How Car Rationing Systems Are Making Traffic in Asia’s Cities Worse

In Manila and Jakarta, vehicles are banned from certain roads on specific days or times, depending on the last number on their license plate.
November 24, 2020, 8:49am
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Traffic in Jakarta. Photo: Achmad Al Fadhli, Unsplash

Southeast Asian megacities Jakarta and Manila have three things in common: they’re densely populated, infamous for having some of the worst road congestion in the world, and they implement car rationing systems to somewhat manage their traffic.  

Jakarta implemented an odd-even scheme for the city’s main road in 2016 to replace the three-in-one carpooling system it had been enforcing for several years to lessen congestion. The odd-even scheme is a car-rationing system in which private vehicles are banned from certain roads on specific days or times, depending on whether their license plates end in an odd or even number.

Metro Manila, on the other hand, has used a “number coding” system since 1995. Unlike in Jakarta, the bans in Manila today are not determined by an odd-even scheme but by a schedule. For example, plates that end with “1” or “2,” cannot be on certain roads at certain times on Mondays, and so on.

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The rationale behind these policies is that they would limit the number of cars on the road at any one time, and therefore relieve congestion. But as time went by, it became clear that the policy was doing little to curb traffic problems in either city.

Last year, before the pandemic, average commute times for Jakartans ranged from 1.5 to 3 hours per trip, while Filipinos reportedly lost a total of 257 hours or 10 days and 17 hours during their rush hour commute. On some days, traffic could get even worse. And this is because of one big factor: the lack of alternatives. 

While policymakers imposed bans on private vehicles, they failed to consider the readiness of alternative forms of transport. 

For example, when the Indonesian government first announced it was expanding the odd-even scheme to 16 more roads and adding fines for rule breakers in 2019, many were opposed to it. Jakarta’s residents shared that they were “more comfortable” before the odd-even scheme as the only alternatives are commuter trains — which are usually filled to the brim — and buses that operate on seemingly erratic schedules. 

Meanwhile, Metro Manila only has four operational railway systems, one of which has been operating since 1891 and experiences delays and sudden cancellations. The capital’s Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT-3) has a daily ridership of about 300,000 passengers and suffers regular malfunctions. In early 2018, the number of glitches happened almost daily.   

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Instead of enduring the inconveniences of public transport, those who can purchase more cars, do.

“The coding scheme merely suspends vehicular travel at certain times, thus traffic is only temporarily averted,” Mark Angelo Tacderas, a transport specialist and consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told VICE World News. 

If people buy more cars, then the scheme is no longer effective. 

The Indonesian government reported that the sales of used cars in Jakarta increased 20 percent since the odd-even policy was implemented in 2016, according to the Jakarta Post. In Metro Manila, the Land Transportation Authority (LTO) reported 3,076,088 motor vehicles registered in 2019, which is a 10.4 percent increase from 2018, although this data does not specify the type of vehicle.

To rectify the gaps in car rationing systems, policymakers in both countries have tried implementing several modifications. They experimented with everything from changing up window times to simply banning more cars from the road

Traffic is a long-standing and complex issue that will inevitably take years to address. But the persistence with which policymakers have for making car rationing work underscores an inherently wayward approach to addressing traffic, experts say.

"Policymakers are not keen [on] removing [the car rationing systems] because they perceive the problem as a traffic problem and not a transport and mobility problem,” Tacderas said. “If policymakers viewed the problem of congestion as a transport and mobility problem, they will understand that car dependency is the key issue, not car ownership per se.”  

An underlying problem is that both Jakarta and Manila were designed for cars and not people. According to a journal about mobility inequality, this is evident in the way socio-spatial structures like schools and hospitals are distributed so that it “incentivises motorized movement whilst simultaneously penalising other modes of transport, such as walking and cycling.” 

Based on Tacderas’ advice, there first needs to be a change in perspective to effectively manage traffic. Car rationing systems are not the be-all and end-all of traffic in Jakarta and Manila, just one factor of it.  

“Car ownership is more effectively addressed by fiscal strategies such as purchase taxes and fuel taxes," Tacderas said. “Car dependency, on the other hand, is addressed at various levels, beginning with land use planning, such that the distance between people's origin and destination are short. Then, accessibility of places by efficient modes should be considered.”