TOPICS > Health

Jakarta Gridlock Creates a Public Health Nightmare

BY Cat Wise and Ray Suarez  June 30, 2011 at 11:58 AM EST

Traffic in Jakarta. Photo by Cat Wise.

During our reporting trip to Indonesia, the NewsHour global health team quickly found out that if you are planning a busy day doing interviews in multiple locations around Jakarta…forget about it.  “Macet” is Indonesian for traffic jam.  It is a word, often expressed with a frustrated sigh, that one hears over and over again.

Gandi, a soft-spoken 37-year-old driver we hired, estimated that he spends five or six hours a day in his car, much of that time stuck in traffic. “It is very frustrating, but what can you do?” he said.   

Within minutes of leaving our downtown hotel, we immediately became ensnarled in a sea of honking cars and trucks, exhaust, and thousands of motorcycles weaving brazenly in and out of lanes.  Ray Suarez reflected on the role the motorcycle plays in this madness during our trip:

The motorcycle is a complicated phenomenon. It is cheap to buy and cheap to run. It is a workhorse, it brings unheard-of mobility to families that will never be able to own a car and aren’t served by reliable public transit. It means any one worker can look for economic opportunity in a wider range of places.

But the bikes are also dirty, noisy, and hamper the smooth flow of traffic. Unlike cars, motorbikes can penetrate the tiniest urban lanes and alleys bringing the traffic that used to be outside the packed compounds of smaller homes right to the front door.

Motorcycle drivers are often blamed for worsening the city’s already congested roads – but they are also often the victims of traffic accidents, which have become a big public health problem in Jakarta. 

The Jakarta Globe reports 1,000 people died in traffic accidents last year, according to metropolitan police, and many of those were motorcycle-related. 

Aryono Pusponegoro, who heads the Indonesian Surgeon Collegium, estimates the number is higher, around 1,600 people dying in road accidents in Jakarta each year and thousands more injured.  He has been leading efforts around the country to improve road safety and emergency care services.  Aryono calls traffic accidents a “silent disaster” in Indonesia.

“We are often bombarded by natural disasters here, but we don’t realize that we have so many people dying every day from traffic accidents,” he said.

According to Aryono, there are only four emergency ambulances in Jakarta for a population of 10 million people, and he says hospital emergency care is “almost nonexistent.”

“We don’t have a 911 system like in the U.S.,” he said.  “It is easier to call KFC and McDonalds for a delivery than to call an ambulance after an accident.  That is just crazy.  It’s like we are cheaper than chicken.”

There have been efforts to get a 118 emergency phone system working in Jakarta, but funding has been an issue.

The chances for people severely injured in Jakarta are grim:  50 percent of emergency cases die before reaching the hospital, and traffic accident victims take on average between 30 minutes to two hours to reach a hospital equipped to handle trauma patients.

Jakarta’s traffic problems highlight a growing problem of traffic accidents around the world. According to the World Health Organization, traffic injuries kill 1.3 million people annually, and some 50 million are injured.  By 2030, road deaths are predicted to jump to 2.4 million a year.  And most deaths, 90 percent, are occurring in low-and-middle income countries. 

As Ray Suarez observed on the trip, the problem is likely to get worse as cities across Asia, including Jakarta, struggle to find new ways to meet transportation needs:

As the cities themselves are more built out, adding rails or elevated transit lanes becomes close to impossible unless widespread condemnation is used to condemn property. Costs mount year after year that ground isn’t broken for new mass transit. Just the other day, we got a view of the commuter rail line in Jakarta. The train had no doors, with people packed just inside every entrance, and scores more clinging to the roof as the slow-moving line made its way into the capital city.

The global health unit’s series on Indonesia will air in July.

Read more from the global health unit in Indonesia:

Reporter’s Notebook: Indonesia’s Grand Goals, and Vulnerability

High Food Prices Hit Small Indonesian Town Hard

Reporter’s Notebook: Indonesia’s Mentally Ill, Caged and Bound

Indonesians Looking for Improvement at Home, Watching U.S. Closely