Fighting against Jakarta’s traffic during peak hours burns us out, and burns our money — for nothing. At some point, driving a car starts to be a symbol of immobility rather than mobility.
There have been different approaches introduced to deal with Jakarta’s widespread urban congestion, namely the Transjakarta busway, mass rapid transit (MRT) and monorail systems, electronic road pricing (ERP), free-of-charge double-decker public buses, the elimination of fuel subsidies or the increase of commercial parking rates. And, most recently, there has been the highly debated plan to build six inner-city toll roads to mathematically lower Jakarta’s road density.
Jakarta always comes up with typical engineering approaches that fall short of their vision when implemented collectively in the city’s urban context.
Most of the approaches are foreign-based best practice, but still seem to fragmentarily follow an old-fashioned auto-oriented paradigm, which aggravates our existing urban structures because they prioritize concrete-based infrastructure.
Jakarta is estimated to lose US$3 billion per year due to traffic congestion, which is closely related to the rapid growth in private vehicle ownership of 9–11 percent per year, while the existing public transportation systems and road facilities fail to function in accommodating citizens’ mobility (Rukmana, 2014).
According to Rukmana, traffic congestion in Jakarta is worsening in the aftermath of an induced demand phenomenon. Neither newly built roads nor widening existing roads will offer a viable solution to traffic congestion in the long term.
Weaknesses of Auto-centric Approach
In cities, traffic infrastructure is still predominantly designed and financed to support auto-oriented systems (Sarmiento and Priego, 2014). By building more roads, auto-oriented cities always sprawl and are dispersed, unequivocally impelling inhabitants to depend on private vehicles as the only commuting option. Cars and motorbikes have become a common standard of comfort for all social classes, despite the many hours of traffic jams.
Applying legal-economic instruments to cope with congested commercial zones, such as a three-in-one vehicle restriction or the ERP scheme, will not be fully effective due to the lack of a reliable public transport system and car-pool facilities.
This approach tends to shift traffic flow to the fringes of restricted zones, thus creating more traffic bottlenecks and gridlock in the city as a whole during peak hours. How to define the restricted areas is also questionable, since most congested commercial zones in Jakarta are greatly decentralized.
Solving traffic congestion does not merely require mathematical tactics to create a higher ratio of required road space compared to the city’s physical area, or to temporarily restrict motor-vehicle flows in particular zones. Urban traffic is a set of interlaced networks, a delicate integrated system in which millions of vehicles of different types, all necessitating certain social behavior, drive together and possess equal levels of priority.
A car is an efficient piece of urban transportation only if it exists within the context of a transit-oriented neighborhood that is supported by MRT systems and active transit options such as walking and cycling (Sarmiento and Priego, 2014). Technologies like MRT or bus rapid transit (BRT) will be unattractive to Jakartans without adequate pedestrian and cycling infrastructure to and from stations.
Therefore, we should start thinking in an integrated way about moving people rather than moving cars, thus creating a people-oriented city instead of an auto-oriented city (Sarmiento and Roe, 2014).
Strategies to Unlock Congestion
There are several underestimated but crucial planning principles in a people-oriented traffic approach that should be taken into account when we are trying to unlock traffic congestion puzzles.
First, untangle all road junctions. Gridlock is a situation where we experience zero frequency of vehicles passing through a particular point on a road.
If one or more junction gets stuck during peak hours, the whole traffic system within a city will be paralyzed soon afterwards in a chain reaction. Adding more roads or toll roads will simply create more bottlenecks at exits and entry points.
Thus, we must develop a traffic intersection model that untangles the traffic knots throughout the city. Under a non-spatial intervention, we could restructure the traffic flow system to reduce crossing-conflict points. At minimum intervention level, there is the yellow-box junction model, where queuing vehicles may not enter the marked area unless the exit from each junction is clear.
At a more sophisticated level is the protected-intersection model that seeks to retrofit an intersection with design elements that create a safe, clear experience for all people using the road (Falbo, 2014).
According to Falbo, this people-oriented traffic model delicately defines the positioning of crossings and conflict points between all kinds of transportation modes with clear movement-control signals as well as providing refuge islands as protected spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.
Second, we must develop active transportation systems and minimize travel interruptions. There are too many mixed-up activities and crisscrossing events, both formal and informal, that clog up our roads.
In addition to the omnipresent illegal roadside traders, illegal parallel parking activities and incidental taxi or bus pick-ups, all land and building premises along the roadway create their own entries, exits and parallel parking spaces adjacent to the public road.
Given the plan to have a transit-oriented development concept in the future, if every road has the same motor-vehicle accessibility with no walking or cycling infrastructure, then no one would walk or cycle to reach any public transit stations (Sarmiento and Roe, 2014).
There should be a hierarchy of traffic accessibility that is sensitive to urban land-use patterns, existing built environments and urban activity needs.
There would be specific dedicated zones for cars and motorbikes. But where short-distance travel trips were most frequent, accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists would be prioritized, while roadways must be designed to make driving uncomfortable.
A spatial approach is badly needed to design convenient pedestrian zones and plazas, protected sidewalks and bike lanes, accessibility for people with disabilities or parents with strollers, bike-sharing facilities, as well as more green and blue infrastructure that motivates and facilitates people to walk instead of driving.
Towards a Walkable and Bikeable Environment
The idea of people-oriented planning is to remodel a useful road traffic control system that transforms Jakartans into a more active commuting population. The key to success is another level of integrated approach between spatial, legal, economic and cutting-edge traffic-monitoring technology instruments to ensure compliance with the expected behavior.
A people-oriented approach would contribute social and environmental improvements to Jakarta’s traffic culture that would be passed on to the next generations. Walking and cycling would benefit the city and its people, relieve traffic congestion, reduce air pollution, improve traffic safety, increase physical activity and create a more environmentally friendly city (Sarmiento and Roe, 2014).
Perhaps today the idea seems naïve, but I assume that the city government would actually be capable of addressing traffic irregularities, as I believe Jakartans would embrace the culture in their own city, not only elsewhere when they are abroad.
Arlene Nathania is a PhD Candidate at the Resource Efficiency in Architecture and Planning (REAP) Department of HafenCity Universität, Hamburg. This writing was originally published by Jakarta Post August 30, 2014 on Paper Edition (page 6), and also featured in Medium.