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Living in the World's Worst-Designed City Is as Frustrating as It Sounds

No one knows the pain of poor urban planning like a Jakartan.

by Yvette Tanamal
06 August 2018, 7:00am

Workers install a net over a foul-smelling, polluted river to block the stink during the Asian Games, because it's cheaper, and easier, than actually cleaning the river. Photo by Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

No city is perfect. Jakarta, for example, is chronically congested, literally sinking, and choking on harmful fumes. Decades of poor city planning have left millions of people who live and work here to deal with what is not only the worst city in Indonesia, but also the worst-designed place on Earth.

And now, the upcoming Asian Games are highlighting just how bad the city really is at planning. Even the city's best efforts—if we're calling a sun-scorched patch of grass our "best" these days—at making this place beautiful aren't working—and, umm, people are starting to notice.

It's almost like the city's government can't help but miss the mark. It can't get other countries' flags right, its new paint job for the city's curbs has be be painted over, and its new bicycle path, which is really just a sidewalk, leads riders straight into some poles. (It's almost like whoever designed this had no idea how bicycles work.)

It's these kinds of infrastructural fuck-ups that make for great comedy, but a terrible quality of life. So how did this city get so bad? Mohammad Danisworo, who is the head of the Center for Urban Design Studies (PSUD), told Kompas that this all started as small stuff, that then quickly added up to one big mess.

"Small things, like parks, garbage cans, and directional or traffic signs are not even adequately provided by the city, making it confusing for residents," Danisworo said. "The city has become devastated by all of these small problems."

Here's an example: the city recently tried to put an end to a long-standing criticism that it's basically hell for anyone with a disability by adding tactile pavement that can be easily followed by the blind. But the problem is that anyone actually following the raised pathways runs ends up at scenes like this:

Now, no doubt, this isn't the easiest city to manage. Jakarta is nearly the size of Singapore, but with twice its population, and a fraction of its wealth. But is it the city's size that makes it so hard to manage, or does its terrible management make its size so overwhelming?

Let's, for example, take a look at our traffic. Sure, the city's traffic is terrible because we have so many people, but it's real fault lies in a series of poor decisions that only made it worse. We built the entire place for cars. Take a look around the next time you're stuck in traffic for two hours and notice how few actual sidewalks the city has. It's no wonder no one walks here.

So for most of us, the choice is either getting in a vehicle or staying home. This causes traffic.

Then there's the fact that we still don't have an MRT. Mass-transit reduces traffic. But instead of focusing on a rail line, like, say Bangkok did in the 90s, our former governor Sutiyoso decided that the solution to the city's worsening traffic problems was buses. Buses that drive on the road. On the road that are currently gridlocked. Big buses... On gridlocked roads... You get where I'm going with this.

A street in Jakarta. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

Sutiyoso loved buses, so he decided to model our bus system off one he once saw in Bogota, but his team made one crucial mistake—they added the bus lanes, but forgot to make the roads any wider. So now we have buses sitting in traffic, next to cars idling in even less lanes than they had before. And the traffic, big surprise, got worse. The craziest part is everyone seems to have known this would happen—but they still didn't care.

"Just let the congestion happen, it must be done," Andri Yansah, the head of the city's transportation agency, told Detik when asked if they would correct the bus lane caused traffic jams. "If we don’t cause the congestion and enforce it then nobody would want to switch to using public transportation."

The most recent effort to reduce the number of cars on the streets in time for the Asian Games is the expansion of an odd-even rule, which is also slowly creeping into the rest of Greater Jakarta. This bans cars with certain license plates from driving on a large number of major roads in the city. Elsewhere it would be a way to push people to public transit, but here, we can only ask what public transit?

The aforementioned bus system, called TransJakarta, is overcrowded during peak times, plagued by delays, and poorly designed. There's a "wheelchair corner," on every bus for those with disabilities, but the platforms aren't a uniform height or distance from the bus doors, so at a lot of them there's a wide gap of dangerous empty air between the two.

When I think about all the stuff I have to deal with on my commute home (despite my complaints, I'm a TransJakarta commuter), Danisworo's words make a lot of sense. It is the small things. The millions, and millions, and millions of small things that just weigh you down.

Maybe things will get better. Maybe this Asian Games mess will finally make the city hold a mirror to itself and say, it's time to get my act together. But then I worry that, once the spotlight is gone, that no one is even going to care anymore. Are we ever going to get the city we deserve? Only time will tell, I guess.