Jakarta, the (current) capital of Indonesia and home to over 10 million inhabitants, has long been plagued by choking traffic and air pollution. It spent the previous decade developing integrated public transport to increase modal share, culminating in the winning of the 2021 Sustainable Transport Award. However, in this City Snapshot, Dr Chris Hale argues that the focus on moving the Indonesian capital, amongst other problems, is causing the city to fall back behind its competitors.
On a recent trip around Southeast Asian cities, I was astounded by progress made in Bangkok, and heartened by the near-term future of Manila. Bangkok has seen massive ongoing expansion of its rail system. Street-level traffic was noticeably tamer. And the city just opened a huge new centrally-located urban park. For those with another inclination – property development is booming too. Manila is also seeing booming investment in property and beyond. Plans for upgraded public realm and housing are less clear. But a major rail investment program is underway.
My third stop on my city reconnaissance tour was Jakarta – the Southeast Asian city where I’ve spent most time over the years. In terms of wealth and scale, Jakarta is at another level compared to its Thai and Philippines counterpart cities. Jakarta impresses as a genuinely ‘Imperial’ capital – lording it over a country two or three times the size of Thailand or the Philippines. Some of Jakarta’s new commercial developments are truly staggering in scale. But Jakarta has also always been an interesting city, and just a good place to visit and spend time. High standard accommodation is generally more affordable than in other world cities. And while Jakarta tends toward sprawl, many of its neighbourhoods are green and characterful.
But unfortunately at this time, Jakarta shows the least clear forward trajectory from among the group of leading southeast Asian cities that also includes Manila and Bangkok. While Jakarta’s committed rail projects owe their thanks, in part, to current Indonesian President Jokowi’s 2012-14 stint as Jakarta’s Governor, the forward rail investment program is much less ambitious and much less clear than those seen among Asian competitor cities. Jakarta has always been very laissez-faire on transport, and that vibe seems to continue.
Jakarta’s new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line (deep blue in the centre of the Urban Railway Network map above) offers some clear improvement – the first stage of two planned self-contained rail lines had opened in 2019, improving access along the central north-south orientation. The next stage, an extension further northward is due to open in 2028 and will further improve connectivity, whilst an additional extension and the second line, east-west orientated are due to be complete in the 2030s. The UK based, Swiss registered Centre for Public Impact gave a Good rating average for the MRT line, and my own user-experiences have been positive. The MRT is presenting a new, fresh, air-conditioned, and more professional face for public transport in Jakarta.
We also await the benefits of the imminent opening of the Greater Jakarta LRT (light rail transit, but really a light metro), more commonly known by the acronym Jabodebek LRT, This offering is labelled ‘light rail transit’, but is really a light metro in substance.The Jabodebek LRT line is in late phases of much-delayed construction, and due to begin operation in 2023. Another LRT line – “LRT Jakarta” – opened in 2019, overdue for its planned role in transporting Asian Games visitors. These two LRT lines, in tangential positioning relative to the city centre, have been long in gestation, and partly replace a poorly conceived, partially constructed and ultimately cancelled monorail. Running approximately from the city centre to the south-east and east, additional extensions were planned to run to the north-west and south. However, funding issues and a lack of broader institutional commitment to a fast-paced mass transit delivery program has held back their full construction. The forward prognosis remains somewhat unclear.
Note that the section of the MRT from Bundaran Hi to Kampung Bandan is currently under construction. Light Rapid Transit (confusingly also known as LRT) routes L1 and L2 form the Greater Jakarta (Jabodebek) LRT, whilst the LA LRT route (see map) is part of the separate Jakarta LRT.
Suburban rail lines for the massive conurbation
Greater Jakarta’s seven over-worked ‘KAI’ suburban rail corridors also provide relatively frequent service for the massive conurbation, and suburban rail plays an important role in longer-distance people movement. But much-needed upgrades to this system have also been piecemeal and slow. Station facilities remain outdated, and many have questioned the quality of integration between suburban rail and other modes of public transport, particularly localised bus services, in outlying areas. An ‘integrated 21st century transit’ offering seems far away from the everyday experience of current Jakarta commuters. Transit access is being further improved by a rolling (but somewhat slow-paced) program of interchange station upgrades, encouraging integrated travel between commuter rail, MRT, and TransJakarta BRT (bus rapid transit) routes.
And bus rapid transit (BRT)
Jakarta’s use of feeder buses to support the Transjakarta BRT is also worth mentioning. As are the informal transit services such as the Angkot (angkutan kota or City Transport) shuttle buses and vans that ply the local communities and connect to major transit corridors. The bajaj (rickshaws) and ojek (motorcycle taxis) are also an important part of the service and all are seeing shifts from with connectivity technologies and electrification.
And a new high speed railway opening this year
The Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway will open in mid-2023. The railway will have intermediate stations on the 142 km line, with the terminus at Jakarta’s Halim Perdana Kusuma airport at the southeast quadrant of the city. There it will connect to the L2 light rail line (the dashed line at lower right terminating at the airport symbol on the map above). As it reduce travel time between the capital and Bandung in West Java from 3 hours down to 36 minutes, the new railway promises to be popular. The HSR may be extended further into central Jakarta to Gambir, an existing C1 and C3 commuter rail station.
Numerous attempts to tame traffic
Perhaps influenced by Singapore, as is often shyly the case in Indonesia, Jakarta has long mooted road pricing as a means of reducing its legendary traffic congestion. But this concept has made little progress. In the meantime, Jakarta has enacted several different congestion busting policies to mixed effect over the last few decades. Its long running peak hours minimum 3-person private vehicle occupancy policy was finally scrapped in 2016, deemed no longer effective. However, data showed an almost immediate deterioration in both average speed and journey times following its removal. This led to the implementation of an eccentric ‘odd-even’ number plate congestion reduction policy which is clearly having a genuine impact – although its impacts on overall mobility outcomes must be questioned, relative to the lack of viable, interconnected and comfortable public transit alternatives.
