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Going Nowhere Fast – Can Jakarta Learn from Bangkok?

Bangkok skytrain sunset
Bangkok skytrain sunset
Bangkok skytrain sunset
Bangkok skytrain sunset

Bangkok’s new international airport may look like the result of a kindergarten class having too much free time with the meccano but getting there and away is a breeze. A rail link connects with the centre of the city and from there access to the inner city mass transit systems that have been developed over recent years. If the train is too inconvenient then a multi-lane highway connects the airport with the myriad of toll roads and freeways that have been built over the last couple of decades and have contributed to getting round the city that much easier.

Jakarta’s airport on the other hand is connected to the city centre by a single toll road. And flooding a couple of years back forced its closure leading to a later widening.

Why is it that two capital cities in a booming part of the world should have taken two drastically different approaches to solving traffic gridlock? Thailand through a programme of road building, mass transport networks while Jakarta has done, umm, next to nothing.

There is no simple answer that can explain Jakarta’s malaise. Instead we need to consider a number of factors, some manmade, others not that have contributed to those delays that are a familiar, and a loathed part of our daily life.

Thailand benefited from the Vietnam War for a start. With war on its doorstep and military doctrine of the era suggesting if Vietnam and Laos fell Thailand would be next,  the military government, with the support of the US, set up a number of air bases round the country, especially in the east near the Laos border. The air bases needed supplies and while much could of course be flown in, that was expensive and diverted resources from their primary purpose of bombing Vietnam and Laos. With the eager support of provincial leaders, who often had stakes in construction companies, roads started to fan out across the country. Not single lanes like we are used to in and around Jakarta but two, three-lane highways.

Many political dynasties that hold sway now in Thailand started their road to riches and power thanks to US largesse. And they enjoyed it. They noticed how much money could be made in making new roads and they identified further opportunity for profit by providing services along the new highways. Thailand at that time may have been a military dictatorship but in the centre needed the regions’ support and anyway there was enough money and contracts to go round to keep a good many people sated at the trough.

Skytrain Bangkok
Skytrain Bangkok

While Thailand was busy building roads, Indonesia was chaffing under a dictatorship. There was little power in the regions and everyone owed their position and power to the centre. As a result the regions were neglected as people jockeyed for power and influence at the royal court where the real decisions were made. What toll roads that were built were perfunctory and owed much to closeness to the source of power.

During the 1980s Thailand’s economic boom continued and the growing middle class, based in Bangkok, started flexing their muscles. Politicians knew that they were voted in to power by the rural electorate, often under the patronage of those provincial leaders who had gotten powerful and rich, but they knew at the same time it was the Bangkok urbanites who would kick them out. It was necessary to pander to that electorate and they did that by doing the one thing everyone in Bangkok cared about. The traffic.

One businessman starting out in politics promised everyone he would solve Bangkok’s traffic woes in a few months of taking power. One of his ideas at the time was to use helicopters to remove broken down vehicles from elevated roads so the traffic could run smoother. He got in to power, talked about the traffic, called in no helicopters and later became the first prime minister in Thai history to serve his full term. His name? Thaksin Shinawatra.

Of course it also helped that infrastructure development meant loads of kickbacks so it was a win win for everyone. Elevated toll roads soon covered much of the city while flyovers were built at notorious bottlenecks. The traffic was still bad, stories about drivers carrying portable containers to pee in went round the world, but something was being done and the concrete pylons and large gangs of workmen testified to the fact.

In the mid 1990s Bangkok started work on its first mass transit systems. There were three that had finally, painfully, got the go ahead. Commuters looked on in awe as concrete supports added to the urban landscape. Wow, they thought, this is actually going to happen. Many had been to places like Hong Kong and Singapore, but not many expected their own city would actually have their own rail networks.

They nearly didn’t. The Asian financial crisis hit in 1997 and work stopped as money fled elsewhere. It’s fair to Indonesia, who felt the impact of the crisis more keenly than its northern neighbour, took a lot longer to recover. Bangkok’s first elevated railway was open less than two and a half years after the financial meltdown and work was continuing on the underground railway.

Jakarta Traffic jam
Jakarta Traffic Jam

Jakarta meanwhile is stuck with a ring road that doesn’t ring the city. The Jakarta Outer Ring Road is yet to connect Pondok Ranji with Kebun Jeruk and the slip road that was initially built in the halcyon days of the mid 1990s has been reclaimed by nature. Planned work on completing the link has been held up by land ownership issues; the single biggest obstacle to infrastructure development the country faces.

By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century Bangkok boasted an underground railway, an overhead railway, a new airport and a road network that reached out to the suburbs where the newly rich had flocked.  Jakarta was still muddling along with an infrastructure that was creaking before the crisis hit. The city had been continuingly growing but nothing was being done to handle the increased traffic; both vehicular and personal. Two new elevated roads currently being constructed are 20 years too late and it is unclear whether any further projects are on the table.

There still remains talk of an elevated railway. Pylons were stuck in the ground for one attempt but they are now used to advertise the services of clowns and nannies while offering graffiti artists a chance to showcase their work. There is a plan to start work on another network sometime soon but no one is holding their breath.

The Thais have been there, done that. Work on one rail line was halted during the financial crisis but is humming along nicely while the remains of another straddle the main railway line heading north; a grim reminder of the early 1990s when investors believed everything in Thailand would turn to gold.

The financial crisis is now just a memory in Thailand. The traffic flows much better than it has ever done with a number of public transport options available for the people to use. The city has got richer as well. There are less people using motorcycles on the road now than there used to be, meaning driving round Bangkok is now less a trip into a local asteroid field.

Any talk of infrastructure must talk about corruption. Large sums of money and the public purse is a sure sign avarice will soon enter the equation. But the Thai system, with its powerful provincial barons ensured that money still spilled round the regions. Indonesia, during a crucial time in its development, was to all intents and purposes a feudal family firm that literally saw the money go down the plughole.

I first visited Bangkok and Jakarta some 25 years ago and have since been lucky enough to have lived in both for about 18 years. The changes in Bangkok in the last decade alone forced me to buy a street atlas on my last visit. For Jakarta however, if I still had my lonely plant guide book from a quarter of a century back as I would find that not much has changed.

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