Public Transport: Masochism for the Masses

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Daniel Pope endures and occasionally enjoys Jakarta’s improving public transport options.

Travel these days is absurdly easy. Just flip open your communicator and say, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Actually, instantaneous travel in Jakarta only occurs when the departure point is a pool of blood in the middle of the road and the arrival point is the afterlife. For corporeal travel, all you need is an app on your handphone to summon a comfortable, air-conditioned car with a keen if not altogether knowledgeable driver. Any century now, Jakarta will offer additional forms of super-convenient transport, such as underground (MRT) and elevated (LRT) rail systems. But before these become the new norm, let’s examine a few of the long-established options.

Ojek Tradisional

In the bad old days before Go-Jek and Grab, you had to haggle until you were blue in the face to get a reasonable fare for an ojek (motorcycle taxi) ride. When freelance ojek drivers congregated on street corners, you could minimise the risk of an accident by choosing to ride with an older, more indolent, kretek-smoking driver, rather than a young speed freak. You might want to avoid ojek during the wet season, unless you don’t mind getting soaked. A helmet is also recommended, although the one offered by an old-school driver will invariably be too small or too big, and defective. Typical fare: Double that of an app-based ride.

Mikrolet

In London in 2012, a new world record was set when 28 people squeezed into a Mini with not a dwarf among them. To achieve this feat, the team no doubt received training from an Indonesian mikrolet driver. These light blue (and sometimes red) minivans still cause terrible congestion in pockets of the city, queuing for passengers outside markets, train stations and bus terminals. The mikrolet, also known as angkot, is simple to use. You hop in (taking care not to bump your head as the driver accelerates), tap on the ceiling when approaching your destination, then hop off. It can be quite a squeeze. You’ll often end up occupying an air pocket under someone’s armpit. Try to avoid falling out if seated by the non-existent door. Typical fare: Rp4,000 to Rp6,000, payable when you exit.

Bajaj

In the 1983 movie Octopussy, a bajaj in its native India was James Bond’s unlikely escape vehicle, making a series of spectacular high-speed manoeuvres during a thrilling chase. The only thing missing was the haggling over the fare at the start of the chase – which would have given Bond’s pursuer a perfect opportunity to shoot him in the back. When Jakarta banned quiet pedicabs in the 1970s, they were replaced by noisy fleets of rattling, three-wheeled, smoke-belching orange bajaj. Most of the older models have been phased out by quieter, gas-driven blue bajaj but don’t expect much comfort. Also, you’ll be restricted to backstreets and jalan tikus (literally rat roads or side streets and small alleyways). Typical fare: Triple that of an app-based ride.

Jalan Kaki (Walking)

Forget it. Pedestrians are fighting a losing battle in Jakarta, as politicians and police allow most pavements to be annexed by motorists, motorcyclists and vendors. Typical fare: Lung damage and leg damage.

Taxi

Years ago, you didn’t catch a taxi in Jakarta. A taxi caught you. You were not a passenger. You were prey. The taxi companies, especially the red-and-yellow Presiden fleet, seemed to be operated by criminal gangs specialising in tampering with meters, sabotaging air-conditioners, removing window-winding handles, and nodding off at the wheel. Drivers often suffered an affliction known as “goofy foot,” which meant the accelerator was treated like a foot-pump. Standards have improved over time, most recently by the need to compete with ride-hailing apps. There are executive taxis too. Blue Bird’s original choice of executive model was the noble-sounding Nissan Cedric, a roomy sedan. This got me imagining suitable names of models for less scrupulous taxi firms. The Ford Capone, perhaps. Or the Honda Manson. Or the Fiat Caligula. Typical fare: These days, flag-fall is Rp6,500, then Rp3,500 per km.

Metromini

Former Indonesian Formula One driver Rio Haryanto’s racing car had the same colour scheme as a MetroMini but that’s where the similarity stops. You sometimes see one of these distinctive orange and blue minibuses lying in a twisted wreck at a level crossing, the pressured driver having crept around the barrier and into the path of a train. But don’t worry, your route is unlikely to cross any railway lines. Expect to share your ride not only with stoic fellow passengers, but also with street-urchin cigarette sellers, stony-faced beggars and guitar-playing buskers (“I could be getting on to rob you, but instead I’m performing, so pay up!”). Typical fare: Rp4,000, payable to the conductor upon entry.

Busway

The TransJakarta busway, which began in 2004 and operates on dedicated lanes, is often unfairly maligned by non-users. Many motorists were outraged at losing a lane of road, so they selfishly clogged up the busway lanes, further exacerbating Jakarta’s chronic traffic congestion. Fortunately, former governor Ahok cleaned up the busway corridors, which now cover most of the city’s main thoroughfares. The riskiest part of the busway experience is crossing pedestrian bridges that give access to the shelters. This is where muggers, pickpockets and beggars operate (sexual perverts wait until they’re inside the bus – hence the segregation of the sexes and some female-only buses). If you’re really unlucky, like I was, a crew from a reality TV show will leap out and bang on an empty gallon water bottle near your ear. Your reaction apparently makes good TV. Fixed fare: Rp3,500.

Commuter Line Train

Jakarta’s trains used to be grossly overcrowded. They still are, at peak hours, but at least passengers no longer ride on the roofs or hang from the sides. A few years ago, these trains were filled with hawkers, smokers, beggars, fare-evaders and rubbish. The system has been swept clean since 2013, with new trains, electronic ticketing and modernised stations. Typical fare: Rp3,000 to Rp6,000, plus you have to buy an e-ticket for Rp10,000, refundable upon leaving the station.

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Daniel Pope is a part-time hedonist, residing mostly in Jakarta, where he still finds everything a bit of a rum do.