Among many other challenges, Jakarta’s mass transit must now do what other Asian cities have already successfully done – and bridge a major socio-economic and cultural divide. The urban poor and regular workers broadly tolerate third-rate but low cost bus-based transit. Whereas Jakarta’s less cost-conscious burgeoning middle-classes, professional classes, and a surprisingly large wealthy strata are all notoriously averse to public transport. This is not surprising given both the poor general mobility utility of the city’s transit offering, and its often appalling presentation standards in terms of station facilities, vehicles and the like.
The good news is that this transition to transit as a middle-class and office worker movement staple has been successfully bridged in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Jakarta simply remains 50 years behind in service conceptualisation and network offering, while being substantially larger than almost every Asian city outside a select group. Certainly, Jakarta’s peer cities in a population bracket that includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and a few others have long-since understood and delivered-on the need to make transit middle-class and mainstream.
Non-motorised transport no longer ignored
Non-motorised (pedestrian) transport in Jakarta has long been ignored, however this has begun to change slowly. The MRT program has upgraded sidewalks along its length, primarily to improve access and egress to and from MRT stations, and their invariably up-market surrounding precincts. Away from main thoroughfares, however – Jakarta’s traffic engineering is close to non-existent. Traffic signals bear all the hallmarks of having been installed at least 40 years back. Signal phasing and pedestrian crossing cycles are often defective. Crossing a non-arterial road in Jakarta feels like a life-threatening experience. And despite the obvious forbearance that drivers have for pedestrians, the danger factor must surely be translating into pedestrian crash impacts.
A COVID-induced modal shift led to an apparent explosion in bicycle usage, and the rapid roll out of protected cycle lanes following a successful pilot has had a great effect on road configurations in some locations. Although the bike lanes were quickly and predictably colonised by Jakarta’s massive Suzuki scooter throng. In any case, the opening of the next stage of MRT will add more pedestrian network upgrades along the new rail corridor’s northern expansion trajectory.
Traditional petrol-powered two-wheelers remain pretty much the transport mainstay of Jakarta. The bajaj (three-wheeler motor rickshaws) are also part of the mix of traditional transport service offerings. Ojek (usually app-hailed motorcycle taxis) have seen rapid recent growth, while reinforcing the ongoing tendency for every transport challenge to be answered with an ‘informal sector’ response, that is usually fundamentally unsafe to boot. Like many developing Asian mega-cities, Jakarta has both ignored its scooter mainstay and the informal sector in policy terms, while simultaneously remaining mobility-dependent on these offerings overall. The class divide remains the consistent explanation for this phenomenon. And while many middle-class or upwardly-mobile Jakartans are happy to see the end of their scooter days, and transition to four-wheeled private vehicle ownership, the transport policy dimensions of ‘social mobility car acquisition’ deserve more attention than they have received. Undoubtedly, as unfashionable as they may be among the middle classes and the global transport policy community, every Suzuki scooter in Jakarta needs to be seen as ‘one less car on the road’ – and a win from an environmental and infrastructure-provision point of view. A shift toward embracing and mainstreaming the role of motor scooters is both necessary and also a long way off from a socio-cultural point of view, with most Jakarta officials and decision-makers viewing the daily tide of Suzukis as something akin to a lower-class plague.
Ultimately, all of Jakarta’s transport problems would be mainly solvable within a dedicated 10-to-15-year mass transit-focused upgrade and investment program. But there’s little sign of one coming. As much as Jokowi has become something of a sainted figure in Indonesia and abroad, even his much-lauded Jakarta governorship was brief, and limited in its infrastructure wins. The Jakarta role seems to serve time and again as a revolving door for politicians to move on to ‘bigger things’ these days.
Add to these challenges those of housing quality, water management, and open space needs servicing a gigantic population – and one can view Jakarta’s urban challenges as having a global dimension and urgency, rather than being just a ‘local issue’. The tendency of Australians, Americans, Europeans and even some Asians to view Jakarta, very much incorrectly, as only a dysfunctional backwater city is in large part due to its low levels of outside visitation. Jakarta is simply not a city on the tourism radar. Although, despite its many problems, visitors can experience a truly great metropolis, with its own charms and atmosphere – still a city of large houses, self-contained neighbourhoods , good cheap food, and spreading tropical trees in many parts.
Ecological disaster threatens
Jakarta’s biggest risk however comes courtesy of ecological mismanagement. Poorly regulated and restricted ground water extraction is causing the city to sink by up to 15cm each year which coupled with climate change induced sea level rises, leaves the city at high risk of recurrent flooding. Despite construction of the Great Garuda, a 32km long outer sea wall creating an artificial lagoon to reduce flooding during the monsoon season, the Government took the decision in 2019 to move the capital to Nusantara, a newly constructed city. Whilst this process is likely to take decades at best (and if ever), with funding an ongoing issue, the shift in focus to a ‘new capital’ has led to worsening decision paralysis regarding the strategic direction of Jakarta’s transit planning and other urban needs.
Practitioners and experts alike have been reluctant to openly criticise Indonesia’s distractive “new capital relocation” agenda. But given Jakarta’s thriving population and society, Jakarta’s central role in the Indonesian economy, and the inherent solvability of many urban problems in Jakarta – the ‘new capital’ agenda may literally be one of the worst urban policies humans have ever conceived.
Dr Chris Hale is the founder and CEO’ of Hale Infra Strategy, which does infrastructure planning for East Coast Australian cities. This is one of a series of his City Snapshots of public transport networks on LR, slightly updated from his posts on LinkedIn, and represents his own personal opinion, not that of LR.