Monday, August 29, 2011

My Vertical Neighborhood

The other day, I realized that I live and work -- both -- on the 26th floor. Not in the same building, thankfully, but in two of about a dozen high-rises within the mile radius that is my vertical neighborhood. My commute to work is about 15 minutes' walk, in an area known as Mega Kuningan, about 3 miles south of Thamrin, the central commercial and retail district of Jakarta. Mega Kuningan itself is more of an office district, with a handful of residential towers surrounded by embassies galore. If you remember the high-profile bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel adjacent to a Ritz Carlton in 2006... yep, I pass by there every day. The Ritz Carlton stands in all its glory in the middle of it all, its hotel and apartment towers gracing the 12 o'clock mark of the roundabout, "bunderan" Mega Kuningan. The neighborhood has very decent and well maintained pedestrian infrastructure, though the granite bits of tiles can be slippery when wet, but walking is a pleasure along its tree-lined radials.

I live above Mall Ambassador, immediately to the north and across Jalan Satrio, a main thoroughfare, from Mega Kuningan. Starting around the early 1980s, high-rise mixed-use developments were sprouting like mushrooms in Jakarta. The Ambassador-ITC Kuningan complex comprises of 2 malls and 2 residential towers above. It is a "middle-class" mall -- the best kind to live in as it has everything under one roof.

You name it: Bazaar stands selling clothes, shoes, and even furniture, to 3m-by-3m shops where glasses, watches, bedsheets, and food get vended, repaired and cleaned. Restaurants and other food and beverage outlets dot the scene and occupy keystone corners, while half of the 4th floor of both Ambass and ITC is covered every square meter in food court style eating. The 2 malls are also known for consumer electronics and paraphernalia: handphones, laptops, cameras, and perhaps the one thing nobody can resist, pirated DVDs at 7,000 rupiah (80 US cents) a pop. Not to mention the absolute necessities, like banks, telecom and Internet ISP outlets, and a foot reflexology place (80,000 rupiah, 9 USD for 1.5 hours including a seated back-and-arm massage). I have two choices for grocery shopping: All Fresh for fruits and veges when I don't feel like facing Carrefour's neon zoo ambience. A third option for me is Ranch Market on my way home from work, an upscale reinterpretation of Ranch 99, the cheap Chinese supermarket chain of California's suburban Chinatowns like LA's San Gabriel Valley and the SF Bay Area's El Cerrito. The Ranch Market is located at the Oakwood, a very high quality serviced apartment complex with pretty good but not as large variety of services as Ambass. The keystone tenant is Loewy's where the food and decor is French-influenced and which people say is influenced by Pastis in New York.

While I might derive guilty pleasure from all this consumerism, I can go to sleep at night knowing my transportation carbon contribution is almost zero.

This is already beginning to sound like tooting the climate change/green horn, but I am just glad I don't have to get in a car to get to work. They say in Sweden people talk nonstop about the weather; here in Jakarta it is always the opportune moment to semi-boast a traffic jam, or "macet" story. Often we have a weather-related macet story. The other day, due to the flyover construction on Jalan Satrio, the street where Ambassador is located, it took me almost an hour to get home from work by taxi in the rain.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Jakarta, Indonesia

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Getting around in Jakarta

Hello again after many months' hiatus. I wrote some of the following as part of a one-month update email from my new city. It organically ended up being city-related, and got surprisingly good response. Thanks for those who replied and caught on the urban-speak.

I am settling well in my new life here -- enough to take on a (calculated) urban adventure the other night: I got a ride home on a motorbike from a stranger. One of the things that make this place strangely familiar yet familiarly strange. Even though I was born in Indonesia (in the second city, Surabaya in East Java), before I came here to Jakarta, the capital, I had never heard of this transit option in Jakarta called the "ojek," a motorbike whose owner takes you where you want, like a taxi. I didn't exactly ride an ojek, but have been really curious to try it out as another option, especially in a bad jam and over a short distance.

I was waiting for a cab, in vain as such the case may be on the eve of a long weekend. Blue Bird, the taxi company that people would insist is the only trusty one, employs staff at large malls to direct empty taxis to the stand. After dinner, my friend Ani engaged with them, hoping they could help us. They confirmed taxis have been few and far between since they started work at 2 that afternoon. When one of them offered to take me on his way home on his bike, I was doubtful, but asked if he had a spare helmet. He couldn't give a straight answer so I kept waiting for a cab, any cab at this point. Finally I accepted when the Blue Bird guy handed me a helmet, which passed my cursory cleanliness check. I got home in 10 min, much faster than in a cab in a jam, an all-to-common experience here that leaves commuters frustrated and helpless.

