In Jakarta? Try the taxi on two wheels
When I finally reach Kota Tua, the old Dutch town of Jakarta, my face is covered in a layer of dust. Hair matted; glasses greasy. It reminds me of the days of riding my trusted Activa to work in Parel, through the Mumbai heat and pollution. Sure, helmet hair is not what you’re aiming for at the start of the day. But it was the most efficient way to commute in Mumbai.
In Jakarta, that trade-off is made easier by the last-mile connectivity of bike taxis. The unmissable two-wheeler gangs appear to have traded the rebellion of leather jackets for the livelihood of company-issue green polyester ones. They take up space on kerb-sides, next to the new Metro exits, and near mall entrances.
“Get a mask and a handkerchief,” is the advice from a colleague who grew up in Jakarta, as I head out at 6 pm, keen to make it to Kota from the city centre. Downtown Jakarta, on a typical weekday evening, is a mix of Mumbai’s skyscraper ambitions (a construction site is never too far), the impressionist haze of Delhi winter, and traffic worse than Bengaluru’s. Naturally, bikes are popular.
Hailing one off an app is quick enough. The two big players are Go-Jek and Grab, with Go-Jek being the big local brand. They started in 2011, with 20 bike taxis (Ojek is Bahasa for bike taxi). Initially, you had to call a central number, give them your address, and pay cash. Since then, Go-Jek has switched to an app, faced protests from local cabbies, and grown to add cabs, an e-wallet, even beauty services — it’s Uber, Paytm and UrbanClap rolled into one.
My 20-something rider speaks no English. But as he rolls up in his sub-100-cc scooter, he confirms my name, unlatches a battered, branded, green spare helmet, and pulls a single-use pollution mask out of plastic packaging. The helmet’s too big, and the scratched up visor keeps snapping shut every time we brake. We snake through traffic, a deft orchestra of brakes and accelerator keeping us from crashing into the cars and bikes we’re in touching distance of. It doesn’t help that my rider keeps fishing his phone out to check the map.
The skyscrapers gradually recede, replaced by low-rise buildings and, at times, posh bungalows. The lights are now not from malls and offices, but from food carts. Try the meatball soup called bakso; the piping hot banana fritters, pisang goring, drizzled with chocolate sauce and condensed milk; and the colourful local sweets called jajanan pasar.
The estimate of one hour on Google Maps shrinks to 20 minutes. It leaves me enough time to wander Kota Tua’s massive Dutch-style square, which is flanked by houses and a canal and looks like Amsterdam’s less-well-to-do relative. It also makes me wonder if bike taxis would work in Delhi and Mumbai if they were not mired in regulation. Two wheels go where three and four don’t.
- Bike taxis are the fastest way to get around. Download Go-Jek and Grab. They also operate taxis, and have dedicated pick-up zones at the airport. Both are inexpensive.
*-Jakarta also recently got a Metro line, though it only runs through central Jakarta.