Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations Sports/Health

Wheel Meat Again

Bike to work

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realise fishing is stupid and boring.”

A little whimsical may be, however, this pithy little aphorism comes to you courtesy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. However, I think it’s fair to assume that the good archbishop has never attempted to pedal to work through Jakarta, a task that one would, on first glance, make the seeking of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa seem like a stroll in the park by comparison.

Clearly, many parts of the world are more bicycle-friendly than the Indonesian capital. Indeed, without even leaving the country, one can find many cycling schoolkids ambling down quiet, leafy lanes in much of Indonesia’s lush, bucolic countryside. In Jakarta’s perpetually urban cauldron, however, the taking a humble cycle ride without being asphyxiated, carved up by heavy goods vehicles, scalded by flying fried rice, or upended by potholes the size of bomb craters may seem like a thankless task, somewhat akin to trying to pogo stick down a moving escalator after four large bottles of Bintang.

And indeed, the pedal through Jakarta’s chaotic, Brownian motion becomes all the more hazardous if one has actually had four bottles of Bintang. Personally, I’d advise leaving your trusty iron steed at home when planning a major pub crawl. Didn’t work out too well for me on the one occasion that I tried it.

Commuting to work by bicycle through the city’s soon to be sub-sea level streets perhaps takes a certain kind of wild-eyed loner with hate in his eyes and fried tofu between his ears, but allow me to present the case for the defence.

Firstly, ensuring that one is properly kitted out is vital. Stick some cheap flashing lights on your bike, wear bright clothing, wear a helmet of course, and, very importantly, wear a pollution mask with a proper European Union standard EN 149 filter in it (these are cheap and widely available). Using a mask will help you breathe a little more easily as you roll through the city’s perpetual pea soup.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, an increasing body of evidence suggests that the passengers of cars and buses are exposed to more air pollution than those who commute by bike. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, in congested areas, cyclists quite simply reach their destinations more quickly. However, UK government scientist, Prof. Sir David King, recently described car journeys through heavy city traffic as being akin to, “sitting in a box collecting toxic gases.”

And indeed, various research and experiments dating back almost two decades have shown that the occupants of cars are exposed to far higher levels of pollution, 9 to 12 times higher in fact, than those who walk or cycle along the same routes. Surprising perhaps, but consider the fact that your car’s air conditioner and fans are sucking on the tailpipe of the car or truck immediately in front and the resulting fumes then get trapped in your vehicle. Myth: busted.

However, that still leaves us with the issue of potentially taking a tumble. Personally, I seem to have developed something of a sixth sense on Jakarta’s roads which is perhaps somewhat akin to bat echolocation. Mind you, during the course of any given commuting week I will still end up extending an irate middle digit to several motorcyclists as my furiously swearing face recedes in their rear-view mirrors. If they have any.

Nevertheless, a cycling companion of mine recently opined that he felt more in danger on the relatively quiet roads of his native Durban in South Africa. According to him, when enjoying a ride over there, the vehicles that pass him tend to do so at around 90 km/h. And indeed, without wishing to gild the lily too much, there are two mitigating factors to bear in mind when considering a pedal through Jakarta’s vehicular purgatory.

Firstly, the ubiquity of the motorcycle means that car drivers have developed a sixth sense of their own which (generally) prevents them from ploughing into two-wheeled renegades such as myself. And secondly, the generally low speeds here mean that if you’re reasonably fit, you can steam along many roads at around the same speed as the surrounding flow of traffic, which feels safer all round.

Believe it or not, Jakarta does actually have a few bike lanes. However, the ones I’ve seen around the Blok M area are only around 200m long and thus about as useful as Michael J. Fox’s measuring jugs. No, Jakarta’s real network of bike lanes are wrongly referred to as busway lanes and from time to time you’ll see some of the city’s hardest of hardcore cyclists tearing along them. Indeed, the police don’t seem to mind, in contrast with the drivers of cars and motorcycles who encroach upon these sacred stretches of asphalt. The busway lane is absolutely the safest place to be for the more expert, lunatic cyclist.

In terms of what type of bicycles are up to the task of the Jakarta commute, anything will do really, with the exception of the brakeless “fixies” that suicidal youngsters can often be seen burning around town on. Idiots. I blame the parents.

Having a rack and rear panniers fitted is also useful for those supermarket runs on the way home. Folding bikes are becoming increasingly sophisticated and can be taken on Jakarta’s commuter trains (whereas non-folding bikes are strictly forbidden). E-bikes are also making waves in the world of cycling but are not widely available here as yet.

Simply take your office clothes with you and a towel, because you’ll be taking a shower in the washroom before clocking in right?… Right? I think we’ll leave the last word to mountain bike pioneer Doug Bradbury, who came up with this very apposite quote, “The best rides are the ones where you bite off more than you can chew, and live through it.” Amen to that Douglas.

See: Chain Reaction-Cycling Trip in North Sulawesi

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