Unmanageable Jakarta Soon To Lose National Capital?


Jakarta is the world's third largest urban area with 22 million people (Note 1) and the second largest metropolitan area with 26.6 million people (Note 2). Jakarta is the capital of the world's fourth most populous country, the Republic of Indonesia, which has 240 million people (following China, India and the United States). Jakarta is located on the island of Java, which covers slightly more land area than the state of New York and has 8 times the people (135 million). There is probably no smaller piece of real estate in the world that houses so many people.

A Unique Metropolitan Name: Jakarta is the only megacity (urban area with more than 10 million people) in the world that has adopted a new name for its urban and metropolitan area: Jabotabek, which combines the beginning letters of Jakarta and the suburban jurisdictions of Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi.

Jabotabek is also one of the world's fastest growing urban areas and the prospects are for even stronger growth. The United Nations expects Indonesia to add 90 million people to its urban areas over the next 40 years. If Jabotabek gets its present share of Indonesian urbanization, its population would double.

Jabotabek's Unmanageable Problems: For already crowded Jabotabek and its even more crowded core of Jakarta, this is bad news. Jabotabek covers nearly the same land area as Paris (more than 1,000 square miles), but has more than twice the population. And unlike Paris, with its well-planned streets and multi-story buildings, much of Jabotek is made up of low-slung, terribly crowded makeshift slums.

Jabotabek may have the most intense traffic congestion in the world. One report says road speeds average little more than 5 miles per hour. The government has plans to expand the freeway system, which is already extensive for a developing world megacity. But, Jabotabek's density is already far above the critical mass of dispersion required for automobiles to serve efficiently, especially in the longer run. Automobile ownership is reportedly rising as much as 15% annually.

Of course, every public official's answer seems to be transit. Sadly, Jabotabek has anything but a transit friendly urban form, despite its high population density. Jabotabek may be the ultimate, dispersed Asian urban area, with little of a commercial core (though larger Delhi has even less) and even that is spread out. There’s no concentration of buildings, for example, as dense as downtown San Diego. Thus, building the kind of hub and spoke transit system that could effectively serve a dense commercial core makes no sense since economic activity is already so dispersed.

Exclusive busways have been built. But the construction of two monorails has been suspended and there are plans to build a metro (subway). Given Jabotabek's commercial dispersion, nothing short of an 800 meter rapid transit grid could possibly make a difference. This would bring everyone within the international transit standard of 400 meters, which given Jakarta's dispersion is the only way a rapid transit system would work.

That would cost far more than all of the personal income in the area each year in capital and operating expense. Jabotabek falls short of the critical mass needed in a commercial or even a residential core to make transit a viable solution.

Thus, Jabotabek sits in the broad no-man's land ill suited for transit and too dense for cars. However, in Jabotabek, as in Mumbai and Bangkok, having the choice between a transit system that cannot get you where you need to go and being stuck in traffic, people opt for the traffic as soon as they can afford it.

There are other massive problems. Jakarta city is on a lowland on the Java Sea and has severe drainage and flooding problems. Rising sea levels could make things even worse. Urban planner Yayat Supriyatna says that the present core of Jakarta should halve its present population of over 9 million.

Move the Capital? The nation's leaders think they have an answer: move the capital. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called upon the government to prepare a study of the options. The entire national government could be moved completely out of Jakarta, or most of the government functions could be moved to another part of Jabotabek. Traffic is high on the list of ills that the President justifiably cites.

Others, such as Siti Zuhro of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences are concerned that the capital needs to be moved away from Jabotabek altogether, to escape its problems. Speaker of the House of Representatives Marzuki Alie has suggested moving the capital to Central Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo (Figure 1). This location has the advantage of being centrally located geographically to the nation. It is also conveniently accessible to komodo dragons, but far away from the population center of Java. A 1.5 hour flight would be required, or a far longer ferry ride. Neither travel option seems likely to facilitate the effective operation of democratic institutions in a low income nation.

The president has expressed doubts about moving the capital to Borneo. He has suggested locations within Jabotabek, such as to Jonggol, which is 30 miles southeast of Jakarta city in Bogor regency. Indeed, fifteen years ago, planning was well along for moving the capital to Jonggol, That move was cancelled because of the east Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Others have mentioned moving the capital the adjacent suburbs of Bekasi or Tangerang (Figure 2), the latter of which has the advantage proximity to Sukarno-Hatta International Airport (one of the most modern in the world).

Learning From Others? There are no easy answers, and the record of national capital relocations provides little guidance.

Brazil moved its capital to Brasilia in 1960 to honor a 70 year old provision for internal development in its constitution. Since that time, former capital Rio de Janeiro has nearly tripled in population and spread to occupy the flats beyond the mountains that used to constrain it. Pakistan's relocated capital at Islamabad has considerable advantages over former capital and megacity Karachi. Yet, Karachi has added more than 10 million people since the government moved. National capitals can be moved from megacities, but that may not slow down megacity growth. Moreover, given Jabotabek's dominance (6 times as large as second ranked Bandung), it seems inconceivable that the commercial heart of the nation would move or that rural migrants would stream into smaller urban areas, where incomes seem likely to remain lower.

Some have suggested copying the Malaysian model of government offices to the suburbs (like Jabotabek's Jonggol). However, Putrajaya was quickly engulfed by the urbanization of Kuala Lumpur. Strategies that might work on the urban fringe of a much smaller, slower growing, more affluent and more manageable urban area of 6 million people (Kuala Lumpur) may not be appropriate for an urban area adding the equivalent of a Kuala Lumpur every decade. Given Jabotabek's explosive growth, any new government center would be quickly surrounded and many of Jakarta city's problems would be replicated.

Jabotabek: The Dimensions of Expansion: Jabotabek continues to grow and is on course to become the world's largest urban area and metropolitan area by 2030.

Meanwhile, Jabotabek is not only expanding its population and land area, it's adding to its name. Many now refer to it as Jabodetabek, adding extra letters for the suburb of Depok. Recently, a new city was carved out of Tangerang regency, South Tangerang. Jabotabek's continuous urbanization has now stretched eastward into Karawang regency.

Jabotabek the unmanageable could become Jabodetasokabek the unpronounceable.


Note 1: The most recent edition (July 2010) of Demographia World Urban Areas and Population Projections lists Jakarta as the second largest urban area in the world (July 2010). New United Nations data now shows Delhi to have risen above Jakarta, with a population of more than 22,100,000. The Jabotabek urban area (like the Manila urban area) is routinely shown by international sources to have a far smaller population, however such estimates exclude huge populations in continuous urbanization in suburban jurisdictions.

Note 2: While there are no international metropolitan area standards, it is generally agreed that the Jabotabek metropolitan area is second in size only to the Tokyo metropolitan area. If Karawang Regency is included (into which Jabotabek's continuous urbanization stretches), Jabotabek's metropolitan population in 2010 rises to 28.7 million, approximately 50% more than that of New York. Metropolitan areas and urban areas are often confused. Unlike urban areas, metropolitan areas include rural areas from which people commute into the urban area for employment, while urban areas are limited to the continuous urbanization (development) within metropolitan areas. See Urban Terms Defined.


Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life

Photograph: Jakarta (photograph by author)