To spiff up its image, Jakarta does away with traditional taxis. Officials say three-wheelers are an eyesore in Indonesian capital
Jakarta — By 1991 Tambora Armin's pedal-powered trishaw, where he sleeps, eats, and earns a living, is destined for the ocean floor. His bicycle taxi, along with 22,000 others, is scheduled to be yanked off Jakarta's streets in a new campaign to spiff up the image of Indonesia's capital. Most of them will be dumped in the Java Sea to create a fish reef.
``We don't want Jakarta to be a big village,'' says Muchrodji Sutuomo, who runs the new campaign. ``It must be an international city, modern and metropolitan.''
Known as becaks, the three-wheelers have plied Jakarta's roads for more than a half-a-century, becoming as much a unique fixture as the old canals and colonial Dutch architecture.
Passengers sit in front, on padded seats under an awning, as the high-seated driver pedals and pants from behind. The becaks are often painted with folk-art landscapes in mystical Javanese designs.
Such human-powered transport, like the old rickshaws of Singapore, are considered by city officials inhumane, backward, an eyesore, and a traffic nuisance.
The first air-conditioned buses hit Jakarta's streets this year, and other alternative public transit has been introduced in hopes of replacing becaks and coping with a rapidly growing third-world metropolis.
One new, direct competitor is an orange-colored motorcycle taxi, or bajaj, a three-wheeled vehicle which can carry three passengers.
The bajaj's noisy, polluting, and faster ride are considered a modern update of the quiet, slow, and inexpensive becak.
The city's population has topped more than 8 million, quickly exploding to a projected 15 million by the end of the century. Traffic snarls are more common as the number of motor vehicles increases four times faster than new roads can be built.
The quaint becaks, which serve as sleeping quarters for many of their operators, have been banned this year from major highways, which are lined with tall steel and glass office buildings. Secondary roads are next, starting in 1989, and smaller backroads in 1990.
Foreigners have begun to buy up older models, and two have gone to a museum. The United States ambassador placed a yellow becak on his lawn last year, like an antique horse buggy serving as outside ornament from a lost era.
Evading city police has become Mr. Armin's main worry. He waits for passengers off the central highway near the famous Indonesia Hotel. He knows how to spot the government trucks that roam the city picking up becaks, like garbage. When a trucks nears, Armin speedily pedals out of sight, as if he were a stagecoach chased by Indians.
He, like most becak drivers, is not a full-time Jakarta resident, coming to the city from his village during the off-season for farmers. He earns the equivalent of about one to two dollars a day, after paying rent to the owner of the becak.
City governor Wiyogo Atmodarminto, is the latest of a string of governors who, since the late 1960s, has vowed to rid Jakarta of becaks. Past efforts have resulted in only sporadic raids to confiscate the vehicles.
Most were dumped in the waters off Jakarta in an area where coral reefs have been dynamited and used as construction material.
Last November, Indonesia's President Suharto went fishing on the artificial reef, catching about half a dozen fish, showing how rusty underwater becaks can help revive the fishing industry.
The main problem in eliminating becaks is that an estimated one-third of Jakarta residents still use them, despite what officials think of the becak's image for Jakarta. They are the transport of choice for the city's many slum-dwellers.
Mr. Wiyogo, considered an aggressive and progressive city governor, has taken a humane approach to the problem, planning to retrain many becak operators for new jobs, not just trash their becaks.
Since April, under a $12 million program, the first 500 becak drivers have been trained to be either bajaj drivers, vegetable vendors, carpenters, shoemakers, electricians, or blacksmiths. For the new vegetable vendors, their becaks are often converted into rolling carts.
About half the estimated city's becak drivers are to be retrained, the other half sent back to their villages.
Another plan includes shipping the drivers to the islands of Borneo or Sumatra, under an already established program of moving people off crowded Java to other islands in this archipelago nation.
So far, 30 drivers and their families have been moved to the Indonesia portion of Borneo, called Kalimantan. They took their becaks with them, but only after the bicycle mechanism was converted into machines to process rice and coconuts.
Some former becak drivers may return to the city, says Mr. Muchrodji, perhaps becoming bored as rural homesteaders.
After all, having seen the lights of Jakarta, how can they live in the wilds of Borneo?