Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

24 January 2014

Riding a bicycle around any city comes with risks but you would have to be a masochist to cycle around Jakarta at the peak of morning rush-hour traffic. A cyclist hardly stands a chance of surviving unscathed on the notoriously congested and potholed streets of Indonesia's capital. Or so I thought.

Last Friday, I borrowed a folding bike and joined a few dozen cyclists on a ride through central Jakarta. Our fearless leader was none other than the city's governor, Joko Widodo.

Since last November the governor, known by his nickname Jokowi, has cycled from his residence to City Hall every Friday with a local organisation called Bike to Work. It's part of a lead-by-example policy initiative that he hopes will chip away at Jakarta's chronic traffic jams and pollution. He is spending a lot of time and political capital on getting commuters to ditch their cars, motorcycles and mopeds in favour of more eco-friendly alternatives.

At the moment there isn't exactly a groundswell of support. Decades of underinvestment have left Jakarta with woefully inadequate public transportation. There are too few buses; most of those making the rounds are old, bone-rattling boxes that don't have a prayer of passing an emissions test. There are no subways or trains in the city centre. And good luck finding a bike lane (while they do exist, central Jakarta has none).

But the governor is working on it. He is adding hundreds of new Transjakarta buses and has restarted the long-stalled construction of a monorail and Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit train system. He is discussing electronic road pricing with countries that have the technology and weighing up a hike in parking fees. He might even do away with fuel-price subsidies in Jakarta, despite opposition from the central government.

Changing minds will be the hardest part so the governor is making an example of the city's 68,000 employees. They are now required to commute by bicycle or public bus once a month; eventually it will be several times a month.

If nothing else, the governor's weekly bike is a reminder that change is afoot in Jakarta. Last Friday we were quite the spectacle: a ragtag group of cyclists led by a motorcycle police escort with lights flashing and TV cameramen on motorbike taxis. Riding alongside the governor was four-time motorcycle road-racing champion Jorge Lorenzo. The Danish and Norwegian ambassadors picked up the rear. Drivers honked. Pedestrians who recognised the governor's thin frame hunched over his handlebars shouted his name and snapped photographs. As a light rain became a downpour, we fanned out and pedalled hard. For a moment, Jakarta's busiest boulevards had become giant bike lanes.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at City Hall. In the lobby of the governor's office, someone said: "That was very brave, with the traffic." Seated nearby, the governor, who must have heard this, just sipped his tea in silence.

Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.

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