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When driving down in street drives you up the wall

Publication Date : 17-11-2013


It is the corollary of modern urban life: Our hands spend more time on the steering wheel than holding our loved ones!

Anger, exasperation and irritation. Such is the mental state of most Jakartans stuck in a box on wheels.

They say that Jakarta’s traffic is a great equalizer between the luxury imported sedans and the motley chassis of some 14,000 three-wheeled bajaj.

But the only thing in common these days is a feeling of common frustration.

What has been written and said about the proverbial macet in a single rainy season would overfill the hefty pages of Les Misérables and War and Peace combined.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in its report, Study on Integrated Transportation Master Plan, said that if things continued unabated until 2020, the economic cost of macet would reach a staggering 65 trillion rupiah (US$5.6 billion) a year.

That’s equal to two-thirds of annual government subsidies for electricity, or a quarter of the fuel-subsidy allocation.

There is hope, no matter how faint the light at the end of the tunnel, or dim the glow of the tail lights of the car ahead of you in the drizzle.

At last the ground has been ceremonially broken for the MRT routes. The forerunner of an envisioned integrated public transportation system that will include monorail, commuter-rail lines, electronic road pricing and the revitalisation of public buses.

It is either a vision of hope materialized, or an atrophied monument to false promises as manifested in the decade-old pillars in Senayan and Kuningan that mark the abortive 2004 monorail project.

But even if these “if’s” became a “when”, it would be no panacea to our woes. At best, a tonic to the vexation that grips when entering our vehicles.

The Indonesian Transportation Community estimates public transportation users currently account for 14 percent of commuters. With an integrated system, that number could rise to 40 percent, still far below the ideal of 60 per cent.

But as automobile drivers what are we really complaining about? Are not our tribulations more vapid than those of other megalopolises?

Let us skip Third World conurbations like Mumbai, Dhaka or Kampala and compare more “hip” destinations.

China claims to have built 300,000 kilometres of roads throughout the country over the last five years, but Beijing is incessantly clogged with stop-start traffic.

Belgium, distinguished for providing us the sweet things in life — waffles, chocolate and the Smurfs — may be less savory for its commuters by having two cities — Brussels and Antwerp — as one of the world’s worst congestion sites, according to a report by Forbes earlier this year.

Citing the annual Traffic Scorecard by INRIX traffic and navigation service provider, it said US congestion was rising as drivers spent on average a full working week in traffic, with Los Angeles topping the American list.

It also determined that the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York was the most congested corridor in the US, with an average speed of just 13 mph (20.9 kph).

Perhaps then the most telling factor may not be the macet or congestion itself. What really seems to irk drivers is the behavior of other motorists.

The complete absence of decorum, with absolute indecency and blatant disrespect for traffic rules in Jakarta’s streets, rivals the chaotic mess of places like Lagos.

Minibuses that swerve and stop without regard, repugnant motorcyclists who have no notion of order and hawkers using pedestrian space as if it were their own private real estate make driving a hair-pulling malady.

Whether you are in Palmerah or Lebak Bulus in South Jakarta, the arteries are clogged simply because of idling minibuses.

Be it on a four- or two-lane highway, the space below an overpass becomes a tight bottleneck in the rain as inconsiderate motorcyclists jam underneath to find shelter.

Imagine the frustration that could be eased if these simple acts of negligence were prevented.

Data from the National Traffic Police show that last year 82 per cent of 94.2 million registered vehicles in the country are motorbikes.

In the city of Jakarta alone there already more than 2.5 million cars and 10 million motorbikes.

Motorcyclists are almost universally the target of expletives, with Metro Mini and angkot drivers coming a close second. They are the JR Ewing’s — the people “you love to hate” — of Jakarta’s streets

Congestion may push us close to the edge, but indiscipline and chaos coupled with poor road conditions — remember the deep pothole that contributed to the death of senior actor Sophan Sophiaan on his motorbike? — is what pushes us over.

Frustration is a contributing factor everywhere.

In Jakarta it is the angkot, in Lagos it is the yellow-painted danfo. Here we have colorblind motorists who disregard traffic lights and signs. In Seoul, it is not much different at intersections.

Two separate surveys by Reuters and finance website found New Yorkers ranked highest in terms of angry and frustrated drivers. This despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of residents take public transportation to work.

Governor Jokowi is optimistic when asked about the future: “Yes it will reduce [congestion], if not why build an MRT and monorail?”

But how confident can one be when the people who brutishly push their way into an elevator without waiting for those inside to step out first, are the same ones who fling their vehicles about on the streets?

What amount of infrastructure can cope as vehicles in Jakarta increase by 11 percent annually, a mind-blowing figure that approximates to 400 new cars and 2,900 motorbikes added to the streets daily, while development of new roads stagnates at 0.01 per cent?

Perhaps the most ridiculous solution might just be the easiest. As a colleague quipped responding to the opening analogy of this article: “Get an automatic transmission car and bring your loved one along with you, at least then you’ll have one hand free to hold them.”


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