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Metropolises are poorly accessible to the poor

13 October 2021

For a pedestrian, it is a small miracle to have a pavement on which to walk, at any rate for those living in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Isti Hidayati conducted research on ‘mobility inequality’ in those cities and won the prize for the best doctoral research in Groningen.

Text: Jurgen Tiekstra; Photo: ANP


She apologizes, ‘Sorry about the noise in the background. That is the call to prayer.’ Hidayati is sitting in front of a webcam in her home in Yogyakarta, a city in the middle of the island of Java.

Last year, the Indonesian urban planner completed a doctorate in Groningen (of all places), researching mobility inequality in two gigantic urban regions on the Malay Archipelago: the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (with nearly eight million inhabitants); and the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta (with nearly 11 million inhabitants on Java). For her PhD thesis, Hidayati received the 2020 Wierenga-Rengerink Prize, intended for the best dissertation at the University of Groningen.

No pavement

Both metropolises are models for the ever-advancing urbanization taking place in Southeast Asia. In nine years, it is estimated that 404 million Southeast Asians will be living in cities, with the majority living in such giant cities as Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Manila.

Although the motorways in the Netherlands are also often congested with traffic, public transport is well organized, and cities allow as much space as possible for cyclists and pedestrians. In the Netherlands, no one is likely to shout ‘Hurrah’ upon having a pavement on which to walk. In Jakarta, however, many people are likely to do just that.

As Isti Hidayati explains, when she wants to go to the local shop, which is less than a kilometre from her house, she obviously takes her motorbike. One reason is that it is hot, and she would prefer not to arrive covered in sweat. A second reason is that there is no pavement, and she would prefer not to be run over. A third reason is that walking is regarded as something that poor people do. It is for reasons like these that Jakarta has more motorbikes (13.3 million) than it does people (10.5 million). That is in addition to 3.5 million cars.

English-speaking academic world

What was the reason that Hidayati wanted to complete a PhD in Europe, even though she was affiliated with the university in Yogyakarta ? She explains, ‘In Europe, I could have more opportunities to broaden my academic network, better access to scientific journals, and I could talk to people who write about this subject’.

The scientific research that is taking place in Indonesia, as well as in countries like South Korea, Japan, and China, is relatively isolated from the English-speaking academic world, due to the language barrier. By publishing only from Indonesia, therefore, Hidayati would reach a more limited audience. Moreover, her home university simply has fewer financial resources, making it more difficult to access academic literature and submit original articles in Indonesia.

Mobility inequality

It was also in Europe that Hidayati became inspired to start investigating mobility inequality. It was during the period in which she completed her Master’s degree at the University of Stuttgart. ‘I was travelling through Germany by train and, because I understand German, I noticed that an old woman was pointing at me and saying something to the effect that I didn’t belong there, and that she was saying all sorts of bad things about Muslims. I did not do anything at that time, and nothing else happened. It was nevertheless an unpleasant experience. Thereafter, I started to wonder if I was the only one who has had this kind of experience, or whether others have also had negative experiences during their daily travels, perhaps in other forms.’

The fundamental notion of Hidayati’s PhD research is that transport is more than simply a matter of getting from Point A to Point B. The possibility of travelling with public transport or with a private vehicle means even more: it means the opportunity to participate in society. This is not something that can be taken for granted by everyone (e.g. by people with disabilities, poor people, or women who do not always feel safe travelling on foot or by public transport, due to fear of sexual intimidation).

Preoccupation with cars

First, with the exception of tourist districts, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are structured primarily for motorized traffic. This is due to the low social status of walking, as well as to a preoccupation on the part of the earlier urban planners who designed the Southeast Asian metropolises. ‘Those experts had been trained in North America and, when they returned in the 1960s and 1970s, they brought into practice the car-centred ideas that they had learn there.’

It so happened that, one day in Kuala Lumpur, Hidayati wanted to go from a railway station to a bus station, but getting there required walking along a six-lane motorway, including a tunnel. Even worse, it might even have involved crossing that motorway.

Another time, Hidayati wanted to take a bus in Kuala Lumpur, but was met by the astonished stares of the passengers, and even the bus driver. The bus was filled with migrant workers from India and Bangladesh, many of whom are unable to obtain their own driving licences. Malaysians usually avoid their company. It was therefore awkward that an Indonesian woman in a headscarf, like Hidayati, wanted to ride along with them.


As an urban planner, Hidayati would like to start a process of change. A different transport system is needed in the Southeast Asian metropolises, which will continue to expand for the time being, as well as in her smaller home city of Yogyakarta. Although she does not yet have much influence on administrators, Hidayati hopes to gain influence as a lecturer at the university in Yogyakarta.

From her perspective, it is clear that a city should not be designed from the top down. ‘I think that a step is missing in the process: no thought is given to the potential users of transport routes, and particularly not to the marginalized groups in the population. It would be a good idea to talk with them, with the goal of creating an equal transport system.’

Hidayati also states this at the end of her PhD thesis: Look from the perspective of the female employee, who is cautiously walking along the road to her workplace because her husband has the household’s only motorbike. Look at the migrant worker who is forced to travel on foot, or look at the Malaysian woman who must wait at an abandoned metro station in Kuala Lumpur late at night.


Since completing her doctorate in 2020, Isti Hidayati (1986) has been a lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Planning at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. After finishing a Bachelor’s degree at the same university in 2004, Hidayati earned a Master’s degree in Infrastructure Planning at the University of Stuttgart. Thereafter, she wanted to complete a doctorate in Europe as well, originally in Switzerland. After visiting UG staff members in Yogyakarta, however, Hidayati came into contact with the Faculty of Spatial Sciences in Groningen, where she was offered a position as a PhD student.

Last modified:11 October 2021 12.48 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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