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Indonesians cope with infuriating traffic and inefficient public transit


JAKARTA, Indonesia » For someone with dropping blood-sugar levels and in the early stages of dehydration, Eva Roma was rather stoic as she began her one-and-a-half-hour commute home from her office in central Jakarta.

Her journey started with an hourlong ride on a standing-room-only public bus, followed by 25 minutes in a minivan, and finally a five-minute walk to her house in the far southern confines of this Indonesian capital.

Once there, Roma, 33, a Muslim who works as a secretary at a financial services company, planned to buka puasa – break her fast in observance of the holy month of Ramadan. Getting to work the next morning would be even worse, since that trip usually takes two hours.

The daily commute, especially while refraining from eating or drinking all day, takes a toll, Roma said. But she has long since become inured to the physical realities of commuting in Jakarta, where horrific traffic and an inefficient public transportation system condemn many people to sitting in cars, buses and minivans or on motorcycles for four hours a day or longer, year-round.

"I’m stressed by it," she said, "but since the government hasn’t done anything about it, we just have to deal with it."

Jakarta, with a greater metropolitan area populated by 28 million people, remains one of the world’s few major cities without a rapid-transit system, despite plans dating to the 1980s. The closest substitute, the TransJakarta Busway, carries fewer than 400,000 people a day. And a dedicated bus lane during peak hours, when the roads are clogged, does not help, as cars, motorcycles and even government, police and military vehicles illegally drive over the tiny concrete barriers that are supposed to block it off, further delaying the buses.

It is no wonder, then, that 9.9 million cars, motorcycles, trucks and other vehicles take to the capital’s streets each workday, according to the Jakarta Transportation Agency, nearly 2 million of them from neighboring municipalities in the provinces of West Java and Banten.

But help may finally be on the way. Jakarta, the Indonesian government and consortiums of private investors are pouring $4 billion into public transportation infrastructure projects scheduled to start between October and 2015. They include the first stage of a subway and aboveground rail system linking south and central Jakarta; two monorail projects; an express train to the airport from central Jakarta; and an elevated train circling the outskirts of central Jakarta that would connect to existing provincial commuter rail lines west, south and east of the city.

"There is always light at the end of the tunnel, and the tunnel is getting bigger," Bambang Susantono, Indonesia’s deputy minister of transportation, said in an interview. "With the improvement in the economy in Indonesia, we have the space to undertake these projects."

The political will is also there. For decades, the Indonesian government ignored transportation as a policy priority, but this changed after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004, said Milatia Kusuma Mu’min, head of communications for the Indonesian Transportation Society, an advocacy group. In addition, decentralization has enabled local leaders like Joko Widodo, Jakarta’s governor, to exercise more authority in pursuing public works projects, Mu’min said.

But with the first rapid-transit rail lines not scheduled to start operating for at least four years, and greater prosperity only adding to the numbers of cars and motorcycles on the roads, transportation experts warn that in the near term congestion is likely to worsen.

That prospect brings both hope and despair to Jakarta commuters and motorists.

"I think the Jakarta government can do something about it," Roma said as she squeezed her way onto a packed TransJakarta bus for her trip home. "I have hope."

Simon Hendiwan, 32, an office manager in central Jakarta, does not agree. Unwilling to deal with long lines and the stifling heat of commuter trains, he instead drives his Toyota Kijang Innova van to work each morning from this city’s eastern suburbs. It takes him 90 minutes to cover the nine miles.

"For Jakarta, there is no way out for the next five years, unless the government hurries up," he said while filling up at a gas station before his commute home amid the late-afternoon Ramadan rush.

Ramadan only magnifies Jakarta’s traffic woes. About 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslim, and during the holy month workers are allowed to leave their jobs early to meet friends and family to break their daytime fast.

This means that millions hit the streets around 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Central Jakarta has resembled a parking lot each afternoon since Ramadan began on July 10. The daily scenes on Jalan Sudirman, the main north-south thoroughfare, include obscene gestures; near collisions as privately run buses cram into seemingly impossible gaps; and earsplitting honking that enrages traffic police officers as they try to keep things moving.

And then there is the monsoon season, in which heavy downpours have washed out the toll road to the international airport and left motorists sitting for hours.

Commuting times could be significantly shortened by keeping the TransJakarta bus lane clear of unauthorized vehicles. The same afternoon that Roma was trying to get home, the lane was so packed with cars that public buses were crawling along no faster than the bumper-to-bumper traffic in adjoining lanes.

As if to prove the point, Dian Anggraini, a 29-year-old door attendant on a TransJakarta bus, jumped off and scurried across the street to an ATM. Five minutes later, she got back on the bus, which had moved about 100 yards.

"Mostly, the problem is the traffic that comes into the bus lane – that’s what needs fixing," Anggraini said after resuming her post. "Many of our customers actually say it’s easier for them to just take TransJakarta rather than deal with the madness outside."

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