Jakarta’s Urban Nightmare

Indonesia's capital, where Obama spent some of his formative years, is a dark spot on the bright future of this hopeful nation.


JAKARTA — Even on an ordinary day, a commute down one of Jakarta’s major thoroughfares can feel like traveling a road to nowhere. In Indonesia’s bustling capital, traffic routinely sits at a standstill for hours — government statistics recently revealed that the average traveling speed is 5.2 miles per hour, the equivalent of a light jog. The gridlock has even spawned thriving cottage industries of vendors hawking food, drinks, and newspapers to disgruntled commuters.

The gridlock was orders of magnitude worse on  an extraordinary day — on Nov. 9, when U.S. President Barack Obama paid a visit to Jakarta, his boyhood home from ages 6 to 10. Indonesia’s homecoming king even reminisced about the rickshaws that used to line the streets when he lived there. "Now as president I can’t even see any traffic because they block all of the streets," he lamented. 

But it’s hard to imagine any of Jakarta’s current residents ever waxing nostalgic about the city’s traffic problem. The bulging metropolis that welcomed Obama has become one of the world’s most congested and dysfunctional urban areas — and a key test of whether humanity can overcome the challenges that will define the 21st century.

If Jakarta is a bellwether for the coming age of the megacity, humanity may be in trouble. The city’s infrastructure is cracking under the strain of its burgeoning population, resulting in a series of increasingly dangerous and costly problems. Jakarta is the poster child for unsustainable urban development, but the same problems bedevil cities such as Mumbai and Shanghai.

Jakarta officials have been caught unprepared by the rapid pace of the city’s expansion. The latest census data indicates that Indonesia’s capital is home to over 9.5 million inhabitants — exceeding the official 2025 population prediction of 9.3 million made by the government’s Central Statistics Agency in 2005 — and has a population density of 14,476 people per square kilometer, one of the world’s highest. And that’s just the city’s core — metropolitan Jakarta contains a total of 24 million people.

Simply put, Jakartans are buying new vehicles faster than the city can construct new roads. A study conducted this year by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s task force charged with reforming the city’s infrastructure found that 474 new cars and 2,946 motorbikes join the Jakarta traffic jams each day, bringing the total to about 14.4 million cars and motorbikes.

The city, located on the northwest coast of Java, the central island on the Indonesian archipelago, is also increasingly threatened by Mother Nature. According to a report released this year by the Environment Ministry, 92 percent of the city’s land area is highly prone to flooding, while the remainder is mildly prone. The report also notes that more than half of the capital is highly susceptible to landslides and severe erosion, while only a paltry 2.74 percent of Jakarta’s land is free of erosion.

These risks are not merely hypothetical. In late October, severe flooding in the coastal city paralyzed major arteries and stranded millions of commuters in traffic jams that lasted until 11 p.m. Statistics released by the water resource maintenance unit of the Public Works Office suggest flooding in Jakarta has cost the government $1 billion annually, in addition to the city’s allocated budget of $1.5 billion to normalize river flows and $302.4 million for connecting drains in the last year alone.

Jakarta’s population has spread unchecked into flood-prone areas, which has only exacerbated the problem. Overdevelopment of high-rise complexes — areas of high population density that demand a correspondingly large amount of groundwater  — have further contributed to erosion. As a result, Jakarta is literally in a rut: The city has sunk 12 centimeters a year since 2007, making the Indonesian capital ever more susceptible to rising sea levels.

These hazards have convinced government officials to consider radical solutions. Velix Wanggai, an advisor to the president, has reignited a debate about whether Indonesia should shift the capital to another one of the country’s major cities to alleviate the pressures on Jakarta. Jonggol, located 50 kilometers southeast of Jakarta, was first touted as a potential administrative capital by then President Suharto, but the island of Java, on which both Jakarta and Jonggol are located, is problematic because of its high population density and its susceptibility to natural disasters. A more radical solution would be to move the capital to Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan province, which has a core population of 165,856 and a population density of 12.5 people per square kilometer. It is situated in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, which might encourage a less Java-centric approach to development.

The government has also touted vague plans to develop other areas of the country through fiscal decentralization programs in order to encourage residents not to relocate to the already overburdened urban centers. The plans would devolve responsibility for taxation and spending, which is now largely conducted by the federal government, to regional administration.

In 2008, President Yudhoyono emphasized the importance of fiscal decentralization in "generating faster national economic growth and…ameliorat[ing] the people’s comprehensive and sustainable well-being." In April, he echoed this sentiment in his keynote speech to the sixth assembly for the World Movement of Democracy, where he stated the need for an "ambitious decentralization program."

Such plans raise hopes that Jakarta can get out of its current jam. But history is not on its side: The Indonesian government’s promises of reform tend to be nothing more than hollow rhetoric. For example, plans to implement a carbon tax, eliminate energy subsidies by 2014, and raise electricity prices have recently been shelved by the federal government. The same officials who are responsible for Indonesia’s traffic and flooding woes can hardly be expected to mastermind a relocation of the country’s center of power.

And let there be no doubt, Jakarta’s ecological woes are largely man-made. Part of the problem is bureaucratic buck-passing: Jakarta’s governor attributed the recent flooding to unprecedented levels of rain — a statement undercut by the head of the Public Works Office, who pointed out that only 20 percent of Jakarta’s drains were in working order, while the other 80 percent were severely clogged due to a poorly coordinated waste management system that led households and street vendors to dispose their trash in the city’s waterways. The federal government is also working at cross purposes: It devotes just 8 percent of its total spending on public works, a figure dwarfed by the 13 percent devoted to fuel subsidies, which only encourage more people to drive. Today, Jakarta is the world’s largest metropolis without a rail system.

As a burgeoning economic force and G-20 member, Indonesia is eager to boost its international profile, and a meet and greet with Obama is certainly a step in the right direction. But the capital’s shambolic state is not only a blight on Indonesia’s remarkable political and economic progress since the Suharto era, but a telling indication of the obstacles that will impede its continued rise.

As Jakarta’s officials attempt to wow Obama with their ambitious plans for reform, the U.S. president should take their lofty designs with a grain of salt; it is the government’s proclivity for kowtowing to vested interests, after all, that has resulted in the capital’s current dismal state. By seizing upon his unique standing in the country, Obama should try to convince the Indonesian government to work with the United States to adopt policies that support sustainable growth. Such a partnership would not only earn the gratitude of Jakarta’s beleaguered commuters — it would chart a path forward for Asia’s other megacities that are struggling to manage the unintended consequences of their rapid growth.

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