Cities in Flux: Pilgrimage in Jakarta Stifles Movement Once a Year
Migrants, motorbikes and personal cars crowd Jakarta's streets during Lebaran. Photo by Rezan.

Migrants, motorbikes and personal cars crowd Jakarta's streets during Lebaran. Photo by Rezan.

This is part of TheCityFix’s series, “Cities in Flux,” about demographic shifts as a result of development, immigration, migration, politics and the environment. We look at how city planning and transportation policies respond to this movement.

Last year, nearly 30 million people in Indonesia participated in a yearly massive migration for the end of Ramadan holiday to seek forgiveness and renewal. The designated national holiday, a time known as Lebaran or Idul Fitri, is one of the most important in the country, when Indonesians visit family and friends. But this type of religious pilgrimage is generally at odds with urban mobility. Indeed, these mass migrations present enormous logistical and safety challenges to local, state and national governments.

The phenomenon is particularly acute in Southeast and South Asian cities, where extremely high rates of economic and population growth are concentrated in major cities, such as Mumbai, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Karachi and Colombo. This makes the practice of religious worship synonymous with immobility. Transport systems are designed ideally to handle maximum capacity, but very few can deal with an additional yearly surge in migrants. Indonesia, a country of 240 million people, faces a huge yearly challenge.

The world over, people move en masse for religious worship, but for Indonesia, the nation with the most Muslims, this important holiday has become a nightmare, as millions of city dwellers attempt to return to their villages but face limited transport options.

LEAVING THE CITY

Many of the recent transplants to Jakarta have roots in the Indonesian countryside. During mudik, or “going home,” “travelers brave enormous jams, exhaustion and bandits to make it back home,” writes The New York Times. “Hundreds perish on the road each year.”

One Indonesian describes the larger social and demographic issues in the country: “There’s no balance between cities and rural areas, no balance between rich and poor. That’s why mudik keeps getting bigger every year.”

Similar to city-to-rural migration in China for the Spring Festival, the annual Muslim holiday in Indonesia is also a way to reinforce social ties and bring money from the city to the countryside. But given the growth of a city like Jakarta, it seems impossible for cities to deal with these mega-events.

John Ernst, the vice director of Southeast Asia for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, whose work with ITDP has centered on TransJakarta, a bus rapid transit system of 10 lines that provides service to several intercity bus stations,  shared some information on the government response to the holiday via email:

“It is virtually impossible to work on other issues with the Jakarta transport agency for the weeks ahead of Lebaran [the informal name of Eid al-Fitr] as they make a very intensive effort. I think every bus in Indonesia that can still run is on the road that week.  Likewise, the agencies that deal with the passenger ships and trains are trying to maximize their capacity.”

The strain on the country’s infrastructure is so massive that the central government enacted major funding and development initiatives to deal with the surge in people. Last year, the Public Works Ministry worked to repair and ready 11,000 kilometers of roads in advance of the holiday migration.

But the problem is more deeply rooted. The growth of  massive cities at the expense of the environment and rural regions ensures such mobility challenges will continue. “This leads to ever more growth as the capital is the only path available for those who want to increase their earnings,”  Ernst says.

Photo by prawnpie.

Motorcycles are an affordable and convenient but often dangerous mode of transit. Photo by prawnpie.

MOTORCYCLE MADNESS

Another massive barrier to mobility that poses a huge challenge during the holiday is the increase in the ownership of personal motorcycles. This month, the rate of motorcycle ownership increased by 32 percent compared to last year. Overall, the rate exploded by 1,000 percent since 1999. The vehicles are not just a symbol of material success, but they are also a cheap way for working class migrants to return home.  Motorcycles are useful in Indonesia, Ernst explains, because they go relatively faster through the heavily congested roads leaving the city.  “This is more attractive than sitting for hours in a bus stuck in traffic…even though the remainder of the trip might be very long and unsafe,” he says.

Approximately 1.6 million people traveled from Jakarta on motorcycles for the mudik. Not only are the vehicles contributing to traffic, but they are also dangerous. “Around 75 percent of accident victims are motorcyclists,” says National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Iskandar Hasan in The Jakarta Globe. Road fatalities are one of the leading causes of death in Indonesia, according the World Health Organization. In general, 28,000 people die each year on the roads of Indonesia. In 2009, during the mudik alone, about 700 people died, and the number of fatalities was even higher the year before.

“[Indonesians] tend to speed or overload their motorcycles, which are already the most vulnerable means of transportation,” according to The Jakarta Globe. “Many accidents were caused by sleepy or fatigued drivers.”

GETTING HOME SAFELY

Even with efforts to improve safety for motorcycle drivers and offer public transportation, travel during the pilgrimage is a huge challenge. “From a policy perspective, it is difficult for any country to build infrastructure to handle an annual peak flow like this, just like it is difficult to build to handle daily peaks, but magnified considerably in this case,” Ernst says.

He likens the issues to other mega-events. “Lately, large sporting events have been a political incentive for cities to improve their mass transit,” he says. “BRT has especially benefited from this, since it can be built during the roughly two-year time span that event planning typically provides.”

These annual pilgrimages are a vital part of culture in Indonesia and indeed in countries around the world. How can governments ensure that people can travel safely and efficiently even during peak periods?

In Jakarta, there are 9 million motorbikes, 3 million cars and 63,000 public transportation vehicles. For now, people  get where they need to go mostly via motorbike, even as the city grows. Political priorities are focused on upgrading transportation infrastructure within the city – there’s limited focus on intercity transport and travel from urban areas to rural destinations. There are also fewer mechanisms to ensure coordination across different municipal agencies in different regions.

The first year of TransJakarta, the first full BRT system in the country, “was viewed by many as the saving grace for the streets,” according to ITDP. Can there be something comparable to move urban dwellers to rural areas to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people who need a safe and efficient connection to get home during the holidays?

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