JAKARTA (Kyodo) The tinkling of a bicycle bell may attract little attention in most parts of the world but in Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta, it could be your taxi ride.

In the overcrowded metropolis of about 10 million people, this old-style, two-wheeled form of public transport has survived despite decades of opposition from authorities.

Bicycle taxis are banned in Jakarta, but officials turn a blind eye as long as they “do not operate on main roads.”

Locally called ojek sepeda, the bicycle taxi is officially forbidden along with its “older sister,” the three-wheeled pedicab. City transportation regulations permit only vehicles with four wheels or more for public transport on roads.

Authorities say ojeks, which began appearing in the 1970s, are inhumane for their operators. But that does not stop hundreds of bicyclists from continuing to give rides to their many loyal passengers despite the constant threat that their means of livelihood could be seized.

Construction worker-turned ojek driver Rusmin said that in the past, corrupt officials would often seize the bikes and then demand bribes for their release. But now, he said, local officials are hesitant to crack down on the bicycle taxis amid the ongoing economic hardships.

The reform movement that toppled then Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 after 32 years in power also saw ojek drivers unite to resist any attempt to stamp out their trade.

“Everyone knows we can easily run amok if they seize our bicycles during this difficult time,” Rusmin said.

Ojeks are equipped with a single passenger back seat made of sponge covered by synthetic leather. Their operators wait for passengers outside bus and train stations and at street junctions.

The secret to the bicycle taxis’ survival is their low fares, which undercut Jakarta’s other illegal forms of public transport, such as motorcycle taxis and pedicabs, and their ability to slip through Jakarta’s traffic snarls and down narrow lanes to the doors of people’s homes.

For many of their drivers, however, the ojek has been a lifeline during the prolonged economic crisis that has gripped the country since 1997 and seen the number of unemployed swell to 37 million.

Subagyo, 42, is just one of many poor farmers from Central Java moonlighting as an ojek driver.

He pays 2,000 rupiah (about $.020) a day to rent his bicycle taxi from an ojek rental center. That fee also entitles him to shared accommodation with fellow drivers, with seven sleeping in a 9-sq.-meter makeshift hut.

Charging between 1,000 to 2,000 rupiah a trip, he makes an average of 10,000 to 15,000 rupiah ($1 to $1.5) a day.

That sums puts his monthly earnings on a par with the minimum wage paid to workers in regular jobs in the city.

“I could accept doing work like this as I don’t have enough education. But look at those with good education (senior high school and higher) who are forced by the economic crisis to do this kind of unrespected job. I feel sorry for them,” said Subagyo, who is an elementary school dropout.

Jakarta officials continue to call ojeks inhumane but are likely to continue to turn a blind eye.

“As long as ojeks do not operate on main roads, we will not take any stern actions against them,” said Muhammad Syafei of the North Jakarta Office of Security and Order.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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