Jakarta has problems. To live in the Indonesian capital is to become intimately acquainted with a long list of issues. The city is plagued by seasonal floods. The pollution is so bad that the United States outfitted its Jakarta embassy with air quality monitors like those in Beijing and New Delhi. More than half the city doesn't have access to piped water—and even those who do are left with something unsafe to drink.
But it's the traffic that's the source of most complaints. The traffic is so bad that people have to arrange their lives around it. Rush hour is a gridlock that lasts for hours as some 3.5 million commuters enter the city for work every weekday. And, by most estimates, it's been getting worse. More than 300 new cars, and a 1,000 new motorbikes, hit the streets of the Indonesian capital every single day. It's bad enough that the city government has been warning for years that the capital is on the verge of total gridlock—a point when the traffic jams are so bad that Jakarta's streets turn into a massive parking lot.
Jakarta officials say relief is on the horizon. The city's long-delayed MRT rail project is scheduled for completion sometime next year. And a new odd-even rule hopes to reduce the number of cars on certain heavily congested roads. But will these plans actually work? We reached out to Marco Kusumawijaya, an activist and the founder of RUJAK Center of Urban Studies, to ask if the situation is ever going to get better.
VICE: Is it too late to fix Jakarta's traffic?
Marco Kusumawijaya: It's never too late. But we can't tell exactly when the problems in Jakarta will end. The main issue is that not enough policies are based on facts or data. The sooner we move in that direction, the better. We need to raise awareness about initiatives that work for everyone. We also need to understand the challenges coming ahead. We need solutions for Jabodetabek, not just Jakarta. The most obvious issue here is that 3.5 million people commute into the capital every day.
And that number keeps going up. A lot of people just can't afford to live in Jakarta anymore, so they are moving to places like Bekasi and Tangerang. How can the city government better manage this daily flow of people?
We can't just manage the city, we need to also manage the flow. People think that managing a city is just about fixing things, offering new open spaces and public facilities. But the word mobility is key here. Less mobility means greater environmental costs. That's something we often overlook. This is an environmental cost that affects us all.
Because the commute distance keeps growing?
New generations are living in residential neighborhoods that are farther from the city's center than their parents. This is the reality, but it's not being addressed by the government. The problem here isn't changing the policies, but changing the mentality of the policy makers.
So what's the solution?
Transportation costs should total less than 10 percent the minimum wage. We need to reduce transportation costs so that people can live better. Research by urban planners shows that its better for people to live close to their place of employment. But the state requires buildings to provide parking lots, not housing. Cars are now so ubiquitous that they compete with public transportation. When this happens the entire city loses. It makes the government too dependent on vehicle taxes. They think the tax could be used to help the city, but the cars are what's hurting it. It's a vicious cycle.
What about the MRT project? Is that going to make things better?
Honestly, I don't know, but it seems like that project alone won't be enough. It just can't significantly reduce the traffic jams. Building the rail line alone will never be enough.
We're in the middle of an election season and everyone is promising a solution. Is this increased attention a good thing?
There's a dangerous tendency to focus on populism—especially with the current administration. And people really only see the results of these policies on the surface. They don't see the big picture. This may have to do with our focus on image-driven policies. We can't just rely on subjective experience. We also need to see the data. The city has become so huge that it goes beyond our subjective limitations. Just because the streets are cleaner, doesn't mean we can assume that Jakarta's trash crisis has been solved. We shouldn't draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence and use that as a way to judge the effectiveness of our city's management.
The government is often slow to act. Is Jakarta really just a victim of bad parenting?
You could say that. It's the kind of parenting that's based on myth and mysticism, not knowledge. Myths like public housing is good. Where's the good in that, you may wonder. Well, the point is "good" isn't always about the physical. Yes, the amount of land is limited, but it's not really about building vertically. Instead we should expand the floor areas and divide it more equitably and with a system. You could see in Jakarta there are many tall apartments, but they don't necessarily solve the problem because it's all very speculative. People shouldn't fall for the idea that "Jakarta needs to be taller."
This interview has been translated and edited for content and clarity.