A trial and error job

The Jakarta Post

Sometimes Jakarta, the overcrowded national capital of 10 million people, becomes a laboratory where trial and error experiments are conducted, a consequence of the poor planning that goes into the Herculean task of solving the city's problems.

The city authorities have now come up with a fresh plan for reducing the burden that endless traffic congestion imposes on the people. Early this week, the City Council approved an allocation of Rp 54 billion (US$5.4 million) from the 2002 city budget for a busway project connecting Blok M in South Jakarta with downtown Kota in the west. Deputy chairman of the council's Commission D for development affairs, Ali Imran Husein, claimed that the project would improve public transportation in Jakarta.

The core of the problem is that there are simply too many cars in the city, which has only 6,500 kilometers of road. Another scary statistic is that the number of vehicles increases by 18 percent every year while the road network grows by only four percent. The abundance of vehicles means that traffic jams grow worse and worse every day.
This situation has seen vehicles move more and more slowly from year to year, reducing the number of bus trips. This also causes the condition of the city's cars to deteriorate more rapidly while making operational costs higher and profits lower. The poor condition of the buses and the inept service offered by their drivers have convinced many people of the need to own their own car. This will in turn worsen the already choking traffic jams, which some say are among the worst in the world.

As part of the project, which is due to start in October of this year, the authorities plan to cut down hundreds of trees along the Blok M-Kota route, especially on Jl. Sisingamangaraja, Jl. Jendral Sudirman and Jl. MH. Thamrin, in order to make way for the development of bus shelters and other facilities for the new transportation system. According to the city's plan, buses will ply new routes to be established in the roads' center lanes, which will be dotted with new bus stops. Passengers alighting from the buses will be able to cross the road using pedestrian bridges. How commuters are meant to get to Blok M, for example, to catch a bus, is another question. They are not supposed to drive their own cars there because of a lack of parking spaces.

Despite these problems, many people in both the City Council and City Hall are said to be very proud of the "new masterpiece". But it was heartening to hear that a number of councillors have expressed concerns that the project, designed by transportation experts from the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University, could fail.

Outside the corridors of power many others have predicted that the project will cause more traffic jams and further environmental damage. The first casualties of the project will be, of course, private cars. And the congestion will remain. So where is the wisdom?

And the construction of more pedestrian bridges? Everyone knows that Jakartans are very reluctant to use these facilities, and will only do so if forced. They prefer to cross the busy and dangerous roads. We would envisage that the new bridges along the busway will serve partly as decoration. Unlike Singaporeans or Malaysians, it will take at least two more generations before our nation makes its people respect the rules. Building iron fences in the middle of the road will serve no purpose, because pedestrians have a particular talent for tearing them down.

The debate reminds us that Jakarta's real problem is its status as an overpopulated metropolis full of poor people with low levels of discipline. There are also too many rotten city buses and private cars. And arrogant land transportation officials. In most cases, the officials have been too supercilious to retreat from the failures of their trial and error experiments. The three-in-one traffic system along Jl. Jendral Sudirman -- introduced many years ago -- has long been a shameful exercise, in which poor young boys join others in flagrantly flouting the rules. This disgrace has lately been combined with the failure of the newly-introduced one-way traffic system from Jl. Sultan Iskandar Muda and Jl. Bintaro Jaya in South Jakarta, which has almost totally failed. All that remains there now is the indifference of its architect.

Returning to the new plan to ease congestion along the city's main north-south thoroughfare, we regret to say that it looks like an example of development through cannibalism. Overhauling and reconstructing the expensive thoroughfares, built at the cost of billion of rupiahs, and cutting down trees that were planted "with blood and sweat", even though the benefits remain questionable, is a show of recklessness.

And the planned procurement of some 50 air-conditioned buses, the operation of which will be later auctioned off to private concerns, reeks of corruption, collusion and nepotism and will surely provoke public suspicions, in the absence of effective supervision in the bureaucracy.

So, it would be wise for the city authorities to abort the plan because it will only benefit a few people to the cost of many.

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