From Cyclists into Commuters

How Indonesia’s cycling boom can be a chance to rethink transportation

The Covid-19 pandemic is pushing more and more people to live a healthier lifestyle. Indonesians flock to the humble bicycle as the solution and the numbers show: Cyclist numbers are at an all time high, with a margin of 1000% compared to October 2019. With more people on bicycles than ever, it seems like now would be the right time for a transportation revolution.

First, a history lesson

Indonesia’s story with bicycles started with the country we all know to be the grand champion of bicycles: The Dutch. During the colonial period, the Dutch brought bicycles from Europe and used it as their main method of transportation, at the same time creating a status symbol that separated the Inlanders or Natives from the Londo (Colonizers). As the 20s rolled by and the Dutch began importing motorized vehicles, the bicycle shifted from being a luxury item to mobilizing the entire nation.

Soekarno with Fatmawati on his bike. Photo by Charles Breijer

It was on a bicycle that Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia truly understood what colonialism did to the natives. As he studied civil engineering in Technische Hoogeschool te Bandoeng (present-day Bandung Institute of Technology) he used his bicycle to explore rural Bandung, seeing the conditions of farmers for himself, and interacting with them to understand the many problems that the natives face everyday under colonial rule.

Indonesian cyclists in Bandung, 1933. Photo from Geheugen van Nederland

Fast forward to the early 60s, and as the economy slowly recovered after the war, Indonesia saw itself being mobilized by the internal combustion engine. The bicycle soon became a relic of the past. Since then, the humble bicycle lived a life of uncertainity. Historian Firman Lubis, stated that the 70s were the decade where bicycles disappeared from cities, due to the rapid growth of motored vehicles. Roads soon became too dangerous for bicycles as it could not keep up with the stampede of motored vehicles appearing in cities.

It was after this that bicycles found a new life. As bicycles as a means of transportation start to fade away in cities, they looked away from the cities and started to use the bicycle for recreation in rural areas. As the terrain in these areas were very different from the usual concrete and asphalt roads of the city, modifications were made. The frame was to be made of lighter materials, the tires were made thicker, and proper suspension were given, thus the Mountain Bike was born, and it became a global phenomenon. The idea of a healthier lifestyle ,along with rising petrol prices in the 70s, made people turn away from their automobiles to look back at the bicycle (and in Indonesia,the motorcycle) as an alternative to transport.

Wiyancoko (2010), in his book states that “bicycles were no longer just modes and tools for recreation, but an alternative lifestyle in the city.” Communities such as Bike To Work Indonesia embraced using bicycles as a primary mode of commuting to promote cycling as a “moral activity that stems from the increasingly worrying pollution, congestion and wasteful energy that mentally degrades humans,” and created a strong following by both cyclists and manufacturers.

While the Bike To Work community drew a massive crowd, it didn’t last forever and declined as time goes on. While there’s no exact reason to why everybody didn’t immediately hop on a bicycle, research from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration state that the root of the problem arises from individual factors such as age, traffic safety, distance to workplace, lack of amenities such as a shower, to environmental factors such a presence of a bike lane, on-road facilities, cycling routes, are just some of what bars many people from choosing a bicycle, as the using a motorcycle or car solves much of those issues.

The present day

Bicyles have been exploding after the covid-19 pandemic. Chart from Statista

Fast forward to 2020, and it appears as if the stage was set for the bicycle renaissance. The interest for living in a more ecologically conscious lifestyle, along with the desire to live a healthier lifestyle amidst the covid-19 pandemic turned people’s heads to the bicycle once again. With many people avoiding public transportation, the bicycle rises to be a cheap, reliable and effective mode of transportation for the masses, and it’s evident, more people are on bicycles than ever.

Of course, this boom will not last forever, and over time the many, many bicycles that were purchased during the pandemic craze will probably sit in attics and collect dust for years to come. Is there a way to keep bicycles on the road?

Bicycle theft is an issue that many cyclists face: one still present today

Truth be told, this change is not something that can be done by a single party. Instead, it becomes a collective effort from various members of the society that aims to create a better world for not just cyclists, but non-cyclists as well. As the Civitas Initative‘s Policy Notes puts it:

Encouraging cycling in the urban environment cannot be achieved only by a top-down measure such as the investment in a bicycle path, A cultural change is needed to encourage road users to leave their cars and switch to cycling or to make new types of trips by bicycle

Changes from Cyclists

While it may not seem apparent at first, many cyclists hold the power to bring up changes in the bigger picture, both within the cycling community and those who aren’t.

the Bike To Work Indonesia Community. Photo from Bike To Work Indonesia

Within cyclists, communities and associations are an excellent way to motivate cyclists to bring change. Communities like Bike To Work Indonesia have proven that people enjoy being part of a larger community. It promotes cycling as not just a transportation solution, but as a desirable social activity where members can open up room for discussion and social interaction between cyclists. Communities can teach new cyclists on effective methods to commute and improve their own routes, teach bicycle maintenance, and motivate cyclists to keep pushing on.

