Turn the tide in Jakarta
The traffic in Jakarta? “Allow four hours,” advises my Nagoya-based son who regularly ventures to the Indonesian capital on business trips. “To go where?” I ask him. “Anywhere,” he replies.
Despite such dire predictions, my visit last week proceeds more or less according to a well-timed itinerary, although we do shunt along in stop-start fashion. The traffic really is horrendous and frequently gridlocked but not much worse than, say, Delhi, and with the bonus of fewer roundabouts, bicycles and sleeping cows. There is a mad sort of rhythm to the flow of cars, buses and lorries; vehicles merge with apparent ease and far less honking and hooting than in places such as Manila or Ho Chi Minh City. And seemingly unique to Jakarta is the presence of the “traffic boy”, so called by one of my taxi-van drivers when I ask what said chap is doing.
We need to make what seems a reckless U-turn across a main street. Imagine a multi-lane highway with no breaks in the traffic. Realise the driver needs to be on the other side. Up pops the traffic boy. The driver brakes and starts to turn (this is not at a corner, by the way) and after a wink and a nod, the traffic boy, who has been loitering gamely half-in and half-out of two lanes, springs into action. Like a biblical figure turning back the sea, he steps in front of the (admittedly only inching) traffic and stops it all with one hand held high. Our driver proceeds to turn and with a balletic grace the traffic boy pirouettes to the window of our van and catches the coin tossed his way. Smiles all round, except not from this terrified passenger.
Can you imagine such a scene on, say, the M1 motor- way north from Sydney? “What happens at night?” I ask. “Wouldn’t traffic boy be run over?” I am told that would not be the case as traffic boy wears a fluoro vest. Oh, OK. “So he is an official traffic boy with a uniform?” Eyebrows raised, the driver replies, “Freelance only.”
There’s talk of rotating “odds and evens” (licence plate numbers) on weekdays and Saturdays to try and ease congestion. Good luck with that, when many middleclass families have more than one car and surely delivery and “tourism designated” vehicles will be exempt.
And how about the trillions of motorbikes clogging up the works and the fact some vehicles mount the pavements and tootle along, skittling pedestrians? There are bottlenecks into which traffic is funnelled at snail’s pace, a lack of public transportation and an airy disregard for road rules. “Carmaggedon!” shrieks one local newspaper.
Then I read a report on the Chinese “Busway” prototype revealed a few weeks ago; this mass transporter operates on an embedded track with elevated passenger cabins and is reported to cost far less than a subway or monorail system and a fraction of the time to construct. China, of course, had that fantastical traffic jam in 2010 that involved more than 10,000 vehicles and lasted for 11 days, which makes four hours in a car in Jakarta seem like a pleasurable afternoon’s outing.
So doing the Jakarta jam is not impossible, except when it rains heavily, roads are flooded, potholes deepen and even the traffic boys might cut their losses and stay home, accepting some tides just cannot be turned.
The Perfect 10: Jakarta, P10