On New Years Day—four days after an AirAsia plane disappeared while flying from Surabaya to Singapore—I boarded a ferry to Jepara, a port city on the Java Sea, a few hundred kilometers from where Flight 8501 is believed to have crashed. The weather this time of year is unpredictable, with frequent, heavy rain, and—as the international team working to recover the jet is discovering—the waves make seafaring difficult. And uncomfortable. There were far more people on the boat than seats, so most of us hunched on the floor, our knees and elbows tucked in. The cabinet next to me contained the cabin’s safety equipment, and it was clear there weren't nearly enough life jackets for all of us—standard procedure for long-distance ferry rides in Indonesia.
On the television screen at the front of the cabin, a news anchor talked about the failures to follow safety protocol that may have caused Flight 8501 to crash. Indonesia might have the world’s worst aviation safety record, so it surprised few here when Indonesia’s transportation minister, Ignatius Jonan, announced that AirAsia did not have a permit to fly the day that it did and that AirAsia pilots had neglected official weather reports. As our ship rocked on the waves, and nearby passengers began vomiting, it was easy to imagine the same news anchor reporting tomorrow on the tragedy of our capsized ferry, and the failures that caused it.
Put simply, Indonesia doesn’t really have an aviation safety problem. It has a transit safety problem. With more than 30,000 Indonesians dying annually in traffic accidents, and ferry disasters killing hundreds more, Flight 8501’s plummet from the sky, which killed 162 people, is only the most visible example of a dangerous national transit system.
The country's transit problems begin with geography. According to Elizabeth Pisani, a public-health consultant who has traveled some 40,000 kilometers in Indonesia for her recent travel memoir, Indonesia Etc. “It is really important to recognize the challenge of Indonesia’s geography. It has 6-7,000 inhabited islands, so you can’t have any expansive road network, as you could, say, in the United States,” she said. “The transit system is subject to great challenges and constraints. Having said that, even within those constraints [the Indonesian government] does a shit job.”
Successive Indonesian governments have allowed the country’s infrastructure to deteriorate. A 2011 McKinsey report on Asian infrastructure noted, “In Indonesia, infrastructure investments dropped from 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP in the early 1990s to 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP for much of the last ten years,” leading to a “consequent deterioration” in transport infrastructure. The roads in the country are narrow and pockmarked, and even around major cities the quality is extremely poor, with many streets missing huge chunks of concrete.
John Black, a professor of Transport Engineering at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, has been advising transit projects in Indonesia regularly since 1973. He cited bad engineering and insufficient infrastructure funding for causing many of Indonesia’s transit problems. “Indonesia has a big infrastructure catch-up to do,” he said.
During the same period that Indonesia has failed to invest in infrastructure, its economy has grown rapidly. Many Indonesian families can afford vehicles, and there are now more than 60 million motor bikes in the country—one for every four Indonesians—and the combination of poor roads, tropical rainstorms, and new drivers has had devastating consequences for road safety. More than 10,000 Indonesians are killed a year while riding a motorbike. These numbers show no signs of abating. According to data provided by the Indonesian national police, the rate of Indonesian traffic deaths increased 40 percent from 2000 to the end of the decade. Despite the harrowing statistics, it’s not uncommon to see entire families perched on a single vehicle. “You look around Jakarta and you often see people—three or four of them, with kids, getting around on a single motorcycle," Black said. "Motorcycles around the world are dangerous, but this is giving things an Indonesian spin.”
One solution would be if the government enforced safety laws. But traffic regulations are rarely enforced. Yoga Adiwinarto, the country director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an NGO focused on developing public transit options worldwide, said, “There is not a single traffic camera in the country. Even though the speed limit is 80 kilometers [per hour], you can actually travel as fast as you want. I’ve never seen anyone get fines for speeding.”
As dangerous as transit is on land, it’s not clear that it’s any less dangerous at sea. A recent analysis conducted for the Worldwide Ferry Association found that, since 2000, Indonesia has experienced a higher quantity of ferry accidents than any country other than Bangladesh. A ferry accident in 2009, in which 250 people were killed, was even more deadly than the recent loss of the airliner. According to Pisani, one of the major reasons for ferry accidents is that so many Indonesian citizens rely on sea transport to get to mandatory destinations, like the school and the market, and so put pressure on ferry operators to run their ship in unsafe weather. “In Europe people can say, ‘Oh there’s rough weather, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to go today.’ But here traveling by sea is integral to daily life."
Indonesia's new president, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi"), has committed to making infrastructure development a priority. But it is far from certain, even after this latest transportation tragedy, that transit safety is high on the national agenda. Adiwinarto, the public transit expert, said that he was confident that airlines would comply with any new regulations that resulted from the plane crash. He is “far less optimistic” about the enactment and enforcement of regulations for motorcycles and ferries.
In 2013, Mustapha Benmaamar, then a Jakarta-based transportation specialist with the World Bank, used a now-eerie analogy to describe the high amount of traffic deaths in Indonesia.
“We’re talking about the equivalent of a jumbo jet crash every week," he said. "When a jumbo jet crashes, it’s big news. But here, these people die in silence.”