The Future of Jakarta: Urbanization Reaches a Breaking Point

The capital of Indonesia is the world's largest city without a subway. And that's not the big problem.


Since 2000, the world’s second-largest megacity, Jakarta, has seen its population swell by a staggering 34 percent. Though the city proper is home to just 10 million, the urban zone is home to 30 million and experts expect another seven million to migrate to the city over the next 15 years. Although Jakarta is translating its newfound growth into economic growth, density has a downside. The infrastructure simply isn’t in place to handle this much traffic. Also, the flooding is getting worse.

Deemed the world’s most congested city by its hometown newspaper, Jakarta’s traffic is a disaster. Drivers stop an average of 91 times per day. Public transit only serves 56 percent of trips made by commuters. The city is a parking lot.

Deden Rukmana, professor of urban studies and planning at Savannah State University in Georgia. who has studied and written extensively about what kinds of challenges Jakarta will be dealing with in the next several decades, thinks Jakarta needs to start taking cues from cities like New York or Beijing, and build an extensive subway train system that can get commuters to and from places faster and more efficiently. “Jakarta is the largest urban metropolitan area in the world without a metro,” he says. “And a metro is the most crucial element of transportation for a megacity. There’s no way it can exist otherwise.”

MRT Jakarta tunnel progress on Senayan

Wikimedia Commons

And to the government’s credit, it’s already starting to roll out some plans. Construction on the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) — a rail-based transit system that will stretch 67 miles and connect communities to the central district of the city — will finish in 2017. Unfortunately, that only comprises two lines — one running north to south, and one running west to east. The city, according to Rukmana, should have begun building this 10 years ago so that it could be expanding the system now.

Paradoxically, the growing economy which has given life to a rising middle class is also hurting efforts to make public transportation more popular. Rukmana explains that middle class citizens are resistant to buses and trains, largely because cars and motorcycles are status symbols. Not having enough riders means a stagnation in much-needed expansion. “Public transit is not attractive for the middle and upper class,” Rukmana says. “So the streets are flooded with cars and motorcycles.” It doesn’t help that some of the government’s other transportation plans include projects like toll roads, which do nothing to really reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Gloomier than Jakarta’s traffic conditions, however, is its problem with flooding. Jakarta, with 40 percent of the city already sitting below sea level, is sinking into the ground at an average of three inches every year. The causes of increased flooding can be traced to a whole slew of factors, including increased sea levels due to climate change, land subsidies that lead to increased groundwater extraction, dwindling resources in water catchment areas, and poor water management on the part of the government. “With this new administration, I see that there’s progress being made,” says Rukmana. But still, they have a lot of work they need to do.”

A drowned taxi during a 2007 flood.

Flickr user gajah mada

The solutions so far haven’t helped much. Several different canals that run through the region have helped mitigate flooding during storm events, and the government conducts dredging all the time. But these won’t help in the long term.

So Jakarta has greenlighted a more audacious project: a $40 billion wall that will sit off the coast and come out to 25 miles long and 80 feet high. The project, which will take 30 years to complete, will also create 17 artificial islands rife for developers to build luxury homes, corporate offices, and high-end malls.

It’s also not a great idea. Nevermind the fact that we haven’t really perfected the art of building artificial islands — the wall itself could be disastrous the environment and biodiversity that surrounds the city.

More importantly, the wall doesn’t really solve the underlying issues that are causing increased flooding — namely groundwater extraction. Rukmana thinks much of this stems from the government’s inability to work with residents living in flood-prone areas and come up with long-lasting solutions. “If you’re not working with them, and educating and empower the people living by the riverbanks, whatever you do to reduce the floods won’t work,” he says.

Looking at a Jakarta through a broader lens, problems like traffic and flooding are really just the consequences of uncontrolled urbanization. Jakarta, as Rukmana likes to remind people, was really meant to house about 500,000 — not 10 million. To really resolve traffic, flooding, and other challenges, “you have to develop other cities as a counter magnet to Jakarta,” he explains. “If you ask me what are the roots of problems like flooding and traffic, my answer is rapid urbanization.”

The key, then, isn’t to improve Jakarta and transform its infrastructure so that it can accomplish the insane task of keeping 30 million people glued together. Instead, Indonesia needs to invest in other urban areas and ease the pressure off the capital city. Plenty of other countries are investing heavily into planned cities — Indonesia ought to start doing the same.

Otherwise, it won’t matter how many lines the city’s metro system has, or how big its sea walls are.

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