Gridlock – and Likely to Remain So

By Vyt Karazija

Recent visitors to Bali who have returned after an absence of several years are shocked at the chaos on the roads. Traffic here is like a turgid flow of molasses at the best of times. But during peak hours it congeals in the streets into an immobile, impenetrable grout, filling the skinny spaces between the mosaic of shops and warungs on each side.

Motorbikes fill every available niche between cars, mounting footpaths in their efforts to slip past immediate blockages, only to be caught in total gridlock a few metres further on. And it’s like that every afternoon. Well, that I know of anyway. I’m rarely up early enough to report on any earlier peaks.

It’s not just the sheer number of cars, or the huge number of motorbikes that is the problem, either. It’s also the anarchic behaviour, lack of spatial awareness and absence of any road-craft skills on the part of those who are in charge of these vehicles. Nor is it the roads themselves, those weird emergent artefacts of ad hoc development which have no chance of ever having their capacity increased without tricky land acquisitions and compensation for disenfranchised business owners.

These are very real problems, and they need both strategic long-term and short-term tactical solutions. Considerate road use should be taught as part of driver-education and driver-training programmes. Learning to ride a bike at 8 years of age – by borrowing the family rocket to zip around the back streets – might be a way (for those who survive) to discover how to keep the thing reasonably upright, but is not the way to develop road-craft. Publicising the traffic regulations might be useful, too. I’m sure a free rules booklet given out at registration renewal time would really surprise most drivers here, if only for the astonishing fact that the place actually does have rules.

We also know that big cars cause big problems in little Bali, so how about instituting a hefty annual road-use levy for anything bigger than a Karimun? A sliding scale based on size means the local government could charge an absolute fortune for those oversised 4WD monstrosities that clog up the streets, and hopefully discourage their ownership.

But no one seems to want to address the real issue with traffic congestion here. The roads might be narrow, but their effective width has been so reduced by the insane parking practices that most roads might as well be bike paths. Drivers park anywhere they want, unwilling to walk 20    metres after leaving their cars somewhere that will not impede traffic. Motorcyclists park nose-in to the kerb anywhere convenient for them, or on the apex of blind corners, despite enormous disruptions to the traffic flow. Cars are parked haphazardly with rear ends sticking out into traffic lanes. Often, only a single lane is left free in a busy street, one that then has to be shared by vehicles travelling on both directions. The resultant atherosclerosis chokes all movement and as a side-effect, asphyxiates road-side business.

Parking practices in Bali are so out of control that immediate action is necessary. This is something that can be done immediately to give this place some breathing space. Analyse the problem at the local level. Identify trouble spots where bad parking causes congestion. Paint the kerbs red where there is to be strictly no parking. Where parking is to be tolerated on certain sections of road, paint a white line – at a distance from the kerb equal to the width of a small car. Do this so there is enough room for two lanes of cars to pass in the road adjacent. Issue a hefty fine for any car not parked completely within the defined space. Through the local banjar, appoint staff (Jakarta-style) to monitor parked cars and issue tickets. Make the fine Rp200,000, and pay the parking boys 10-percent commission. Where a car is left badly parked in non-controlled areas, and is causing traffic mayhem, glue an A4-sized sticker to the windscreen with non-removable glue. It could read, in big letters, “This Car Has Been Par
ked Here by a Complete Moron.” As an added extra, it could also say: “Feel free to remove hubcaps, wing mirrors and other accessories without penalty.”

Even the little dead-end street that leads to my gang is almost impassable now. A year ago, it had two cars regularly parked there. Now there are 24, their proud owners draping their treasures with opaque car covers and parking in staggered formation on both sides of the narrow street. The cover means that you can’t see past them, and even on a motorbike, navigating these chicanes is stressful and dangerous. It’s almost impossible in a car. Maybe it’s time to tie car registrations to proof of availability of off-street parking. If we don’t, soon there will be no roads to actually use, except as elongated car parks.

Then, of course, there is the road layout. A perfectly good, wide road runs along the beach between Jl Melasti and Jl Double Six. It could do wonders to relieve the pressure on Jl Legian, Jl Melasti, Jl Padma and Jl Double Six. But it’s closed, and has been since it was built years ago. Open it? Yes, you’ll upset the beach hotels along that strip. So what? Bali’s roads are bursting – relieve the strain in any way you can.

But this is Bali, so nothing will be done. And in the meantime, every afternoon, we will continue to experience the glutinous mess of Jl Legian, the disaster that is Jl Padma and its tributaries Padma Utara and Garlic Lane. The maxed-out Rum Jungle Road, the dreaded Jl Double Six macet, and the frustrating nightmare of Jl Laksmana, where expats joust with locals for every square metre of road space, will keep us fuming, and late for everything. And that’s just in the Legian/Seminyak precinct.

I’d love to write about the congestion in other areas of greater Kuta – but unfortunately, I’ve never actually been able to reach them in our traffic.

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