a photo of a crowd of motorbikes in Jakarta
Motorbikes make up a big part of Jakarta’s world-leading traffic congestion. REZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Traffic, smog, and lack of sidewalks make the Indonesian megacity hard on pedestrians. But foot-friendly infrastructure is finally coming.

Jakarta isn’t exactly a friendly place for pedestrians. The Indonesian megacity of 10 million is low on parks, sidewalks, and crosswalks: the narrow road shoulders that are available for ambulation are riddled with tree roots and open sewer covers; food carts, parked vehicles, and aggressive drivers butt into these contested walkways at will. Crossing the street involves raising a prayerful hand against a roaring gush of motorcycles, taxis, and tuk-tuks, and just striding into the right of way, in the hope that the vehicles will slow down.

The Indonesian capital is crippled by some of the worst traffic in the world, according to a few global indexes. And, based on my brief visit to Jakarta last week, that seems like a convincing ranking. Indonesian President Joko Widodo said earlier this year that the urban region’s notorious congestion drains the national economy $4 billion, annually, in wasted gas, health problems, and gaps in productivity.

Which is why, as Indonesia’s economy and population grows, conditions for walkers in its largest city are beginning to get better. Over the last five years, the provincial government in charge of the city has been investing in pedestrian facilities, ramping up efforts ahead of Jakarta’s turn as host of the 2018 Asian Games. Over the last year, seven kilometers of sidewalks in Central Jakarta have been rebuilt, and are now stretched 10 to 12 meters wide and equipped with modern amenities like curb cuts and tactile paving for the blind. Four pedestrian bridges in the same area are also being rebuilt to carry foot traffic safely across a major six-lane artery, and one with an Instagram-friendly design is already complete.

And Jakarta’s public transit services are getting a few new supplements. A light rail system is on the way, and a brand-new “MRT” subway circuit opened this year in the central business district, where the pedestrian improvements are also most robust. That work continues apace: The 2019 budget of the capital city allocated $33.3 million to renovate sidewalks in the downtown core. Over time, the government’s goal is to clear space for pedestrians on 2,600 kilometers of Jakarta’s nearly 7,000 kilometers of surface streets. Currently, only six percent have sidewalks.

“The movement to build more sidewalks in Jakarta is gaining momentum,” Governor Anies Baswedan told local media in January. “Let’s use our legs more to commute because it’s the ‘means of transportation’ that most of us already have.”

Encouraging commuters to abandon their cars will require more than wider walkways and rail lines, though. Even outside the “Big Durian” (Jakarta’s nickname and a play on the “Big Apple”), Indonesians aren’t huge walkers: A 2017 study of global activity by researchers at Stanford University found that the citizens of the world’s fourth-most populous country averaged just 3,513 steps per day—the lowest amount among 46 countries and territories.

And with on-demand rides via taxi and motorbike now available, thanks to the massive popularity of ride-hailing apps Grab and GoJek, “motorbikes are now the people’s choice,” said Alfred Sitorus, the co-founder of the Pedestrian Coalition, a local advocacy group that agitates to create more people-friendly streetscapes. Residents of Jakarta are known to use cars, buses, and motorcycles to travel as little as 300 meters, or less than .2 miles, he said.

No place for a stroll: Traffic and air quality can make pedestrians in Jakarta miserable. Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

It’s not hard to understand why. Along with the hot, humid climate, poor air quality—thanks in part to these vast fleets of highly polluting gas-powered bikes, trikes, and other conveyances—can make walking (let alone biking) a health risk. Jakarta is widely assessed as the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, and it’s common to see locals sporting face masks on their afternoon commutes. According to the real-time air quality tracking service IQAirVisual, on July 30, the city’s levels of PM2.5 (fine air particles that can harm respiratory and cardiovascular systems when inhaled) measured 92.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air; in contrast, the same pollutant in New York City registered at a level of 18.5. Jakarta topped the list of the world cities with the worst air quality several times in June, outranking even the notoriously smoggy Delhi and Beijing.

Although Jakarta’s provincial leaders have taken a few steps to track and regulate pollution, air quality monitors are still few and far between, and data is inconstant, said Fajri Fadhillah, a legal researcher at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law. Not only does the air quality discourage people from walking, a lack of reliable statistics also hinders the government from setting clear objectives on its transportation policies.

“How much air pollution can be reduced by revitalizing the pedestrian walkways? What would be the contribution from passing better fuel quality standards?” asked Fadhillah. “It’s hard to answer these questions without good information about air pollution.”

Earlier this month, a group of 30 plaintiffs, including activists, environmentalists, civil workers, artists, and businesspeople, filed a civil lawsuit to force local governments to take stronger action on air pollution.

Adding to Jakarta’s epic transportation challenges, it has a more immediate problem: It is sinking. In a city where only a third of residents have access to piped water, illegal well-digging has caused layers of soil to wash away. About half the city now sits below sea level. And the aquifers that the growing population rely upon aren’t being replenished, due to more concrete and pavement covering the urbanized surface every year. Subsidence makes Jakarta all the more vulnerable to major floods, which sweep the city about once every ten years. Sea level rise, due to climate change, threatens to submerge parts of it more permanently.

Subsidence, plus the legendary traffic, are the main reasons President Widodo hopes to relocate Jakarta’s official “capital city” status, along with the offices of Indonesia’s central government, to another, less disaster-prone part of the country. What would that mean for Jakarta? According to Baswedan, the departure of the government wouldn’t do much to smooth out mobility problems: “Even if the central government administration is moved, traffic challenges will remain,” he said in May.

So will the plight of pedestrians, who stand at street corners awaiting a pause in the traffic that may never come. Block by block, sidewalks will have to keep blossoming.

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