Jakarta takes first steps for sidewalks

Yesterday the Jakarta Globe (one of two major English-language newspapers here) published an optimistic cover piece about a movement to improve Jakarta’s sidewalks.

As I’ve said in previous posts, transport in this city is a problem almost beyond description, as is the lack of spaces to walk. So I am encouraged by any effort to improve the transit situation, and by any public recognition of how it affects city life. Still, efforts often fail to recognize the broader problems that create the jams and make walking difficult, forcing many Jakartans to spend 2-3 hours commuting to work.

Motorcyclists encroach on the limited walking space on a South Jakarta roadside (photo: pulitzercenter.org)

Motorcyclists encroach on the limited walking space on a South Jakarta roadside (photo: pulitzercenter.org)

According to the Jakarta Globe “of the 7,000 kilometers of main roads in the capital, only 20 percent were equipped with anything resembling footpaths.” Often what resembles a footpath is actually a series of cement blocks covering the sewer. When a block is missing, pedestrians risk a surprise slip into a murky mess. (In fact the Public Works Agency reports only 12 percent of roads have an actual sidewalk.) But all roadsides — with or without sidewalks — face other problems. Roadside food stalls force pedestrians to detour into traffic; motorcyclists looking to evade traffic commonly drive on sidewalks. According to the Jakarta Post, traffic police recorded 778 pedestrian deaths in accidents caused by reckless motorists and motorcyclists in the first eight months of 2013; the number of those merely injured in such encounters is surely higher.

Year after year, the city promises to improve the city for pedestrians, with little actual progress. Perhaps the underlying problems are being ignored.

Lined with small shops and restaurants, away from busy down town, Kemang Raya could be a nice street for strolling, but with limited sidewalks and encroaching street vendors most visitors stay in their cars.

Lined with small shops and restaurants, away from busy down town, Kemang Raya could be a nice street for strolling, but with limited sidewalks and encroaching street vendors most visitors stay in their cars.

Food stalls are a crucial part of Jakarta’s informal economy, providing jobs and inexpensive meals. Those meals are essential for a population that works hours away from home. With street food in high demand, a micro-enterprise like a small meatball cart may keep its owner above the poverty line. As a result, tens of thousands of them cram Jakarta’s roadsides. The city has not had success in regulating them.

Motorcyclists often take to the sidewalks because there is a high value to beating the traffic. Passengers of ojeks (motorcycle taxis) will pay more than the price of a car taxi to arrive at their destination quickly. The underlying problem is the traffic that creates a higher premium for speed.

The city does have some good plans: Last month Jakarta’s mayor, Joko Widodo, led a groundbreaking ceremony for a monorail. Though it is late in coming (planned to open in 2016, well after total gridlock on the city is predicted), it is hoped to  dramatically decrease car traffic; the current city commissioner expects it to carry 300,000 passengers per day in 2016. In addition, the plan to expand footpaths suggested includes space for shops on eight-meter-wide elevated sidewalks. If properly designed, this could open walking space for pedestrians, thus improving access to available public transit. Finally, Widodo has proposed pedestrian underpasses, instead of the, sometimes, rickety overpasses that make crossing major roads a challenge.

Sadly, after years of unfulfilled promises and delays, Jakartans are wary that the grand plans will be completed as hoped. I understand their skepticism, because for now Jakartans have to accept the reality and brave long daily commutes. But I’ll keep my hopes high that transit in this city will look very different in three years.

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One Response to Jakarta takes first steps for sidewalks

  1. Hope so too! I’ve seen 1st hand some of the sidewalk ‘improvements’ creating an obstacle course walking between where I was staying and the office. Thanks for sharing more insights.

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