Friday, October 28, 2005

Transportation Rant

[This was written a few days ago…]

I was driving to the airport today to get on the plane to Jambi. It is Monday morning, so the freeway was packed with cars, all moving a few kilometers an hour. Traffic in Jakarta is truly one of the most horrible things I have ever seen.

About 20 years ago, the average person got around on a bicycle. The cities, which are not planned, could support this traffic, and the bicycles gave people flexibility in weaving in out and around each other, even with huge numbers of people. I’m not sure when the first motorbikes came in, or exactly how that meshed with the introduction of affordable cars, but the bicycle was quickly replaced by motor scooters. These scooters are faster, less exhausting, and more expensive, and therefore more prestigious than the bicycles. The transition has been so complete that nowadays no one rides bicycles except the poorest of the poor. Everyone has a motorbike. The reason now is not simply prestige. The other reason is the horrible pollution that fills the larger cities. As everyone began to transition to motorbikes, those who were wealthy transitioned to cars. I don’t know why, but Indonesia skipped the family car. There are almost none of the small cars you see in America. No, the thing was to get an SUV. That was the prestigious vehicle. And as the Indonesian middle class gets larger, more people can afford the SUVs. And as they do that, the air gets even more disgusting, and no one wants to be left out on a motorbike or a bicycle. The result is horrible traffic jams, everywhere. It is simply impossible to move on the roads during rush hour. No one wants to walk on the side walks because the pollution is so disgusting. The end result is a road full of one or two person SUVs, standing still in traffic, on roads that will never be wide enough. And everyone who does not own one is desperately working to buy an SUV.

One of the reasons that people want their cars so much is that the Indonesian public transportation system is anything but pleasant and prestigious. In many areas, for instance Singapore and Bangkok, the subway and train systems are very nice, and even middle to upper class business people can take them without shame. Not here. The Indonesian public transportation system is muti-layered, with almost every layer being hot, dirty, and anything but prestigious. First off- no subways, no elevated trains. The normal way of getting around a city is in a mini-bus, which goes by the name angkot, microlet, oplet, or many other names depending on the city. These are large vans, maybe fitting 10 people at the most, that drive set routes. They stop anywhere and everywhere—no assigned stopping points. Profit is made by keeping the van full. These vans are permit-ed by the government, but privately owned. They are not a bad way of making a living, meaning that anyone who can afford a van has a huge incentive to make it an angkot. See where this is going? The streets of Bogor, for example, are so full of angkots that there are simply angkot jams- forget the other cars in the road. And each one is a small polluting van, spewing its diesel fumes on to the road.

There are other options. In Jakarta, the choice of everyone who can afford it (except me—I’ll get to that later) is to take a taxi. So, it kind of looks like New York—the roads are packed with cabs, each with one or at most two or three people. Most other cities do not have cabs. They do, however, have ojeks. Ojeks are motorcycle taxis. They’ll take you anywhere—no set charges. Often these are just guys who do not have work to do, but do have motor scooters (remember, everyone has a motor scooter). They hang out on corners together, and wait for people who have finished their shopping or whatever. I am an ojek fan. They are two person vehicles who do not drive around the city looking for passengers, and they can weave in and out of the other traffic. These are what I take when everyone else is in a cab in Jakarta. Of course, they are dangerous, and you are out in the polluted air. I normally take a handkerchief and wear it bandit style. But I get where I am going.

Other forms of public transportation are different in different places. It includes the dokart, the horse drawn carriages, which are becoming incredibly rare. If traffic is unpleasant in a car, imagine what it is like for a horse. It also includes becaks, or rickshaws, generally powered by a man on a bicycle. Although they are clean and generally pleasant, I find it hard to enjoy a ride that puts the driver to such hard work. I mean, he wants the work, but still. In some Indonesian towns there are motorcycles becaks, where the seating cart is attached to a motorcycle. For the same reasons I like ojeks, I like motor-becaks.

But when it finally comes down to it, the only prestigious way to travel is in an SUV. The Indonesian government is trying new things: bus-only lanes, car-pooling laws, even an elevated train planned for 2007. Maybe these things will make a difference. Maybe the fact that gas prices have gone up 100% in the last month (more on that later…) will make a difference too. There are no easy solutions that I can think of. Since the transportation system is so decentralized, a huge number of people rely on it for their livelihoods—it would cause huge problems for the government to come in and create an organized system, even if they could afford it, and even if they wanted to- neither of which are the case. But the government does need to create a transportation alternative that people can take without loosing face. Maybe this elevated train will be a step in that direction. If it ever gets built. Because until then, there is no way people who can afford it are going to use anything but their SUVs.


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