Jakarta's traffic jams continue to amaze me, with the alternatives to the automobile that are actually available. Walking is one, though pedestrian infrastructure is non-existent or needs improvement in most areas. Ojeks are another that allow weaving through the macet, or jam. Taxis are usually plentiful and inexpensive, between 20,000 and 35,000 rupiah (3-5 usd) for an average trip within the city, but still prone to the macet. Mikrolets (5,000 rupiah), too, are great for short distances, say between your main road to the busway, which is another great option to skip and slide through the macet. Busways are dedicated lanes for special buses, akin to the Bus Rapid Transit system first started in Curitiba, Brazil. I tried it when my Berkeley friend visited, and we couldn't help notice the lack of basic ingredients such as a route map and ventilation at the stations. The stations are located along medians of major boulevards, designed for access via overhead bridges and ramps. The busway is an affordable (3,500 rupiah), technologically accessible solution to relieve at least some of the pressure off the streets. But buses are running at peak capacity already and could be more frequent.

The pilings of a half-built monorail system, like that of Bangkok's and Sydney's, are standing remnants of a less-than-successful transportation planning attempt, and there are talks among gubernatorial candidates about some kind of mass rapid transit currently in the design phase, with aid money from government of Japan.

Meanwhile, from my 26th floor apartment, windows closed, I hear the clangs and bumps of construction down below, of a flyover hoped to relieve traffic along the infamously jammed Jalan Casablanca. From my balcony, I watch not one but two new mall-and-apartment complexes take form, lights from cranes flying through the night air.

More retail, more housing, and a flyover are sure to drive up surrounding property prices. That makes many people happy. But the underlying norm is still this metallic box we call the car, relatively expensive here compared to the US (20,000 USD buys an Indonesian-made Toyota Kijang Inova, raised like an SUV but not one, practical for the rainy season when it never fails to flood). Gas prices are not cheap either, a dollar to the liter, though I found out Pertamina started selling "low-income" gasoline at half the price. How people afford all these cars, or why they think it is a good investment of their money given all the jams, is so far one of the biggest mysteries to me and why traffic jams continue to amaze me.

Here are some comments I received:

From Ben in Oakland who lived in Jogja, Central Java, for 2 years---
If I were you, I think I'd buy a good motorcycle helmet for myself and naik ojek basically every day to and from work during rush hour. Did you see this recent New York Times article on Jakarta gridlock?
The Economist also had a couple short, pithy article on Jakarta's growing pains last year:

From Chris in New York who grew up and whose family still lives in Jakarta---
You know in China they have this booming business where in the case of jams, you call this number and two people from the company comes to your car (in their motorbike), and one of them motorbikes you home while the other one takes care of your car, sits through the traffic jam, and delivers it home hours later. I hear this service costs 80 RMB (which is something like US $17??)... What a great idea right?!

Chris also reminded me of Jakarta's version of a carpool/High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) system, the "3-in-1 Zone" in the center of town where during peak hours only cars with more than 3 people can enter:
...But I also found out last trip home that although they have the HOV rule during peak hours in high traffic areas, that actually young kids, 9 or 13 years old, offer their service as "jockeys" so you can pay them (30,000? rupiah) to sit in your car as the THIRD PERSON while you go through the area covered by the rule. So, so interesting then how (A) they try to make improvements, follow the usual ideas from all over the world to solve transportation problem, but the infrastructure of the place is such that their half-assed efforts fail (B) but also beautiful how that failure shows you really resourceful poor, young kids who can always like "figure it out," figure out a way to make money (though it's no money) in whatever situations the government half-assedly create.

From Francesca in Berkeley, fellow environmental planner from the Philippines---
Hi Jane, Thanks for your update from Jakarta. I've never heard of an Ojek. Do you have tricycles too like we do in the Philippines? I remember taking public transpo in Manila and trying to determine best forms of getting somewhere. And no one there uses maps, it's always landmarks, or other "mental maps"

Yes, we do have the becak, a tricycle with a shaded seat in front and the cyclist behind, not so much in Jakarta where they were banned, but more in Surabaya and other cities. Ah, seems like the non-use of maps is not unique to this place.

From Xinying doing her Master's in international development planning at Duke, originally from Singapore---
It really is a stark contrast, seeing how Beijing's crazy underground system has burgeoned (as well as the city), I don't see the traffic at all everyday. I take the subway and there's a saying that the Beijing officials never need to worry that public transport system will ever be underused. The squeeze everyday back home has made me do the "doubletake" similar to what i sometimes considered from [the CBD] down [the other direction] and back. But it is not like it has alleviated the traffic jams at all. I learnt that they also have a car quota system now, they have to bid to buy a car. Beijing's system is free, Shanghai's is paid like Singapore's COE. Every car has one day they cannot drive in the whole Beijing city. Parking prices in the city are mandated to be high (which i think its like 2RMB per 15min, which works out to be about US$1.20 per hour).