Jakartans’ business savvy shines through amid the gridlock

It's a rite-of-passage for foreign writers based in Jakarta to pen a piece on the horrid state of the traffic. My attempt, in which I merge it with a discussion on the entrepreneurial spirit of Indonesians, has appeared in The Weekend Australian this weekend and is available here.

Space crimped the effort a little, so I've decided to publish the full piece here:

Soon after you arrive at Jakarta’s international airport and head downtown, you become familiar with two of the city’s defining qualities: the entrepreneurship of its people, and the density of its traffic. With little new public transport infrastructure, the quantity of roads almost static and the number of vehicles steadily rising in line with a growing population and emerging affluence, experts say the Indonesian capital will reach a state of perpetual gridlock within a few years.

But these hours and hours that many commuters spend on the road each day have given rise to niche business opportunities that Jakartans have embraced with gusto.
During peak periods, some of the main streets are reserved for motorcycles as well as vehicles with three or more occupants. This has created a small army of “jockeys”, who linger on the side of streets near the entry points to the main road, their thumb sticking out like a hitchhiker, offering to help motorists reach the golden three. Mother-and-baby pairs are particularly highly sought by solo drivers.

Stories abound among the city’s drivers about the quick fingers that many jockeys possess, with anything loose inside the vehicle at risk of mysteriously disappearing. But given the paucity of alternative ways to get home, many drivers still take the risk.

Along the gridlocked streets are an army of mobile food cart operators known as kaki lima (literally, five legs – three for the cart, two for the proprietor) offering all manner of tasty local delights. Kaki lima push their carts along the footpath or a raised embankment between lanes, and drivers seeking to satisfy their cravings wind down their windows and place an order. So fixed is the traffic that there’s plenty of time for the operator to whip up some food – nasi goreng (fried rice) and steamed buns are the most popular options – before the traffic moves far.
Part of the reason for the congestion is the lack of quality public transport. The recent introduction of the TransJakarta bus service, with a modern fleet and dedicated lanes, has been a watershed, but its network is limited.

This leaves many people aboard the network of 20-seater minibuses offered by the Kopaja and Metromini companies. These rickety old things have been on the roads for decades, have their doors permanently open (locals call it “natural air-conditioning”), have a driver with a cigarette wedged between his lips and a conductor who spends his time hanging out the door or shuffling up and down the aisle collecting 2,000 rupiah (25 cent) fares off each passenger. One of the party tricks of conductors is, while the bus is moving, to ease himself onto the road out the front door and re-enter via the back door in a single, fluid movement. Impressive to watch.

There are plenty of buskers who ply their wares on board, often in rather tricky conditions. On a recent trip, a 20-something man with a guitar jumped on partly filled Kopaja and started strumming and singing an up-beat Indonesian folk song. Progressively the bus took on more and more passengers, cramming into every nook and cranny. Throughout, the busker continued without missing a note, contorting the neck of the guitar to all manner of awkward angles to accommodate passengers and using his legs to cope with the minimal suspension that become apparent as the vehicle lumbered across Jakarta’s potholed roads. The tips he received were particularly generous, and only some of it was for his music.
For sure, much of the creative opportunism on display is a product of grinding poverty and the lack of a welfare system, but it also shows an admirable determination to make the most of whatever one’s circumstances happen to be. It certainly makes the city are more interesting place.

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