Traffic is the unifying element in Jakarta life; it’s effect on the lives of all Jakartans cannot be overstated.
Unless you have been in it, Jakarta traffic is difficult to understand. Each day, 28 million people go to work and to school across this dense, poorly laid out metro area. What public transit system exists is woefully inadequate. Many spend four hours a day or more traveling to and from work.
How bad is it? One shoddy train runs between Jakarta and the surrounding metropolitan area, on a inconvenient route, packed with people and pickpockets. A few public buses run along a major Jakarta thoroughfare in a dedicated bus lane, which is frequently violated by private cars. All the other “public buses” — called metro-minis — are better described as private minibuses. Usually overcrowded, often billowing black smoke, they pick up passengers at will anywhere along their routes. They are barely regulated beyond having an assigned route, and their drivers are notoriously reckless. Taking the bus might be safer than walking, though. With almost no sidewalks in Jakarta, opting to walk means braving black exhaust fumes and sticky heat while dodging traffic on the trash-filled roadside. Sadly, almost half of greater Jakarta’s population, who live on less than three dollars a day, is tied to these three transit options.
Jakarta is also home to Indonesia’s richest people, who can afford to commute in comfort. A private car or taxi is the most popular choice, traveling with air conditioning in a comfortable seat. But the roads here are not well maintained, managed, or designed. Streets are narrow; highways are few. The lack of city planning has led to a system of U-turns that cause gridlock. In addition, as the wealthy population has grown, so has the number of vehicles. Two years ago experts estimated more than 13 million vehicles clogged Jakarta’s streets. With that many vehicles causing traffic jams, average speeds slowed to between 15 and 20 km per hour (9-12 miles per hour). The problem has only increased since and police predict complete gridlock by 2014.
For middle-class Jakartans, cars are unaffordable, and so is waiting in traffic. So they ride motorcycles, either their own or as passengers on popular motorcycle taxis called Ojeks (also spelled Ojeg or Ojex). Jakarta has almost four times more motorcycles than cars. For the rider, a motorcycle will get you to your destination much faster than a car. But many car drivers will tell you that the constant weaving in and out of motorcycles is a major cause for the slow traffic. Still, many a wealthy Jakartan can be seen on an ojek when they are pressed for time. Motorcycles also reduce travel by flooding the city with low-cost deliverymen who carry everything from Burger King to fine dining to documents. I once had a small package of Dutch cookies delivered to our door so that I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery to pick them up. The extra charge for home delivery by motorcycle: about 45 cents. You might think motorcycles are only efficient for one or two people with no baggage, but you don’t know Jakartans. During the Muslim holiday week, many Jakartans hit the highways for vacation on their motorcycles. I watched a couple strap two suitcases onto the back of their motorcycle and head off together. It’s not uncommon to see a family of four on one motorcycle. Last week an air conditioner repairman arrived at our house with boxes of tools and a tank of Freon gas on his motorcycle.
For a traveler with too many people or goods to strap on to a motorcycle, who wants to avoid getting rained on, or who just has a sense of nostalgia, there is one other option. It’s called a Bajai (after the man who first produced them in India, Jamnalal Bajaj). You may have seen these if you’ve visited India or seen similar models around Asia or Africa. Originally imported from India in 1975 as an upgrade from Indonesia’s once-ubiquitous bicycle rickshaws, Bajais are motor-tricycles with a roof, sometimes called auto-rickshaws. Ostensibly the passenger is better protected from the rain, though you may get a good soaking through the open sides. After the government stopped issuing permits in 1990, Bajais declined in popularity as ojeks flourished. Those that remain are often older with loud two-stroke engines. Somehow in this city of gridlock, bajais have remained an icon, most likely for their visual esthetic, though motorcycles are a more accurate city emblem.
The final word on traffic from anyone who lives in Jakarta is: learn to live with it. You can’t change it, and if the government’s plans for rapid transit ever materialize; you may not be around to see it – now that 24 years have been spent on planning alone. For those with an office job, being in a car enables you to work while you commute (most professionals earn enough to have a car and driver).
To put it in perspective, last week I traveled by car to a meeting in central Jakarta about 6 miles from my house, I left home at 7:00 a.m. and arrived right at 8:00 a.m., averaging 10 minutes per mile, about as fast as I jog on a treadmill. This is Jakarta.