Saturday 29 December 2012

Ease Jakarta's jams? The odds are poor

By John Mcbeth, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

WILDLY popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, known to his legions of fans as Jokowi, may have finally spoiled his copy book by moving to phase out the three-in-one traffic system that has allowed foreign residents and upper-crust residents alike to socialise with so many interesting, less privileged Jakartans.

Introduced in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce traffic snarls, the three-in-one regulation banned cars with fewer than three occupants from using several main downtown avenues during morning and evening rush hours.

In doing so, it spawned a whole new industry in which so-called "jockeys" - mostly people from adjoining low-income neighbourhoods - hire themselves out, for about 15,000 rupiah (S$1.90), to get around the restriction.

Mr Widodo wants to change all that, replacing the three-in- one with odd-even licence plate controls along routes used by the Transjakarta Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and over an expanded period - between 6am and 8pm on weekdays.

The plan is to restrict vehicles on certain streets on alternate days depending on whether their licence plates end in odd or even numbers. City managers hope it will eventually serve as a transition to electronic road pricing (ERP) - a giant step for Indonesian mankind that Mr Widodo hopes to preface with improvements to the BRT and inner-city railway services.

But is the odd-even licence plate system a good idea? Most traffic experts do not think so. They see it as what one called "shock therapy" - an effective expedient to show short-term results and pump up popularity.

And what about the poor and their reliance on the three-in-one as part of their daily income? Like many drivers, mine always makes a beeline for the cutest of the female jockeys who line the roadsides with an upraised (index) finger. The lone driver, of course, has to fork out enough for two ride-along passengers. But that is conveniently covered by a proliferation of mothers and their sling-held babies - a sort of two-for-one service.

The police usually turn a blind eye to what is just one of a whole host of illegal practices they turn a blind eye to, most of them contributing to the congealed traffic mess that has become part of everyday life in the City of Tough Love. Occasionally, when they need lunch money, they have been known to stop a car and ask the unwary jockey to tell them the name of the driver - or vice versa. Some motorists do actually take their household staff to make up the numbers.

There has already been much talk about how inventive Jakartans are going to bypass the new system.

Having more than one car in the garage is the obvious, but overly expensive, solution - certainly for middle-class families.

One of my few banker friends smugly told me he already has two cars carrying, as good fortune would have it, odd and even number plates. But what about the less affluent folk like me? "Who cares," he responded, rather callously I thought.

The other obvious "solution" is a new trade in fake licence plates, which can be held on by Velcro or a couple of bolts and are changed each morning according to whether it is an "odd" or "even" day.

The clever cops are already on to that one, saying they are planning to install cameras and sensors at the entry points to restricted zones.

But that will be costly. More to the point, how do they check all the cars during rush hour and how will they apprehend the owners?

The first use of the odd-even licence plate system, I'm informed, was the noy hola circula programme in Mexico City in the early 1990s, and aimed at pollution abatement rather than actual traffic control.

There have been many variants of the programme since. Beijing, for example, imposed it during the 2008 Olympics, taking 45 per cent of the city's five million cars off the streets and helping clear the air for the athletes.

Now it has a one-day-off rule, ensuring every car is off the road on one work day based on the last digit of the licence plate. But with jams as bad as ever, there are rumours it will re-apply the odd-even rule. The authorities are also using a lottery system to reduce car purchases.

Experience has shown the initial improvements that the odd-even policy brings soon fade and, in some cities, the situation has become even worse as households and businesses buy a second, smoke-belching car.

In Jakarta's case, it would almost certainly mean, horror of horrors, more motorcycles. Ten million already make Greater Jakarta their playground, outnumbering cars by a factor of four and dictating traffic flows.

The odd-even policy does work somewhat where it is applied to peak hours, such as in Bogota, Colombia, or to specific zones of a city, like Santiago, Chile. But again, it has its own challenges of enforcement and corruption, factors Jakartans know only too well.

Electronic pricing is usually recommended as part of a comprehensive city-wide strategy where providing a reliable and attractive public transport system - something Jakarta does not have - remains the centrepiece.

Traffic experts believe Mr Widodo would be better advised revisiting Singapore's Area Licensing Scheme (ALS) that began 40 years ago in the central business district and progressively evolved into today's ERP.

They say combining it with parking price controls would represent a serious commitment to tackling Jakarta's ever-growing traffic nightmare. That said, however, we return once again to the same old question: How effective and transparent would the enforcement of an ALS really be?

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