Jakarta's congested streets have some commuters promoting bicycling

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 2:49 PM

JAKARTA - It's hard to imagine a city less amenable to bicycling than Indonesia's capital, a place of perpetual gridlock, an exploding number of daredevil motorcyclists and little respect for traffic lanes.

But a nascent bike culture lies beneath the mayhem, and in a bid to help it flower, the city has mandated two car-free Sundays a month in downtown Jakarta.

On those days, Sudirman Street and its circular fountain are lined with bike-repair tents, pop singers and food vendors. Bike-club members in colorful jerseys roam the streets or show off the custom jobs popular among the young and hip - the single-speed "fixies," with color-coordinated wheels and chains, or the chopper-style lowriders.

"It's a hip-hop thing," said Ray Iskander, a member of the Sweet Iron Lowriders, a Jakarta club whose members were wheeling their decked-out rides around the plaza one recent car-free day.

Jakarta is not the only city in the region with traffic woes. The decline of the bike is a long-standing fact in Asia's hubs, whose residents abandon that healthy, pollution-free habit for the speed and status of a car or motorcycle as incomes rise.

As with any technological change, the shift brings unintended consequences - probable billions in lost productivity, hours a day stolen from leisure time and mounting anger. A heavy rainstorm here last month led to a traffic jam apparently epic even by Jakarta standards. Public interest groups are threatening to sue the government, and officials have begun pleading with motorcyclists not to use highway overpasses for refuge during storms because of the traffic backups that causes.

In that context, the efforts of Bike to Work Indonesia are certainly uphill. The group counts a few thousand members, but director Tense Manalu estimates that no more than a few hundred brave the capital's streets for their daily commute. She is one of them but acknowledges it can be harrowing.

"Stay to the left, and watch out," she advises about navigating the city's right-hand drive traffic on a bicycle.

The Sweet Iron Lowriders are evidence that American culture still exports well. The lowrider style, a cross between the chopper motorcycles of "Easy Rider" fame and the Schwinn Sting-Ray kids' bike popular in the 1960s, took off in California and got a particular boost when rap star Snoop Dogg began riding one.

Club founder Djoko Nugroho and other members acknowledged that the lowrider is more about style than commuting. With its gleaming chrome, extended front wheels and oversize handlebars, "it's not really a bike, it's an idea, an art," he said, standing next to his stretched-out Felt model.

Nor do enthusiasts expect a bike-lane network to happen anytime soon. The city is hoping to build a subway first.

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