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Gridlocked Jakarta Becomes Even Worse, at Least for a Week

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Traffic during afternoon rush hour in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, last week. Credit Rony Zakaria for The New York Times

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Even on the best of days, it looks like an invasion, though a very slow one: Troops of motorbikes, like a disorganized cavalry, try to slice through enormous, honking lines of buses, trucks, private cars and taxis that are locked in a crawling war of attrition on sclerotic highways and roads.

The war zone extends to sidewalks, a convenient shortcut for impatient motorbike drivers, and pedestrians and food cart vendors disrupt the traffic flow even more by illegally crossing the thoroughfares.

The traffic tie-ups get especially hellish during the morning and evening rushes. That is true in most urban areas, but especially so in a city like Jakarta, which is at the center of a metropolitan area of 28 million people and whose population of 10 million swells by some three million every workday.

Asked to describe Jakarta’s traffic congestion in five words or fewer, Yoga Adiwinarto, the Indonesia director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, needed only two: “Simply unmanageable.”

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Employees at the Transportation Ministry using a drone to survey the congestion last week, when a temporary suspension of the city’s three-in-one car-pool system took effect. Credit Rony Zakaria for The New York Times

So commuters received an unpleasant surprise last week when Jakarta’s popular governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, temporarily suspended the capital’s three-in-one system, which prohibits private vehicles with fewer than three passengers from taking major roads around the city center during the morning and evening rush hours.

As expected, the lines of vehicles, which extend to the horizon, moved even more sluggishly than usual, and the Indonesian news media called the experiment Carmageddon.

“It’s out of control,” Brigadier Reza, a traffic officer who, like many Indonesians, has only one name, said at a checkpoint on Jalan Gatot Subroto, the main east-west artery through Jakarta. “All cars are coming into this area, which was specially designated for three-in-one,” he added.

About two miles to the north on Jalan Sudirman, the city’s main thoroughfare, Rudi Ginting was equally frustrated as he steered his open-air bus through Jakarta’s business district. Mr. Rudi, 53, who has been driving his route since 1985, said the additional vehicles had reduced the number of morning runs by a third, cutting into his earnings.

“It’s a lot different today,” he said, puffing on a cigarette between honks of his horn. “The number of cars exploded.”

In late March, Mr. Basuki announced the temporary suspension of the three-in-one policy, running a week from last Tuesday, amid questions about its effectiveness — but chiefly, he said, because it was contributing to the exploitation of children.

The restriction, which dates to the late 1990s, quickly spawned an industry of industrious car jockeys who stand alongside roads leading into the restricted thoroughfares, offering lone motorists extra passengers in return for money, usually about 15,000 rupiah (a little more than $1) and up to 25,000 rupiah, depending on the distance.

The jockeys, however, include boys and girls working alone, as well as mothers with infants.

In late March, the Jakarta police broke up a begging ring that enlisted children as panhandlers and rented out infants drugged with sedatives to adult beggars.

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Construction for a transit line in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is not expected to open before the end of the decade. Credit Rony Zakaria for The New York Times

Attention quickly focused on the car jockeys, given the number of children and infants who are passengers for hire.

“The problem is that the parents take advantage of the children so that they can make some money to buy cellphones or hang out in shopping malls,” Mr. Basuki told journalists late last month as he announced his plan. “That is not right.”

Yet transportation experts blame the city’s administration and police force for not cracking down on the jockeys, who number in the thousands and have undermined the three-in-one system’s effectiveness. An average jockey can earn the equivalent of $10 to $15 a day on weekdays, far more than the $2 a day or less that 100 million Indonesians live on.

The traffic patterns in Jakarta are a legacy of the 1960s, when Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, dismantled the Dutch colonial-era trolley system and paved over the tracks with asphalt.

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Afternoon rush hour in Jakarta. More than 10 million motor vehicles roam the city each workday, even though roads and highways constitute less than 10 percent of its total land area. Credit Rony Zakaria for The New York Times

The city then made a rapid advance southward, sucking in villages with dirt roads and rice paddies. Within a generation, some of those rural hamlets had been transformed into a new city center lined with soaring office towers.

More than 10 million motor vehicles roam Jakarta each workday, even though roads and highways constitute less than 10 percent of its total land area, which analysts say is far from adequate.

“The pressure of development was so great, but the planning instruments that existed didn’t support that,” said Mohammad Danisworo of the Center for Urban Design Studies in Bandung, West Java Province, who was an adviser to five Jakarta governors.

“City planning could never face that pressure,” he said. “It was done by trial and error.”

Jakarta is one of the world’s few major cities without a rapid-transportation system, and unlike, say, New York, which also began as a Dutch settlement, it does not have a street grid.

While a train line from Jalan Sudirman in the city center to South Jakarta is under construction, it is not expected to begin operating before the end of the decade. Mr. Basuki’s administration has proposed an electronic road-pricing system, similar to those in London and Singapore, but does not have the legal authority to put it in place.

Mr. Basuki, who became the governor in 2014 when his predecessor, Joko Widodo, ascended to the presidency, said the traffic policies would be evaluated once the experiment ends on Tuesday.

Jimmy Kaadoan, a busker who performs on open-air buses, said he would support doing away with the three-in-one rule. “The jockeys are using kids,” he said. “The government has to come up with another solution.”

Mr. Rudi, the bus driver, hopes the government keeps the system and arrests “the jockeys and the owners of the cars who use them.”

Past attempts to crack down on the jockeys have failed, and calls by the city’s police to reduce the number of cars on the roads by using an odd-even system based on license plate numbers have been dismissed by local politicians fearing the wrath of voters.

All of this is of little comfort to Fitri Amailia, a 40-year-old agent with a building contractor whose normal commute to Jakarta from her home in Bogor, a bedroom community in West Java Province, by commuter train and bus takes her two and a half hours each way.

She said that trip took an additional 30 minutes last week because of the suspension of the high-occupancy vehicle rule.

“It’s the same either way — a mess,” she said. “There are too many private cars in Jakarta.”

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