For example, Many motorists (and pedestrians to an extent) have negative feelings towards cyclists due to many instances of them not following the law (such as jumping a red light), being an annoyance on roads (not properly positioning themselves on lanes), and many other things. It’s where communities come in and properly educate cyclists on proper road etiquette and teaching cyclists (especially new ones) to ride responsibly.

The other role of cyclist communities is of course giving input and perhaps pressure towards policy makers to improve the livelihood of cyclists. It’s important because policy makers might not fully understand the many needs of the cycling community, or in some cases, not even acknowledge the existence of it.

Protests made by the Danish Cyclist Federation. Photo from Danish Cyclist Federation

Denmark, a country that many associate as being a country of bicycles, did not start out that way. It was only until cyclists held protests in the 70s for more facilities and car-free days that urban planners in Denmark truly started taking planning for cyclists.

The right directions are taking in Jakarta, Indonesia as well. While cyclists commend the governor, Anies Baswedan for taking initiatives, such as building 25 km of bicycle lanes across the city, with 63 km planned. While doing so, the local government takes steps to actively communicate not just with cyclists, but with police and other instances to regulate the bike lanes.

Changes from Manufacturers and Designers

Technology has opened up opportunities in bike design. Companies like Rad Power Bikes are just one of many who are competing in the electric bikes market. Photo from Paris Gore/ Rad Power Bikes

Over the years, what we expect from a form of transportation has increasingly grown. For example, many people who use a motorcycle consider it’s ability to carry a passenger to be important, and that has barred many people from switching to a bicycle for example. The lack of a bicycle that properly fulfills the needs of what people are accustomed to is something both manufacturers and designers need to take note. Some manufacturers, have taken note to this. Electric Bicycles like the Radwagon was touted as a “car-replacement” — and saw success in turning people to give up the car.

Bicycles with trackers like the Vanmoof Electrified combats Bicycle Theft. Image from Vanmoof

Other examples like the Vanmoof Electrified S, is a bicycle that tries to tackle the long problem of bicycle theft, by implementing an anti-theft and tracker that can be accessed by a smartphone, which to this day is still a rare feature.

A polygon bicycle with Bike To Work Branding. Image from Pinterest

Polygon, an Indonesian bicycle manufacturer has previously made bicycles that specifically caters to new members of the Bike To Work movement. The bicycles were light, easy to manufacture, affordable, and yellow, which was not only to be a homage for the Bike To Work Community, but also so that cyclists would be more visible on the road.

Changes from Policy-Makers

Jakarta’s governor, Anies Baswedan, trying the newly built bike lanes in the city. Photo from Anies Baswedan

It’s no surprise that policy-makers can make a difference. When we think of policy-makers, we often think of increasing bike lanes, but it’s much more than that. Policy makers can implement various policies to increase commuters, such as tax rebates, car-free days, providing cycle-only routes, and implementing bicycles in multi-modal transportation systems.

For example, the UK’s “Cycle to Work” policy transforms cycling to be a work benefit, where employees can get savings on a new bicycle, bicycle accessories, or even both! While it struggled to get new cyclists on board, it made existing cyclists more motivated, shown by an increase of cycling distance after the policy was implemented.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have implemented a much more ambitious policy, such as Bicycle Superhighways where a more efficient route is made to cut down distances.

What cyclists will often find when using these cycling lanes. Photo from Kompas.com

Of course, proper communication need to be established in order to make the proper policies. Making cycling lanes without accounting for the speed other vehicles are going would make cycling lanes too dangerous for cyclists and deter them from using them. Bicycle lanes that are not regulated by the police would be at risk to be misused by parked vehicles, hawkers and other motorized vehicles. Or in the case of the Jakarta’s cycling lane in Jatinegara, which unfortunately goes along the manholes ,giving a very bumpy ride.

Everyone can have a role

While the people stated above have the biggest roles in changing the current state of cyclist, it is without a doubt that everyone can have a role in helping to create a better world for cyclists — even if you don’t intend to be one.

It’s not immediately clear, but when you connect the dots, a better world for cyclists is a better world for everyone. In her Paper, Rachel Aldred stated:

Investing in cycling will generate benefits for the whole country, not just those using a bike to get around.

In the same paper, the benefits of having Danish levels of cycling would:

  • Save a third of road space to cut congestion
  • reducing road deaths by 30%
  • Increase retail sales by a quarter
  • Free up space, as Bicycle parking takes up 8 times less space than cars
  • Reducing air pollution by 400 productive life years

Taking a look back at Indonesia, it’s no surprise that changes are needed to create a more bicycle friendly city. With the current boom in bicycle ownership, increasingly unbearable levels of congestion, pollution and health concerns, it’s becoming much clearer: It’s time for us to see the bicycle and cycling not only in the context of leisure, but as a dependable and reliable form of transportation that will benefit us all.

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Rayhan Finn

Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more