Congestion charges and proper traffic planning

The Jakarta Post

Michael Garc¡a, Ph.D. Candidate, Cornell University, Jakarta

The city's integrated three-in-one and TransJakarta Busway plan is certainly worth a try. It is evidence that the city administration is willing to do something about Jakarta's traffic problems though Jakartans are wondering why the three-in-one plan and the Busway project were chosen over other options and why no alternative proposals were put before the public.

If well administered a congestion charge would fare better in popularity and effectiveness than the three-in-one part of the new policy. There are no perfect and final solutions but future transportation improvement plans in the capital city must be even more comprehensive than the current temporary fix.

The fundamental goals of setting traffic policy are many: To ease congestion in busy areas, to optimize the rate of traffic flow, to encourage the use of mass transportation, to lower pollution and noise levels, to lower the number of vehicle accidents.

But there are other issues that affect traffic flow that are too easily dismissed because they seem marginal or are considered separate issues. Assimilating pedestrian traffic, bajaj use, and parking are among the interrelated issues.

Two-lane roads such as Jl. Kemang -- a feeder road and oft-used shortcut to Blok M -- are often reduced to one lane because businesses lining the corridor are not encouraged to provide recessed parking lots for their customers.

The dearth of city parking garages makes regulating traffic flow almost impossible by increasing the number of men in orange jumpsuits blocking traffic so that their fare can back into the road whether there is oncoming traffic or not.

Parking garages can be designed so that vehicles reentering traffic must yield the right of way instead of disrupting heavy traffic flows.

The restriction of bajaj to certain roads has been a helpful policy as their erratic darting to and from the curb in search of fares also disrupts smoothly-flowing traffic. But no solutions have been offered to deal with the frequent curb stops and sudden turning of opelet. The opelet are a much more vital part of public transportation than the bajaj -- which travel only very short distances that are often walkable -- but they also cause a great many traffic jams, particularly on the narrower roads they tend to serve.

If the sidewalks were safer and the air in the streets cleaner and quieter more people would be encouraged to walk. Maintaining pedestrian sidewalks that are shady during the day but well-lit at night might currently be cost prohibitive but enforcing emissions standards -- only beginning with buses, trucks and bajaj -- would not be. Enforcing acceptable noise levels on all vehicles would also encourage more people to walk to work, school, or shopping areas when possible.

If the government were to subsidize biodiesel, as it does gasoline and diesel, the new fuel might stand a chance of being adopted by a significant number of users.

In addition to considering more parts of the puzzle traffic policy must influence commuter behavior in positive ways. Effective policy must target long-term, fundamental goals rather than burdening Jakartans with superficial changes that will only be effective for a very short time -- one election term? -- if at all. There are 5-year plans for the economy; is there a 5-year or a 10-year plan for transportation infrastructure? If there is why has the public never been apprised of it? And when will the next public session on future traffic policy be held?

Both the rider policy and the tolls are largely useless or detrimental if they don't contribute to the fundamental goals of easing traffic congestion or encouraging more people to mass commute -- though the tolls can still contribute needed revenue, assuming most of it gets returned to the community in the form of new roads and other infrastructure.

Citizens are told that other forms of public transportation are too costly. A subway or an elevated train are ruled out -- barring the miraculous emergence of a foreign investor -- as mass transportation options for this reason.

And it is because of prohibitive costs that the current solution was modeled on the Bogota bus system rather than on Mexico City's subway or Singapore's combination of subways, fast and clean buses, and restrictive vehicle ownership. If revenue is the issue then why not generate revenue from those who use the roads the most?

No integrated system from another city can be imported directly. Singapore's system works well only for a much more affluent city of about half the size of Jakarta. But Singapore does have one very smart policy that would work in Jakarta -- congestion charging.

The Nobel Prize committee thought the idea of congestion pricing was such a good one that they awarded the 1996 prize in economics to William Vickrey, then a professor of economics at Columbia University, for his work on it.

One common version of congestion pricing involves simply charging a fee from those who are willing to pay a little more for the convenience of using a faster traffic lane, bridge, or tunnel.

Ideally an extra lane can be added instead of appropriating an existing lane. Instead of -- or in addition to -- a Busway in Jakarta an express lane would be opened to anyone willing to pay the toll.

Not only do those who pay the toll get to their destinations faster and with greater ease, but the remaining traffic in the non-toll lanes is reduced, freeing up congestion there as well.

But often another lane cannot be added -- there is simply no room because buildings are in the way or because the congestion zone is a bridge, tunnel, or other expensive structure. Vickrey argued for peak-period tolls in such instances. By Vickrey's account peak-period tolls don't significantly reduce traffic but simply redistribute traffic more evenly to the benefit of all motorists.

The congestion charges motivates drivers among the other three-fourths to be more flexible about when they will enter congested zones or thruways.

The hidden key to the success of congestion pricing is obvious to any Jakartan who has ever been caught in one of the frequent traffic jams at existing toll plazas. Success depends on where the collecting area is located and how fast toll collection is.

London and Singapore are two cities who have put the theory of congestion pricing into praxis. Every vehicle in Singapore is equipped with a debit card reader.

When a driver passes one of the many congestion zone borders a congestion charge, or toll, is automatically deducted from a debit card that must be inserted in the reader during peak hours. Failure to do so results in a fine, one that is swiftly and efficiently enforced with the aid of high-tech ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) detectors mounted on gantries over the road.

Jakarta could not afford such technology, it is argued. But the initial investment in the system and equipment to enforce collection of congestion charges in London will pay for itself in three years. Will the cost of the TransJakarta Busway pay for the cost of new buses and road construction in three years? Will it generate any revenue for future transportation infrastructure improvements?

Congestion pricing would alleviate traffic congestion and generate revenue for future infrastructure. Nevertheless, politicians might be afraid of congestion pricing because they fear their constituents will see it as an unnecessary tax and an unbearable operations burden on sectors of the economy affected by transportation costs.

But, if effective, congestion charges would actually benefit both drivers and industries with high transportation costs.

The writer is currently a Fulbright Researcher in Indonesia.

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