World’s Most Congested City Finally Shifts Gears

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Why you should care

The success or failure of the capital of Indonesia, Asia’s fifth-largest economy, will hold lessons for similar giant cities across the world. 

You could call Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, Los Angeles on steroids. More people, fewer roads and less public transit mean massive traffic. The metropolitan area is home to more than 20 million, and while it’s designed to hold only a fraction of that, the number is still growing. Overdevelopment has left it vulnerable to floods, and lacking sidewalks and green spaces. The city, a web of clogged roads, was ranked the most congested city in the world last year by Castrol’s Stop-Start index, which uses GPS satellites to track the number of times that vehicles need to stop. But now that might be changing.

After years of false starts, the city is ready to unveil a rail-based mass rapid transit (MRT) system that will eventually stretch across 67 miles of the metropolitan area and carry more than a million people daily. In October, Japan committed to funding $619 million for the second phase of the MRT, allowing construction to get underway. In late 2018, the city also launched a light rail (LRT) system to connect the city center to Jakarta’s suburbs, which is expected to cost $4 billion. The LRT is expected to help 12 million people each week avoid Jakarta’s congested streets. The city’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which launched in 2004 with just one line, is also expanding, with two new lines expected to open alongside the MRT and LRT.

Now, I have hope that it [Jakarta’s traffic transformation] might happen.

Raska Soemantoro, Jakarta resident and college student. 

The city’s planners and analysts are counting on these mega projects tying in with private sector initiatives that have taken off. The ride-hailing motorcycle taxi app GO-JEK, which launched in 2010, has been downloaded by more than 11 million people in the city. These motorcycle taxis, called ojeks, are able to weave through traffic jams or traverse roads and alleys too small for cars, making them a speedier way to get around the city. Collectively, these transport solutions are finally giving many people hope that Jakarta could be turning the corner on decades of misguided, unplanned development. If Jakarta’s strategy works, it could also serve as an example for similarly packed cities struggling with urban transport, from Dhaka to Lagos to Cairo. 

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Going nowhere fast in Jakarta traffic.

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“I am really excited for the project to be finished,” says Raska Soemantoro, a college student and native Jakarta resident, about the MRT and LRT projects. “I’ve been waiting for years and years for Jakarta to finally become a proper world-class city, and now, I have hope that it might happen.”


Before those dreams of a “world-class city” are realized, Jakarta needs these transport solutions simply to keep the capital of Asia’s fifth-largest economy — after China, Japan, India and South Korea — running, many experts argue. Traffic and congestion have huge costs, and Indonesia’s economy is burdened by these and other infrastructure shortcomings that reduce its attraction to investors.

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’Gojek’ drivers wait for passengers in Jakarta.

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“There is a direct effect on ease of doing business caused by issues such as power outages and traffic congestion in ports, roads and airports,” says Julian Smith, leader of the Capital Projects & Infrastructure advisory team at PricewaterhouseCoopers Indonesia. “Logistics costs are among the highest in the world, which makes it difficult to get goods to consumers and difficult to source goods in the country.”

Turning the congested, overpopulated city into one that is sustainable won’t be easy. But crises often spark innovation, and Jakarta has proven no different. Look no further than the GO-JEK app, or its principal competitor Grab, another popular ride-sharing app that counts Indonesia as its largest market. In theory, these ride-sharing services could serve as feeders complementing the planned mass transport systems for short distance trips, suggests Yoga Adiwinarto, the Indonesia country director for the New York-headquartered Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP). But at the moment, there is no plan to integrate fares or payment systems across even the multiple mass transport systems — the MRT, LRT and BRT, much less among smaller offerings. Connections between the MRT and the BRT are non-existent, meaning people will have to cross busy streets to transfer between modes.

“There will be a major problem when passengers want to shift modes,” says Adiwinarto. “[I] don’t yet see any plan or commitment and government or transit management companies to integrate modes.”

To make its efforts at fixing transport woes really effective, Jakarta needs to go one step further and synchronize the soon-to-be-unveiled mass transport systems with the ride-sharing apps that are widely used at present, suggests Adiwinarto. “We need more integration between public transit and ojeks,” he says.

Walkability is another major challenge. Outside of a few main arteries, Jakarta lacks sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses. Don’t bother thinking about bike lanes. The very same ojeks that are at one level a part of the solution to Jakarta’s traffic crisis can also be part of the problem: They often jump onto sidewalks, making them too dangerous for pedestrians.

But if Jakarta is to realize dreams of emerging as a global investment hub — a vision its mayor has repeatedly articulated — it doesn’t have an option other than betting on a hodgepodge of mass transport efforts and ride-sharing apps. “Jakarta’s gridlocked streets are the biggest headache” for the city’s population, many of whom are “stranded for hours in buses, cars and motorcycles each day,” says Julius Galih, a writer based in Jakarta.

(The first trial run of the Light Rail Transport system in Jakarta in June 2018.) 

The scale of Jakarta’s challenge is also why its success or failure will be watched closely by urban transportation experts and by cities with similar challenges across Asia and beyond. If the city with the world’s worst traffic can do it, a fix is possible anywhere. 

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