Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What’s All the Bus About?

I managed to check out the city's newest attraction this week in an attempt to convince myself that Jakarta is a vibrant, ever-changing metropolis whose development is on an upward trajectory. I toddled out to the main road nearest to my abode (the main Buncit/ Mampang strip) and attempted to convey myself uptown via one of the new busway corridors.

I located the nearest gleaming, chromium plated bus stop and made my way up to the ticket office via what seemed like several kilometers of ramps inclined at a 1° angle to the horizontal. Now Jl. Mampang isn't Jl. Sudirman and consequently the road's median strip, instead of providing plenty of room for a bus shelter, is in fact only about 2 foot wide. The fiendishly clever architects have got around this intractable problem by designing and building bus stops like high-tech space cities in which the ticket offices and extra waiting areas are suspended 20 feet above the road.

At the ticket office I perused the handsome new busway system map with its nicely color-coded lines dovetailing into neat terminals. The map's ordered topography gives the weary traveler the reassuring illusion of there being some kind of integrated plan underlying the city's pell-mell transportation system. I purchased a dinky little paper ticket as the electronic ticketing system is not ready for use yet.... and neither, apparently, are about 80% of the required number of buses, but that's another story. I then descended from the hovering spaceport waiting area into the 3 foot wide street level platform.

It was about half past nine at night and I was the only passenger waiting. On a weekday morning though, I imagine it's going to be a pretty tight squeeze in these chromium cattle sheds. A bus arrived within five minutes and I hopped on to await my fate. The new busway buses are very sexy and also have an amazing two doors in them, an improvement over the original busway corridor coaches. This is no doubt an attempt to obviate those Indonesian elevator moments that we all know and love; the ones that make you shout, "Look! Can we get out first before you buggers try to get in."

Then we were off. The joy of steaming through Mampang's gridlock (ironically exacerbated by the busway itself) was intense. "Look at those fools in their puny little cars," I scoffed as we sailed along the asphalt, passing idling autos by the score as if on some magic carpet. At one point however, we did almost clip a car which was turning right across the busway at the time. Maybe they should fit these buses with black box recorders. Unfortunately, trying to extract one from the mass of cars and humanity down on one of Jakarta's busy arteries before their homing beacon radio transmitters ran out would perchance prove far harder than retrieving one from the bottom of the ocean.

While we're on the subject though, may be Adam Air should ditch their fleet of geriatric 737s and shift down a gear into a less technically demanding field such as buses. It would be a lot safer for all concerned and Adam Bus could make up the shortfall in the number of buses by buying a load of 17 year old ones from Japan, painting them in their garish orange livery and pretending that they're brand new.

Back to my epic, corridor busting voyage though. We were soon sailing effortlessly up Jl. Rasuna Said and it felt wonderful. Flying past the skyscrapers at night on a brand-new almost empty bus allowed me to entertain the fantasy that I was in Singapore or Europe. Only the half constructed monorail pillars sticking up forlornly into the sky served to remind me where I was (and when are they going to start building the damn thing again? it's been months now).

Alas, at the top end of Rasuna Said, we reached the narrow bridge that runs over the stinking river below and the busway concept came a little unstuck. It hasn't been possible to cordon off a separate busway corridor on this narrow section and so passengers will soon find themselves grinding to a halt with all of the other cars during rush hours when it’s bumper to bumper.

My shiny new bus turned left at the Izzi Pizza after the flyover (just before Menteng) and I disembarked at another of the busway's chromium cathedrals. This one was having a few teething troubles however and my Singaporean/first world transportation fantasies were rudely interrupted by the platform doors which opened about four inches before grinding to a halt. A smiling busway employee was soon on hand to crowbar the bloody things open (I swear I don't make this stuff up) and I strolled down another shiny metal walkway into the frosty Jakarta night.

I would have to get a taxi home as the buses stop at 10 o'clock but I had nevertheless saved myself some time and money on my trip. I do wish the powers that be would consider running the buses until midnight at least but Jakarta does indeed go suddenly quiet after about 10 o'clock at night, you just try finding a decent restaurant open after that time and you'll see what I mean.

Still feel like driving? Cast your Kijangs into the sea I say and join the new urban bus warriors. We corridor kids are now surfing around town like bats out of hell; wild eyed loners at the gates of oblivion. I'm going to get a leather jacket made with Jakarta Busway embossed on the back in metal studs. All you squares watch out.

Simon Pitchforth