Jakarta traffic chaos peaks in Indonesia's mass exodus

JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - Jakarta’s traffic chaos this week will build to a crescendo as millions of Indonesians head home to their villages to celebrate the end of the fasting month, turning the capital into a ghost town by the weekend.

Indonesians visit a textile market to buy new clothes ahead of the Islamic Eid al-Fitr festival in Jakarta September 1, 2010. Muslims around the world will celebrate the Eid al-Fitr festival to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. REUTERS/Supri

The mass exodus -- 2.2 million out of a population of 9.6 million are expected to leave Jakarta this week -- highlights the capital’s multitude of shortcomings in terms of traffic management. Traffic is even worse than usual as families pile their belongings and presents for the relatives, scramble aboard motorcycles, trains, cars and buses, and head off.

Government and other offices including the stock exchange, central bank and many private sector businesses close from Wednesday or Thursday to Monday because so few staff will be around it is not worth remaining open.

Jakarta’s daily traffic jams cost 12.8 trillion rupiah ($1.4 billion) a year in wasted petrol, health problems, and lower productivity. Rising incomes have underpinned a steady growth in motorcycle and car ownership which economists predict will bring traffic to a complete standstill by 2012 if the city administration doesn’t act soon.

Even without the additional chaos of the Eid al-Fitr exodus, the average speed of a car in Jakarta is just 8.3 km per hour (5.2 mph), according to the president’s delivery unit, which is charged with sorting out infrastructure and other pressing problems.

By contrast, in London, a person’s average travel time is 4 minutes and seven seconds per mile, or roughly 15 miles per hour.

“This is just intolerable,” said Yopie Hidayat, a spokesman for Vice President Boediono.

“If there is no drastic breakthrough, traffic congestion in Jakarta will be completely out of hand and by 2012 we could face a total gridlock,” he added.

Hidayat said Jakarta’s traffic jams are unavoidable because the number of vehicles is increasing at a far higher pace than new roads being built.

A study done by the presidential delivery unit found that 474 new cars and 2,946 motorbikes joined the Jakarta traffic chaos each day, bringing the total to about 14.4 million cars and motorbikes on the streets of Jakarta and its satellite cities.

Now the government has proposed 17 steps to ease the traffic flow including construction of six elevated roads spanning the city, a Mass Rapid Transport system, a review of roadside parking regulations and an electronic road pricing system like the ones in London and Singapore.

Of course many Jakartans are highly sceptical whether any of these proposals will be introduced in time -- or will be effective. A monorail was proposed years ago and all that exists now is the concrete pillars which add to, not detract from, the traffic congestion.

Road pricing is also highly questionable in a country like Indonesia where law enforcement is weak or non-existent and where traffic cops are easily bribed to look the other way.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has already suggested another idea -- if you can’t get rid of the traffic, leave it behind. He has proposed moving the capital instead.

But come this weekend, those left behind will at last be able to enjoy a far less congested Jakarta, emptied out of many of its inhabitants, quiet, and for just few days, relatively traffic-free.

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