Jakartans can’t be turned into pedestrians, so why try?

A few months ago, the New York Times published a pretty good article on why people in Jakarta walk so little. Since I studied this and related questions in-depth from 2010 to 2012, I have some quibbles and additions, but all in all I recommend it.

The article includes quotes from a pro-pedestrian activist. However, in a presentation of my research, I labeled the promotion of pedestrianism in Jakarta a “lost cause.” I harbored almost no hope that walking could significantly replace other forms of transportation, even in the long term. This is unfortunate, because air pollution from transportation causes widespread and severe medical problems among Jakartans, and walking is the cleanest alternative. (It also was frustrating for me because I love to walk.)

So what should an eco-warrior do? In short, this is another example of promoting the best solution that has a decent chance of success. For instance, my analysis was more optimistic regarding cycling and especially mass transit. I assessed my own resources and position and focused on promoting bicycling; others might have the status and clout to lobby for new buses with less-polluting engines.

In any case, it’s important to recognize when noble goals are actually quixotic – and to pursue different ones.

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3 responses to “Jakartans can’t be turned into pedestrians, so why try?

  1. This one made me wonder about how we decide what course of action would have the highest social benefit, and for whom. In Jakarta, for example, the very poor – and, to some extent, kids – are stuck with walking (or perhaps hopping on the back of a dangerous ojek motorcycle taxi). They’re unlikely to be able to access cycling or mass transit, and bear much of the burden of few safe walking routes and vehicle pollution. For that reason, I respectfully contend that there might be good reasons to choose a more difficult path to widen benefits to include more vulnerable people.

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    • Thanks for the challenging comment!
      1) When I lived in Jakarta (2010-2012), poor people walked amazingly little, even in areas with good infrastructure. (I measured this and discussed it with people.) Ethnographic research – mine and others’, recent and decades-old – showed that one of Jakartans’ first uses of even minuscule disposable income was to take some other form of transport.
      2) I do believe that building better infrastructure , maintaining it, and enforcing existing laws against parking, vending, and riding motorcycles on sidewalks would increase walking – although not very significantly. It also, as you note, would benefit Jakartans who, for whatever reason, have to walk. But effecting those improvements appeared to me to be a lost cause. Most Jakartans went considerably out of their way to walk in the shade or to avoid even a drizzle, and many, including police, would absolutely not venture into the rain, so pro-pedestrian infrastructure would require long, long stretches of covered walkways that were well-maintained and not plugged with vendors, panhandlers, and, above all, motorcyclists.
      3) In short, I believe that both increasing the desire to walk and improving the pedestrian infrastructure (away from ritzy areas) were, as of 2012, a lost cause – not only a difficult path but an impractical one. Poor people would be better served by campaigns to reduce vehicular sources of pollution, which affect them disproportionately.

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