Look into any bicycle shop in Jakarta and you will find that bikes are either sold out, or the store representative is too busy to answer you – either because they have a lot on their plates answering orders or they are too busy repairing bikes. If you’re wondering why this is, this is because Indonesian’s are abandoning malls and taking up cycling as their new pastime.
In 2020, data gathered by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy stated the rate of bicycle use has increase by 1,000%, as quotedintheStar news. Oddly enough, not too long ago in early 2019, journalists were expressing their disappointment at how little attention was given to the cycling community and how Jakarta and its municipalities was not a bike and pedestrian friendly city. PichayadaPromchertchoo, from Channel News Asia, explicitly expressed her concerns on this. However, in 2020 attention towards cycling has made a 180-degree turn, as now almost every household in Indonesia owns a bike and is actively using it. More and more people are slowly shifting their hobbies towards biking, and the root of the cause might be a little more abstract.
Cycling has been in Indonesia before it was even a country
To understand the cycling craze in Indonesia, it is important to briefly understand the history of cycling in Indonesia, and the role it played pre-independence.
In Tetske T. Van der Wal’s novel, “I thought you should know”, she documented her grandparent’s life in the Dutch-East Indies and partly praised the Dutch for their ideas. She posited how influential the Dutch were in introducing first world inventions to the East Indies. Clever Dutch engineers, as described by Van der Wal, introduced roads, bridges, railways and of course, bicycles, and subsequently velodromes.
The bicycle was first used in Indonesia by the Indies military, but it was quickly used for other activities as a means of getting from point A to point B. There was however, a catch to it.
A caveat of cycling for Indonesians was that they were limited to wealthy Dutch aristocrats. Bikes were expensive, prestigious items and it was a symbol of wealth and power that could only be enjoyed by a small minority of rulers. Fast-forward to the 50s, the Dutch had already pulled out of Indonesia, but left behind their technology. Due to the political climate at the time, Sukarno had banned Western products from entering Indonesia, including European and American-made bicycles. But that in turn left a vacuum, and the market for locally made bikes were filled by Chinese-Indonesians, as stated by the website ‘Bike for Dad’ of Chungkalong University, Thailand.
Bicycles started losing popularity in the 60s and 70s, with the introduction of motorbikes and cars. They started going out of fashion and were no longer a convenient mode of transport. What was once a state of the art invention was no longer àla mode. The problem is that Van der Wal’s grandparent’s didn’t realise just how big a craze cycling would be 80 years later.
In Syaiful Afif’s research paper “The Rising of Middle Class in Indonesia: Opportunity and Challenge”, he predicted in 1998 that there would be 85 million people in the consuming class in 2020. He was right. Indonesia’s middle class has money to spend more than ever and this arguably has helped spur at least one industry: bicycles.
Despite no more car-free days for the time being, more people are biking than ever before. The answer to this phenomenon: Coronavirus. With new restrictions on how many people can sit in a car and malls closed, people have started coming up with new ideas on how to tackle boredom and spend their money. In addition, the roads are also quieter. There is also a consensus that cycling more will keep you fit, and being fit is a good way to combat the coronavirus – even though research shows otherwise. Pollution levels have also dropped to an all-time low, according to data by IQAir. Recent data showed that Jakarta’s air had an Air Quality Index (AQI) of just 74 on average (July, 2020). All these factors came together nicely and thus resulted in the new biking fad.
Cycling now has seen an emergence and it is quickly becoming Indonesia’s favourite past time. But the reasons go beyond than just a “past time” to do when teenagers are bored, or when office workers are idle at home.
What’s different to then and now? Cycling has changed to become a form of identity – it is a way for individuals to feel like they are part of a community and have a sense of belonging. The uniforms that some groups wear when they ride are comparable to that of Harley Davidson Groups, or even more extreme groups such as gangsters of the West coast of America and the Punk subculture. It symbolises a form of companionship, just like any other sports team. It is an unwritten agreement to ride together and be friends.
Much like how cycling was associated with status, wealth and power during the Dutch colonial period, it has re-emerged to have its own branding, not necessarily about wealth, but about health, fitness, companionship and solidarity – which are important values to Indonesians. The filter known as social media has helped spread these values to younger Indonesians, which in turn spread to other groups and this is where we are today, and much like how everyone has a different Harley, everyone has their own unique bike, which may tell a story about the person themselves.
This is why cycling has had a more powerful presence, because we live in times where we lean on each other for support rather than being individualistic. Helping one another has mattered so much more recently and cycling acts as a channel to express these ideas of solidarity. It is also an activity that appeals to everyone, something not just for rich aristocrats, however, we do take bicycles today for grantedbut we should remember that bicycles were perceived at one point in time as first world technology being introduced to the new world. What we regard today as a primitive form of transportation, was once considered a marvellous feat of engineering. Right now, it is uncertain whether or not this hype will continue, or if it will once again be a remnant of history, a mere fad that was “fun at its time”, but never taken seriously.