Saturday, 29 September 2007

Jakarta's busway

Congestion in the city of Jakarta has caused traffic to virtually come to a standstill, thanks to the busway introduced about a year ago. For those of you unfamiliar with these streets, three lane thoroughfares were narrowed to two lanes to make way for a dedicated busway corridor.

Prior to that, traffic congestion was already terrible, yet there are politicians and bureaucrats who think that narrowing already congested roads to build a busway will solve traffic problems in the city. At last count, there are less than 100 buses plying the busway corridors throughout the city.

Which commuters did the city planners have in mind when they build the busway?

It didn't seem like they were aiming to serve commuters who relied on the normal dilapidated, carbon monoxide emitting public buses and mini buses which stop anywhere and at anytime they chose to pick up passerngers, irrepective of the inconvenience they cause to other road users. The same number of these buses and mini buses are still plying the same streets as those of the busway.

Or was the busway meant to reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads by providing a convenient and efficient means of public transportation for these people to go in and out of the city? If it was, then the results are certainly not apparent for the same number of private cars seem to be driven to work each day.

One would have thought that if a busway is constructed to link the main outer city suburbs to the city so as to encourage people not to drive their private cars into the city, there would have been plans to provide adequate and proper feeder services from these suburbs to the busway. One would also not be wrong to see a significant reduction in regular buses and mini buses on those roads which the busway operates. But its none of the above. Doesn't make sense right?

Efforts were indeed made to discourage people from driving private cars into the city through the introduction of a 3-in-1 system during peak hours. Private cars with less than 3 persons are not allowed to enter the main road linking north to south Jakarta during peak hours in the morning and evening. However, that only gave rise to a jockey service for the poor inhabitants of the city to provide their services at a small fee to drivers who don't have the requisite 3 persons. Men, women and children of all ages wait by side roads leading to the main road each day hoping to be picked up by drivers requiring jockeys to earn a meagre one US dollar (the equivalent of a pack of Marlboro there).

Conspiracy theories abound on the reasons for the busway, the majority of which pointed to the amounts of money the politicians and bureaucrats can siphon off from a project this size.

Any administration can make public policy blunders, and the problem of solving congestion is probably one of trial and error anywhere. In the more affluent and less corrupt countries, the risks of error is probably reduced through several thorough scientific evaluations prior to implementation, and possibly followed by pilot trial in certain districts before being introduced wholesale into the heart of commerce in the city. Public education programs over a period of time are normally a part of the overall effort to introduce a new transportation means. BUT, not in Jakarta.

The busway was introduced with no apparent clear objectives, private car owners are not given much of an alternative, and most Jakartans, except those sitting in government offices seem to have little clue as to the benefits the busway is expected to bring them.

After introduction of the first busway corridor, the city administration proceeded to build other corridors before any apparent attempts to garner feedback and evaluate these feedback from city dwellers. And now, they're even making plans to build an additional corridor cutting through a prime, low density residential estate complete with golf course, high end shopping mall and prestigious schools at the southern end of the city, or what some call the equivalent of "Beverly Hills" in Jakarta.

Prior to the busway, the city considered and started building an alternative monorail system. But disputes with their foreign partners and financiers put a halt to all work. Remnants of unsightly, half-finished pillars of the monorail dot some main streets in Jakarta now.

So how long more do Jakartans have to live with congestion and pollution before there can be any respite? Short of an efficient mass transit subway system, or a combination of proper city planning and relocating the central and city's government to an alternative administrative capital like Malaysia's Putrajaya (not the best example of success) or Australia's Canberra or Canada's Ottawa, Jakarta's traffic will most likely continue to haunt its residents for decades to come.

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