Jakarta – It seems that this Idul Fitri holiday season, everyone wants to break free. After three years of COVID-19-induced mobility curbs, folks appear to have had enough with restrictions and this year, have decided to travel with a vengeance.
The government-sanctioned long holiday season, which kicked off on Wednesday and will last until Tuesday night, is a good enough excuse to travel. Meeting relatives, joining family or high school reunions and attending religious gatherings certainly come as a bonus.
The government is perfectly aware of this. Its own estimates put the number of people traveling during this Idul Fitri holiday at 123 million, more than a 30-percent increase from last year's 85.5 million. So, this year, almost half of the country's population is expected to move about freely around the country.
It remains to be seen if the country's infrastructure and transportation networks can cope with this pressure.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said potential problems could arise from more people traveling and cautioned against a repeat of the 2016 "Brexit" incident, during which 13 people died from exhaustion in a massive traffic congestion that lasted for more than 51 hours on the newly opened toll road in Central Java. The incident went down as one of the worst traffic jams in history, and certainly one of the deadliest.
This year, the government took measures to ease the flow of traffic by opening new toll roads, increasing the capacity of the railway network and airlines as well as giving practical solutions like ferrying motorbikes from major cities to smaller locales in Java.
When easing the flow of traffic during mudik, homebound travel, however complicated and arduous, will only be half the equation. In fact, it is easier, because at least traffic from major urban centers will be dispersed to smaller, less-congested areas.
The bigger problem will be how to manage the arus balik (return traffic) with the same number of travelers rushing back to Jakarta and other major urban centers nearly simultaneously and traveling through the same bottleneck and choke points like the Cikampek toll gates, Merak port and Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
We still remember from last year the decision to allow for only one-way traffic from Central Java to Jakarta via the Cikampek toll road led to a massive congestion in the eastern suburbs of Jakarta. Folks in the area had to begrudgingly stay home as they failed to gain access to eastbound lanes of the toll road.
This can happen again this year, especially if police cannot find better ways to distribute traffic going to Jakarta. And it is likely similar problems could be replicated in other major cities in Java and elsewhere.
At the top of the priority list is for the police to find more creative ways to manage return traffic. It also helps if government agencies and private companies allow for more freedom for their employees to decide when they can return to work. If the traffic situation does not improve in the days after Idul Fitri, there is always the option of telecommuting, one of the best practices we are already familiar with, thanks to the pandemic.
From the pandemic, we have learned that when it comes to safety, there is always a workaround that everyone could try and that should also apply to this holiday season.
Idul Fitri should be the most joyous season for Muslims and they should be able to celebrate the festival without having to worry about traffic on the way home.
Eid Mubarak and safe passage everyone.