Tue, 11 Apr 2000

Jakarta's busing woes

Millions of Jakarta commuters drew a sigh of relief yesterday when the threatened transportation strike by Organda, the Organization of Land Transportation Company Owners, did not materialize -- or at least not as fully as many had expected and feared.

Though the number of vehicles on which a large majority of the city's population depend for daily transportation to and from work or school was noticeably less than on normal weekdays, no serious problems occurred.

For one thing, it seems bus company owners and crews were not fully in accord about how to go about pressuring the authorities into agreeing to the long needed fare hikes without doing too much harm to the public's interests. While reasonable fare hikes are incontestably needed to enable bus companies to survive economically, many crew members seemed to fear that a strike would result not only in a loss of income, but a possible violent backlash from protesting commuters as well.

But even though chaos was averted this time, the public as well as the authorities are well advised to keep in mind that the problem of public transportation in the capital city is far from over. Indeed, unless urgent and effective steps are taken to put the public transportation system in order, a similar threat in the not too distant future is likely to occur.

Unfortunately, bringing order to Jakarta's public transportation system is something that is much easier said than done.

On the one side, owners of the private companies that operate more than 8,000 buses and minibuses have long complained that it is impossible for them to properly maintain, much less renew, their aging fleets under the fares currently sanctioned by the administration.

On the other side, those who most depend on the system's services are low-paid wage earners, traders and students for whom even the current fares are a burden to their daily budgets.

Thus, any fare hike needs to be carefully studied by the city authorities before endorsement can be granted.

This conflict of needs is the starting point of a lamentable situation in which bus owners find it hard to maintain their fleets. Since buses are poorly maintained (and bus company personnel poorly paid), buses swiftly fall into disrepair. With insufficient money to buy spare parts, cannibalism occurs. The result is increasingly un-roadworthy buses, declining service, and hence the public's legitimate reluctance to pay higher fares.

And so the cycle continues.

The obvious question is how or where to break this cycle. Clearly, better management of bus companies is imperative, but for such an improvement, money is needed. Perhaps, the bus companies, the Ministry of Transportation, and whoever else is responsible for improving public transportation services would do well to look at the state railroad company, PNKA, for inspiration.

In the railroad industry it is no secret that popular routes such as the Jabotabek line between Bogor and Jakarta, whose subscribers are mostly lower-paid government and private company employees, traders and students, generally lose money. On the other hand, upper-class routes, such as those that run between Jakarta and Surabaya or Yogyakarta with their plush air- conditioned cars and luxurious services are good profit earners.

Those facts considered, it could be that the time has come for the authorities to experiment by encouraging entrepreneurs to operate more comfortable buses that cater to the better-earning population groups in the community -- obviously at commensurate fares. Those earnings could then be used, or taxed, in part to operate low-fare inner-city routes for the larger mass of commuters.

But whatever steps are taken, it is clear that something must be done to improve Jakarta's public transportation system. The solution needs to provide more comfortable, yet still affordable, transportation and be profitable enough for operators to properly maintain their fleets and pay their employees a reasonable wage.