October 20th, 2011
Agile traffic - All's well that honks well
In October I've spent about 24 hours on the roads of Jakarta. At first I was annoyed, as the traffic was seemingly not moving at all, but slowly I myself was deeply moved by the subtle, graceful and yet effective way in which Indonesians manage to get from A to B. While in German traffic every tiny aspect is regulated (signs galore), Indonesian traffic is a great example of agility at its best. I'm not saying Indonesian traffic is superior to German traffic, it's just more agile, it has less overhead and regulates itself.
(Of course there are upsides to regulations, for example security aspects. In Indonesia you have a lot of inadequately equipped vehicles, and also reckless behaviour like mobile phone usage. I don't think this is something that should be left to the traffic participants alone. I think of that as a framework, like Scrum in agile software development).
A typical Indonesian road is a strip of tar of varying width, surrounded by a ditch where vendors are offering fruit and food in tiny stalls. There is no sidewalk. Lines marking lane borders are rare, so sometimes a single lane is used by up to five vehicles, slow buses on the outer left (Indonesians drive on the left), normal vehicles next, and motorcycles in between. Yes, it's pretty crowded. These dynamic lanes seem to have a life of their own, they form and are abandoned organically. There is no comfort zone, or if there is one, it's thinner than the paper (or laptop) I'm writing on. If there is space, it is used.
In Germany, every car and its inhabitants are highly insured, and rules determine what behaviour is acceptable. In my opinion these factors contribute to careless behaviour and even road rage. First, apart from your health, you don't have a lot to lose, any damage is covered. Regulation takes responsibility away from individuals, when a light is green or if there's a zebra crossing, you just go. Any (involuntary) violation of traffic rules is potentially harmful.
In Indonesia, insurances are not common. There are traffic regulations, but they are regarded more as recommendations, and function as additions to common sense. People appear to act responsibly and take care of each other, despite the competitive setting with lots of vehicles on narrow roads. There is more communication among the traffic participants. People signal by hand, and if traffic is really stuck, locals suddenly operate as traffic wardens, directing traffic by signalling and whistling. People pay them a few Rupiah as they pass.
Allow me to close with my favourite form of in-traffic communication, honking. While in Germany honking is mostly utilized during outbursts of road rage, it has developed it into an art form in Indonesia. There are several kinds of honks the most common one being a single, casual honk. Its subtlety is outstanding, it's like breathing. It's achieved by a minimal turn of the wrist, and seems to be performed effortlessly by any driver.
I like to refer to it as the existential honk, it signals that the vehicle is part of the traffic. It's a mistake to assume that drivers can see you. Motorbikes often carry crates and boxes which make them look like trucks from behind. There are buses where broken rear view mirrors have been replaced by tiny purse mirrors. You have to make yourself heard.
The double or multiple honk is also performed casually, but its nature is more imperative. It's utilized mostly in negotiations during lane changes and on intersections. Every vehicle seems to be in slow, yet continuous motion. The multiple honk is also used to express discontent with the behaviour of other vehicles, often targeted at taxis, the fastest four-wheeler on Indonesian roads. However, it is hardly ever emotionally charged.
The long, aggressive honk, by far the most common in Germany, also exists in Indonesia, but it is rarely heard. It wouldn't help anyway.
Imagine the sound spectrum created by dozens of vehicles. You feel like you're part of a Shakespeare play, adapted for trucks, cars and motorbikes. It feels like real dialogue, with a lot of dynamics, while German honking is more discussion or monologue.
In Indonesia, honking is poetry.