This post originally appeared on Orphan Road. 

I’ve just returned from an Indonesian vacation.  My trip started and ended in Jakarta, and I had a chance to try out their transit system.  I love big cities.  I’ve visited many of them, and I had yet to find one I didn’t have some love for.  I hated Jakarta.

Jakarta is a city of 10 million people, with another 18 million in the metro area.  It’s an old city, but one that has grown very quickly in the past six decades.  Its transit system consists of buses, “bemos” (small private buses), taxis, tuk-tuks, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

First, a word about Jakarta in general.  In Jakarta, the car is king.  As a pedestrian you will find yourself walking on narrow (~3′, sometimes less), poorly maintained sidewalks.  These sidewalks have a dual function of being mostly-closed sewers, and the sidewalk forms the cover of these sewers.  Every curb cut the sidewalk abruptly drops half a foot, and rises again at the other end of the curb cut.  Many times per block you’ll come across a concrete manhole, which is often broken or missing.  As cars are king, crossing the street is a very dangerous activity – cars will not stop for you, even if you find one of the few crosswalks.  They may slow down slightly or swerve if you’re directly in front of them, but it’s best wait for an opening and run across the street.  Of course, there are far too many cars on the roads and a trip 1/3 of the way across town to dinner took over an hour.  The trip back also took over an hour.  If you need to go anywhere, bring a good book.

Now BRT.  Unlike Seattle’s new BRT system, Jakarta has real BRT – tall buses with multiple doors and few seats that dock at pre-paid fare stations, ride in exclusive lanes (often with concrete barriers, usually in the center of the road), have signal priority, and even have two operators – one to drive the bus and one to operate the doors.  BRT is often considered a cheap way of doing mass transit.  Whenever a light or heavy rail system appears on a ballot, expect to hear a call from the tax-averse to put in BRT instead.  They will tell you it’s just as good as rail, but cheaper.  They are wrong.

Notes about Jakarta’s BRT:

1. Being a car city, every road in Jakarta that can fit more than a lane or two of cars has become a highway.  BRT added exclusive lanes in the middle of some of these highways, complete with concrete barriers to keep the cars out.  This has also had the effect of taking pedestrian crossings from difficult to impossible.

2. Since the stations are in the center of the road, it is difficult as a pedestrian to enter and leave.  Some stations have pedestrian bridges, but these add two sets of stairs to your walk.  Others just have crosswalks.  This adds time and danger to your trip.

3. In order to keep buses moving fast, the stations are never really where they need to be.  They’re limited to where the big roads are, which aren’t always close to the interesting sights.

4. They are all over capacity.  This might not be true for a city of Seattle’s size.  But a city of 10M people needs real mass transit.  The stations were completely packed when I visited – in the late morning of a weekday.  The buses came every few seconds, but the ones going anywhere interesting were like sardine cans.  At one point our bus was so full that all of the handholds were taken and people relied on the squeezing force of their neighbors to remain upright.

5. Signal priority isn’t enough.  With buses being so frequent, at some point the signals need to cycle the cars through and make the buses wait.  This means in 90 degree weather with no air conditioning and far-beyond-capacity passengers, we waited at many intersections for several minutes, queued up behind other buses.  We certainly made it through the intersections faster than the cars, but grade separation would have made our trip much faster.

Our 5 mile, one transfer trip from our hotel to the long-distance bus station took well over an hour.  It was uncomfortable, slow, and difficult.  Although our hotel was in a tourist area we needed to take a taxi to get to the bus station.

Simalarly sized Delhi was just as much a 3rd world city in 1998 when they built their subway system. Now it’s easy to get around there and tickets start at $0.15. Jakarta backed the wrong technology.

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