Jakarta launches 'car-free' days to give residents respite from traffic

Indonesia's main city is often filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, but now the streets are filled with pedestrians on some days.

Enny Nuraheni/Reuters
A police officer directs traffic during rush hour in Jakarta.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The traffic circle next to Hotel Indonesia is one of Jakarta’s landmarks. During turbulent times, it’s a prime spot for political demonstrations: Think Tahrir Square in Cairo or Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These days, it’s generally bumper-to-bumper with commuter traffic as political strife recedes and Indonesia’s economy revs up again.

Some Sunday mornings are different. On a recent trip, I pulled back the curtain from my hotel room and gazed down at a sea of cyclists, joggers, and walkers weaving around the circle. The crowd was a cross section of multiethnic Jakarta: sporty male cyclists, flirting teenagers, Muslim women in head scarves, and families out for a stroll. Among the crowd were vendors selling steamed buns, sodas, and sunglasses from brightly painted carts.

Jakarta’s car-free zone began in 2007 and has become a huge success. Once a month, a section of downtown is closed to vehicles on Sunday morning. Tens of thousands of people get on their bikes or pull on sneakers and take to the streets, injecting a note of civic pride into a city that often feels unloved by its residents.

Even on those Sundays when cars aren’t barred, Jakarta residents still take to the streets. On my visit – not an official car-free day – the foot traffic vastly outnumbered the cars and motorbikes on the road. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, which makes a change from the midweek hustle and bustle.

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