Total gridlock looms as more and more cars clog Jakarta’s roads, while the government fights reformasi-era rules to get new infrastructure projects underway. Indonesia’s capital city has been facing severe traffic problems for more than twenty years, but huge growth in car ownership, fuelled by a rapidly expanding middle class and government incentives coupled with poor infrastructure, has made getting around town a nightmare.
Experts have suggested traffic is going to get worse, with the Indonesia Effort for Environment executive director Ahmad Safrudin warning of “total gridlock” this year. Public transport is already overcrowded and only services the main arteries, and during peak hours five-kilometer journeys by car can take an hour or more. Businesses have dealt with these problems for years, and many high-level companies operate “mobile offices”; cars with internet connections and room enough to hold meetings.
Shannon Smith, an Australian marketing consultant who has worked and studied in Jakarta on and off for 20 years, says businesses are hugely limited by this lack of mobility.
“I can usually only do two meetings a day. Three is possible, but that’s a long day on the road.”
To make the best use of his time, he dedicates two days a week to meetings, and stays in the office the other three.
A 2013 IMF working paper put Indonesia’s “ease of doing business” rating as the second lowest in the region, and the quality of infrastructure as the worst.
Infrastructure spending in Indonesia currently sits at under five percent of GDP, down from the 1995 peak of 9.2 percent. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government aims to reach five percent, but it looks like this goal will pass on to the next president, given elections in July.
World Bank urban development expert Josie McVitty says infrastructure has fallen behind in Jakarta due to its rapidly growing population and poor planning processes.
“Decentralization after the fall of Soeharto has put much infrastructure responsibility into the hands of local governments. They prepare their budgets annually, so many of their contracts have to be re-negotiated every year. This increases transaction costs and limits ability to prepare and implement large-scale multi-year projects,” she said.
McVitty said Indonesia’s high rate of urbanization – the highest in the region – coupled with one of the lowest percentages of GDP spent on infrastructure means cities will continue to be strained.
In Jakarta people work around the traffic problems, but only to a certain extent. Trucks make their deliveries after 11 p.m. to avoid traffic, and taxi company Blue Bird recently launched an executive bus, set up with a meeting room. Office set-ups are not uncommon for company cars, with Wi-Fi and refreshments for the lengthy periods traveling between meetings.
For corporate higher-ups and politicians, police escorts attempt to cut a swathe through traffic, although this is not always successful.
Smith says he is still surprised that people even try and get home during peak hour.
“If it looks particularly bad outside, I’ll just stay at the office a bit longer. I don’t understand why people insist on tackling the roads when it’s clear people aren’t moving.”
Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) has taken on the challenge of building a railway system capable of getting people off the roads. He has resuscitated an overground rail system, with work beginning in 2013 and is operating closely with the Transport Ministry to get a high-speed rail line up and running.
Cooperation between the Greater Jakarta Region and the central government is rare, however.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has repeatedly said it is not his responsibility to deal with Jakarta’s traffic and flooding issues. He told the Jakarta Globe in 2013 to take it up with someone else:
“I don’t enjoy being asked for a solution [to traffic], in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and other places. It is the governors and mayors that are in charge of providing an explanation for this,” he said.
This riposte followed stories that it was the presidential motorcade responsible for traffic jams in Central Jakarta, as streets were closed to allow SBY through. This he denied, saying he too got stuck in traffic, and stayed in the presidential palace to avoid it.
While the central government has made some moves towards supporting public transport, these are undermined by continued fuel subsidies and the recent tax incentives for people to buy new cars.
It is predicted 1.2 million new cars will be sold in Indonesia in 2014, and with the greater Jakarta area home to 10 percent of Indonesia’s population and much of the wealth, it is a reasonable assumption that many of these will end up there.
So far in 2014, at least 11 people in Jakarta have died in floods, and over 60,000 have spent time in emergency shelters.
Jokowi has made flood mitigation another priority. One of his and Deputy Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s main policies is to demolish slums, which they blame for causing drainage issues around the city’s canals. They are also putting in almost 2,000 infiltration wells, which help reduce standing water. When complete, these are expected to reduce sickness around flooded areas.
Although infrastructure will not stop heavy rain and more frequent wild weather, Basuki is already claiming improvement, while also threatening those who cannot move away from the slums in a statement to the Globe.
“The bottom line is that if there are no broken levees and no dysfunctional machines, everything will be fine. I told the new mayor in North Jakarta to imprison individuals still living in the slums and on the riverside [in violation of new regulations],” he said.
The Jokowi-Basuki team is certainly receiving wide support for moving quickly on public works, and their ability to cut through bureaucratic tangle is a model for other city administrators.
The World Bank is working with the State Ministry on National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) to prepare a program that will assist local governments in medium and large cities, such as Makassar, Denpasar, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, in developing more responsive planning and enable them to prepare, finance and execute effective urban infrastructure projects.*
Its aim, says McVitty, is to “[strengthen] local governments’ planning and management capacity to carry out priority urban infrastructure projects.”
Efficiency has informed the Jokowi-Basuki administration thus far. Video of Basuki officials in meetings and Jokowi making surprise visits to public offices have made the rounds, with both men reacting with anger to underperforming officials.
This administrative vigor has enamored the pair to voters, and Jokowi is currently the frontrunner for the July’s presidential election. He has yet to be named as the candidate by his party, but general consensus is he needs to wait until PDI-P chair and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri declares she is not running.
Taxi driver Muhammed says Jokowi still has work to do in Jakarta before moving on.
“The floods aren’t so bad this year because of the new pumps they put in, and soon they will improve this traffic. It would be good for Indonesia, but not so good for Jakarta,” he said.
Eddie Mohammad, co-owner of a production company, says punctuality is a more fluid concept in Indonesia. He spoke to The Diplomat after missing a flight because of heavy traffic on the way to the airport.
“I have to send guys out to film, or take photos, and it’s rare they don’t get held up. Jakarta and deadlines, they just don’t meet. We sometimes spend more time in traffic than with clients during the day.”
He also has a stake in a bar in South Jakarta, and says getting food and drink delivered is not as much of an issue, because truck drivers work at times when traffic is not as bad.
“The cost is still increased though, because drivers need to work odd hours to get supplies to you.”
Alex Hamer is an Australian freelance journalist based in Jakarta.
* Changed from original. The program is still being prepared.