Turn the tide in Jakarta

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

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

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