Jakarta putting brakes on stop-and-go traffic

Commuters in this congested megacity are anticipating the city's first subway system, which finally broke ground after 24 years of planning. 

By , Correspondent

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    A security guard walks at the site of a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a railway, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Oct 10, 2013. Construction is underway in the Indonesian capital for a long-awaited urban railway aimed at staving off crippling traffic gridlock.
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Could a small patch of dirt off the shoulder of one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares help to roll back decades of traffic mismanagement?

On that patch a consortium of city contractors broke ground Oct. 10 on the Indonesian capital’s first commuter rail line, 24 years after a metro system was first mooted. The new metro line would connect government buildings, a long-distance railway station, shopping malls, and office towers, a surefire way of cooling tempers in this city of haggard drivers.

“Actually this is our dream after 24 years. The metro will be faster. In Jakarta the traffic is so bad and you cannot predict it,” says Durrotun Nafasi, sales director with the All Seasons Jakarta, a 167-room hotel along the first planned line. “This is good for occupancy. Metro riders can also use our food bar while waiting [for trains].”

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Planning the metro line took so long in part because the city scrapped a build-operate-transfer scheme after the 1997 Asian financial crisis wrecked Indonesia's economy. City officials switched later to a government-run project, which faced funding disputes and other bureaucratic holdups, dashing hopes of a quick turnaround. 

City leaders expect the metro to ease a glut of cars that have tracked the rise of an urban middle class in Indonesia. Economic growth has averaged 5.9 percent over the last five full years, according to the World Bank. Jakarta's metro area has over 20 million inhabitants and sprawls for miles in all directions. 

Jakarta’s jams, hardly a factor 20 years ago, rival those in Bangkok and Beijing. Slow traffic costs 12.8 trillion rupiah ($1.17 billion) per year in lost time, fuel, and health problems, according to a 2005 study by an Indonesian energy research firm. The study said Jakarta would be “totally jammed” by 2020 without more mass transit.

Cars, vans, and light trucks pack the streets so thickly that during rush hours that people stand in the roads taking change to direct vehicles. Experienced drivers learn elaborate webs of side streets to avoid pileups. Those with money hire chauffeurs and use their mobile phones or tablets while in traffic. 

“In terms of efficiency, you can’t do too many things in traffic,” says office worker Meyna Tanzil. “You lose a lot of time on the road. The most I can do is two meetings a day if they’re outside the office.”

Ms. Tanzil commutes for one hour round trip, compared to six for some suburbanites. But she gripes that her apartment complex lacks spaces for everyone’s car, creating a de facto “curfew” after which drivers must park on the street. Latecomers must be early risers to avoid parking tickets, she adds.

“From my home, work is 45 minutes away,” says Jakarta commuter Ade Abdullah, a personnel training manager with a consumer electronics store. “I ride a bicycle, because in a car it would take longer.” 

Residents can start using the metro in 2016, if all goes according to plan, with more stations planned to be built after that. The system known as the Jakarta MRT will cost $1.5 billion and handle as many as 173,000 passengers a day.

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