Saturday, 8 September 2007

Toll road charges in Jakarta

Toll fees were raised recently along most toll roads in Jakarta. For those of you who are not familiar with this city, one has to get onto "toll" roads or expressways or freeways as you would call them in your part of the world in order to get to distant places within the city and its suburbs. If you are not used to paying to get into these toll roads, Jakarta will be an eye opener - unless you live in Singapore where an electronic road pricing scheme exists with much success.

The problem with toll roads in Jakarta is that they are not charging enough to ensure smooth traffic flow. Huge trucks and buses only pay a slight premium over other vehicles using the toll roads, but they hog up much more space (very often in the supposedly fast lanes) and go at a much slower pace.

Indonesians are fond of complaining. If the price of toll fees go up by X percent, they complain and they form masses to demonstrate in front of the authorities causing massive traffic jams which Al Gore would consider an adversary to his crusade on global warming. If only Indonesians can tell the difference between an extra thousand Rupiah spent (US 10 cents or so) on toll charges and the thousands of Rupiahs saved on fuel costs and productivity by spending less driving time.

Basically, there aren't enough roads in Jakarta to cater to the car and motorcycle population here. Policies such as the "busway" are of no help either. Plans are often ill-conceived and fail to look at the WHOLE traffic situation as a bundle of problems requiring solving.

The hours I, as well as the rest of people in Jakarta, spent in traffic jams could have increased productivity in this nation and hence create more wealth which will in turn be distributed to the poor and impoverished (corruption and siphoning of development funds aside).

I can see the dilemma facing the authorities. If they make toll fees so high to the extent people start avoiding them, all the arterial roads will be so clogged up that there will surely be a backlash from their electorates.

But instead of constructing busways which suck up already congested existing road space, they could perhaps look at other options. The latest news is that they're even thinking of creating a bicycle lane for those who choose to ride into work on their unmotorised two wheelers. Honestly, how many people will actually ride a bicycle to work in a polluted city like Jakarta? Are they trying to encourage Indonesians to emulate the Chinese where droves ride bicycles into their cities each day?

So what are the options?

To start with, they can start passing legislation to control irate bus drivers and commuters who choose to wave down buses from any spot they find convenient on the roads. Have proper bus stops so that buses are forced to stop in those areas to pick up their commuters. To do that, they will have to contend with two important issues: (1) properly educate the public into believing that a more disciplined system of getting onto buses will actually save ALL commuting times; (2) getting rid of corruption in the people assigned to police these rules.

On the educational aspect, officials from government departments embark on public service campaigns, be they in the form or print material, outdoor billboards or TV purely to enrich themselves. Look at bird flu and how much the authorities have done for such a deadly disease. Education cannot be achieved with one or two TV ads. It has to be a wholesome approach which must be sustained over several months or even years. Some may even last a whole generation in order for it to work.

The endemic and systemic corruption in this town leaves much in doubt. The police would rather stop a luxury Jaguar or Mercedes or BMW for apparently frivolous traffic violations than to stop a bus driver for a blatant traffic violation who has no more than ten thousand Rupiahs in his pocket. The Jag, Merc or Bimmer drivers will gladly part with tens of thousands of Rupiahs just so they can get on with their business and avoid the hassles and wasting valuable time arguing with the police for they can't win anyway. But for a bus driver, they won't part with 5,000 Rupiahs without a fight, literally.

The Muslim new year (Lebaran) is getting close. All my friends are warning me to be extra careful on the roads for this is the month when everyone, police included, will be out to make more money to buy new clothes for their kids and celebrate the new year with their families.

Most of my Indonesian friends have taken the situation with a "pasrah" mentality. So be it. This is the system we grew up with, this is the system we're used to. So why "rock the boat".

My answer to that is that if the boat is heading nowhere, it should be about time that we rock it and steer it into the right direction. No matter how long it takes to get where we should be, its better to start rocking now.

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