Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: transportation (Page 1 of 7)

Traffic on Pasar Senen, Jakarta.

Jakarta’s bus-metro

Before visiting Jakarta three years ago, I read someplace that the Indonesian capital may be the largest city in the world without a metro railway. A couple of other cities could contest that claim, but Jakarta is certainly one of the biggest metro-less cities.

Instead of a metro railway, Jakarta has the Transjakarta Busway, a hybrid transportation technology that is effectively a bus metro. The buses run in their own lanes and stop at stations that can only be entered with a smartcard. The bus doors are high off the ground to meet the station platforms, so it is only possible to board the buses through the stations. There can still be quite a gap between bus and platform, more than on any metro I’ve ridden.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A busway station

A busway station

Interior of another busway station.

Interior of another busway station.

At its best, the Transjakarta Busway is faster and more efficient than regular buses, which are at the mercy of all the other traffic in a city. It was also much cheaper to build than a metro railway, because the buses run on existing roadways rather than purpose-built tunnels. At its worst, the busway may not offer much advantage over regular buses, because traffic doesn’t always stay out of the designated bus lanes.

Jakarta was the first place I saw a busway, but then when I went to Yogyakarta in south-central Java, I found a small busway system in that city as well. When I moved to Jaipur later that year, I saw what appeared to be the ruins of a rapid-transit bus system. On one of the roads on the western side of the city, buses ran in their own dedicated lanes, but the lanes were not always open, and at other times non-bus traffic infiltrated the lanes.

To return to Jakarta: there is a metro railway under construction in Jakarta, but it has yet to open. When it does, the Transjakarta Busway will probably continue to operate alongside it.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Indonesia has two other public transportation technologies that are worth mentioning: ojeks and becaks. Ojeks are motorcycle taxis. The passenger sits on the back of the motorcycle behind the driver. Thanks to their narrow profile, ojeks can weave through traffic. I understand that motorcycle taxis are common elsewhere in southeast Asia. It seems that they could be popular in India as well, but they have not caught on there for some reason—possibly because they would not be practical for women traveling alone.

The other distinctively Indonesian mode of public transit is the becak, a three-wheeled cycle-taxi. (The c in “becak” is said like ch in “change.”) Unlike the cycle-rickshaws of India or the trishaws of Malaysia, becaks have a passenger seat in the front, and the driver sits in the back. The use of becaks has fallen off considerably in recent decades, but they are still around, especially in touristy areas.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

The turtle-taxis of Tabasco

I have written quite a lot on this blog about autorickshaws, the remarkable three-wheeled taxis derived from motor scooters that are used extensively in India. In this post, I explained the surprising origins of a common name for the vehicle, and in this one, I described them as a creole technology. This term, introduced by David Edgerton in his fascinating book The Shock of the Old, describes a technology that originated in one part of the world but took on new and different uses in another part. In the case of autorickshaws, scooter technology came from Europe, but this technology transformed into a ubiquitous urban and rural mode of transportation in India and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

A Bajaj autorickshaw at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

Bajaj autorickshaws at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

When I wrote those posts five years ago, I had no idea that there was an entire dimension to this creole technology that I had completely missed. It turns out that autorickshaws are not just used in southern Asia. They are also used extensively in Latin America.

On a recent visit to the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico, I got to go on a couple of rides in a pochimóvil, as autorickshaws are called there (apparently because the vehicle’s hard fiberglass shell is reminiscent of the Tabasco mud turtle or pochitoque).

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

A pochimóvil in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

The pochimóviles I saw were very similar in design to those I am familiar with from India, and in fact they were manufactured in India by the industrial conglomerate Bajaj. One of them even had a little sticker behind the handlebar that said (in English) “MADE IN INDIA.”

Interior of a pochimovíl.

Interior of a pochimóvil.

The only significant differences I could identify between Indian and Mexican rickshaws were accessories, like the fiberglass shell (most autorickshaws in India have fabric tops) and proper doors for the passengers. Since the driver sits in the middle of the front, an autorickshaw can just as easily drive on the right side of the road (in Mexico) as the left (in India).

Mexico and India are very different from each other, but as I observed in an earlier post, both countries share certain similarities in terms of economics and (at least in tropical Tabasco) climate, so technologies like autorickshaws/pochimóviles work well in both places.

Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

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