Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In A City With Terrible Traffic, A Gridlock Economy Emerges

For a price, this Jakarta mother will get into your car so you can drive in the carpool lane.
Robert Smith
For a price, this Jakarta mother will get into your car so you can drive in the carpool lane.

Jakarta, Indonesia, has some of the worst traffic on the planet. For some local entrepreneurs, all those people stuck in their cars are potential customers.

In a middle of one Jakarta traffic jam, a guy pushes his chicken cart through the cars, clanging his pots. Men walk down the center lane selling nuts, crackers as big as your head and other treats. They're all trying to make eye contact with the drivers.

There is a whole world of commerce inside a Jakarta traffic jam, and the shrewdest businessmen are the teenage boys. You see them at the intersections, in sandals and t-shirts directing traffic for a price. If you want to merge or turn across three lanes of cars, you signal to the boys, toss them five or ten cents, and they make room for you.

They're so skinny that they sometimes fit in between trucks just a foot apart. I managed to get close enough to a 12-year-old, Amir, and ask how much money he makes. He says it's about $7 a day — an enormous sum for a kid in Indonesia.

Now, Jakarta's government knows it looks bad when some of its traffic cops are 12-year-olds working for tips. So the city is working on some traffic solutions. They've built carpool lanes in the center of the city. It hasn't done much to ease traffic, but it has created a whole new kind of business.

One 23-year-old woman stands on the road just before the carpool lanes, holding up her adorable 2-year-old toddler. The kid is a clever bit of marketing.

The mom explains that if a driver pays her $2, she and her daughter will get in the passenger seat. You need three people to get into the carpool lane, and the baby counts.

On some stretches of road you can see a dozen women, all in a row, all carrying babies and waving three fingers up at the single drivers.

All these entrepreneurs make traffic more bearable. But the guys with motorcycle taxis are the only ones who can get you out of a traffic jam. They wait for business on the side of the road. For $1 or so, you can hop on the back and they will drive you through the tiny spaces between the cars.

There is no helmet offered. You just hold on tight. I found it terrifying. But it was the fastest I had moved all day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.