Brief thoughts on Jakarta’s traffic

I’m a day late in posting this (if you haven’t noticed, I try to post Friday morning EST) and have again left myself without a topic to write about. This week’s excuse is that we were moving to a new house and packing for a trip to San Diego for my sister’s graduation. So to make up for my tardiness and because we’re spending a few days in Indonesia’s capital on the way Stateside, I thought I’d share a piece I wrote a couple months ago and have yet to find a home for. So let’s get into it here are some brief thoughts on the World’s Worst Traffic:

Complaining about where you live is such a part of human nature that it has become grossly clichéd (e.g. the grass is always greener…). But living in or visiting a place that is actually the worst at something is a rarity. So when Castrol – of motor oil fame – and TomTom – of satellite navigation fame – published their (possibly) prestigious Start-Stop Index and Jakarta came out on top (read: bottom), I felt a certain twinge of pride as a part-time Jakartan.[1]

Other (more full-time) Jakartans I spoke with were somewhat less enthusiastic. When asked, most of their eyes tended to glaze over with something akin to the “thousand-yard stare”. Some can manage a half-hearted chuckle and headshake before quickly changing the subject. Only one, an Indonesian-American from LA could match my enthusiasm and described a flood-ridden (see below) ride home from work that took his boss four hours but him only two. I was impressed but quietly thankful I didn’t have a daily commute.

So, now that I am quietly separated from the honking masses but looking forward with something like intrepid horror to my next visit to the Indonesian capital, I thought I would share some brief thoughts on Jakarta’s infamous traffic situation.


1) Jakarta driving is one massive game of chicken.

This is the best and most complete description I can provide. While there are lanes on the major roads throughout the city, the lines are widely ignored and replaced with a game of “who can find and enter space first”. One would assume that the result of this would be a consistent stream of accidents but by my very unscientific observations there were amazingly few.

I chalk this down to two factors, first there seems to be a general rule in place that as soon as a leading vehicle commits to entering a lane, those following must yield. This may sound simple and universal but the limits – or rather margins – to which this (unwritten?) rule is pushed might give Lewis Hamilton the sweats. The other factor (which might not trouble Mr. Hamilton so much) is that the speed at which the traffic moves is pretty damn slow. This means that the there are very few wannabe Fast and Furious extras, so offensive and defensive drivers alike have plenty of time to react.


2) Jakarta needed a mass-transit system ten years ago.

And it seems that should have been the case were it not for a series of setbacks officially due to “lack of funds” but the more colloquially cited causes, as is common refrain with many issues in Indonesia, are bureaucracy and corruption. As of 2013, Jakarta, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly 30 million people[2], is the largest city in the world without a metro or subway system (via) and the Castrol ranking is the result. Jakarta’s current public transportation is the world’s longs bus service (so there’s two more records for the books) that claims its own bus lanes, which often (reasonably but annoyingly) sit empty while traffic edges along nearby.

Fortunately, if somewhat belatedly, the government secured a $1.6 billion loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in 2009 and broke ground in October 2013 on the first thirteen-stop section of track. After some delays, this stretch is supposed to be completed by 2018 with an additional stage of the same north-south line finished by 2020. An east-west line is still in development with a rough completion date of 2027.

Even when Jakarta Mass-Rapid Transit – as it’s officially known – is completed, Jakartans are still going to have to want to use it (something that is by no means guaranteed) and it will only serve the Special Capital Region, home to only about a third of all metro-Jakarta.


2a) It also needs a flood alleviation system.

While traffic is generally an inconvenience at worst and certainly affects quality of life, Jakarta’s floods are probably the more serious of the two major infrastructure problems. The floods are primarily caused by over-development in the areas surrounding central Jakarta, which is essentially a delta. With nowhere for the water to drain flooding has become more consistent, it regularly drives people from their homes and has caused dozens of deaths in the past several years. Okay, now back to the fun stuff.


3) Use an Ojek.

There is really only one way to get around Jakarta with any sort of speed: by motorbike. Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Indonesia and it’s not uncommon to see an entire Indonesian family of four or five on a single bike. In Jakarta, the motorbike’s omni-presence arguably contributes to the overall congestion and the ojeks, the unregulated motorbike taxi, lay claim to a large percentage (but statistically unknown because of the whole unregulated thing) of said omnipresence.

Oddly, ojeks are generally more expensive that taxis (here’s a nice little explanation why), they’re also open to the elements including the un-air-conditioned and exhaust-filled Jakarta air. Another complaint I’ve heard but not yet experienced is the smell of the required helmet

So there you have it. Maybe not so brief in the end, but a little taste of what travelling around Jakarta is like.


[1] I use the term “part-time” very loosely, I am currently based between Jakarta and Bali but have lived there for as long as a month at-a-time.

[2] Greater Metropolitan Jakarta is widely called Jabodetabek, an acronym taken from the five cities that comprise the Jakartan “Megacity”: Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi. One of the main reasons why it has taken so long to build a metro system is that Jabodetabek is divided among nearly a dozen different political entities. For those interested they are (starting from the center and working toward the peripheries): the Special Capital Region of Jakarta (which has provincial level status), City of Tangerang, City of South Tangerang, City of Depok, City of Bekasi, City of Bogor, Tangerang Regency and Bekasi Regency. To further the confusion, the cities outside the Special Capital region are split between West Java Province and Banten Province. Some parallels can be drawn with the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region but for perspective’s sake, DMV is home to less than a fifth of Jakarta’s population and even when you throw in Baltimore and its suburbs the area’s population is still less than a third of Metro-Jakarta’s

To add to this confusing medley of political interests there is the seeming contradiction that while all urban development within Jabotabek projects are under the control of the central government, there is also the Cooperating Body of Jabodetabek Development. The Cooperating Body, however has no actual authority and since its inception in 1975 has been “ineffective in coordinating development programs in the megacity of Jakarta”. Thus, the onus for all projects is left to the central government when they aren’t too busy with the other 17,000 islands that stretch a distance equivalent of that from Lisbon to Tehran.


5 responses to “Brief thoughts on Jakarta’s traffic

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