At first glance, Jakarta must have some of the most courageous people ever to sit behind the wheel. If one were to ride around Jakarta with the windows rolled down and with their arms poking out intermittently, they would be left limbless within the half hour. The only rule that seems to matter is whether or not your car will fit where you want to go. Lanes be damned–Some streets don’t even have lane markers. Driving on the sidewalk is fair game for motorcycles usually, but sometimes even for the car, as is driving on the opposite side of the street. When I first witnessed my driver merge onto the main street, I thought for sure that we were going to get hit and that my driver was insane, but thankfully following the first rule in traffic, cars on the main street will slam their brakes for incoming obstacles. If there are two lanes, a line of three cars will inevitably end up driving side by side, with a row of motorcycles moving along filling in the gaps, and a couple of bajaj puffing flatulence where they can(the baggi is an Indian motorcycle taxi that looks like it has been patched together from a pair of twenty year old lawnmowers). If there is a holdup in traffic, street peddlers will squeeze by the vehicles selling nuts, toys, fruits, and magazines. It is not unheard of to sleep your way through traffic at the speed of 1km/hour.
If the drivers here are courageous, the motorcyclists here must be pathologically suicidal. And the streets are filled with them. They are nearly always at risk of a car door opening, or a distracted driver clobbering them. They are constantly weaving, juking, jiving, between cars with only inches to spare. They scrunch up in groups of four or five next to two cars in a two lane road. Brake, accelerate, and popping out suddenly into open space is their motto. The roadways often drop off into slimy waterways without warning. I’m told that some motorcyclists accidentally fall into this small sewer ways. Suicidal I say.
When one thinks of the traffic in Jakarta, one pictures crunching bones, cringing faces, falling buildings, and then one pauses and begins to appreciate it. It actually contains an enormous amount of trust and reason between the commuters. Motorcyclists know that drivers are aware on all four sides of their vehicle at all times, and they are spatially aware of the size of the car. They trust the cars on the road to not hit them, as the speed by inches away from the cars. I saw a brave girl calmly text on her smart phone while riding on the back seat of a motorcyclist. I’ve never seen a man walk so casually across a road with cars and motorcycles whizzing by inches from his body. Ah! Trust amongst the people!
Looking closely at the reason why lane driving is not popular, I think that since the car is so close to the edge of the road, that driving inside them constantly is probably dangerous itself. When more cars approach, they drift back inside the lanes until the congestion passes. Another way motorists in Jakarta do is honk seemingly without reason. One type is the warning honk. They’ll honk before doing something singularly dangerous, they’ll honk to let the motorist peeking down a busy street, that they should watch out, they’ll also honk for help from people on the streets. People wait in areas where cars will be backing out of driveways, or making difficult turns onto a main road. They spring to action, helping direct them through the traffic for a small tip. People are always around to help drivers park their car, as most spots are incredibly tight. Help driving is sorely needed here, and these people serve to fulfill the need. Human ingenuity is always working to fulfill needs shown by the market.
The infrastructure here is poor, there is no beating around the bush on this, and more improvement can be easily had but when given the lemon of 18 million inhabitants, poorly organized roads, and no subway system to speak of, the commuters of Jakarta have made lemonade. Put 18 million American drivers in the same city, there will be a motorcycle smashing into a car instantaneously, traffic will slow to a crawl in no less than five minutes, emergency vehicles will fail to reach the accident, and by sundown, traffic will have completely jammed to a permanent halt. The Javanese built their own method of traffic, without rules or dictates from above. They had to, and it works barely, mysteriously, and beautifully. It is a wonderful example of spontaneous order.
Street signs here are a complete mystery to me. Reading them is like reading tea leaves, and even then, only if you can actually find them– they blend in with nearly every kind of local flora. The ones I failed to find, I am convinced are just missing. The addresses here have unbelievably long names, that list the main street, and the alley ways to turn into, as well as the actual street name and number. Given infrastructure, it actually makes a bit of sense. In any event, the drivers here have memorized the insane, zig-zags, the one way streets, the back alleyways, the levee crossings. It is all a very painful display of both chaos and order, of commerce and bureaucracy, of poverty and wealth, patience and frustration, mass communication, and a general just get on with it attitude. At some point I should say that unless the infrastructure is improved, the city looks like it will fail despite its marked skill in navigating an impossible number of cars on the road.