The number of cyclists in cities increased significantly during the pandemic. Experts say local administrations should use the trend as an opportunity to upgrade public transportation system in a bid to improve air quality.

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep the country, Audi Nuraisa (31), began to cycle routinely. Although initially her motivation for cycling was simple, because she could not drive, she later turned serious and developed a habit to use bicycles to go to and from her office.

“Although I do not really understand about air pollution, I do really know that the air in Jakarta is extraordinarily dirty,” Audi said in Jakarta early in August. “Therefore, I decided to go cycling so that I do not add to the pollution.”

For Noer Cholik (38), cycling had already become part and parcel of his lifestyle, even long before the pandemic struck . He rides his bicycle to go to work, to go to the market, mini marts or the food stalls near his home. He has been cycling for a long time and he joined the Bike To Work community in 2007.

“By cycling, one can actually invite a lot of people to prevent worsening air pollution,” Noer said in Yogyakarta where he lives. He said that although the quality of the air in Yogyakarta was far from being as bad as in Jakarta “it feels like air quality during the pandemic is still much fresher than before the pandemic.”

The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have indeed prompted people across the world to cycle more, including in Indonesia. The Indonesian Association of Bicycle Producers (APSINDO) has noted that demand for bicycles in the country has soared from 2.1 million units in July 2020 to currently around 7 million units.

The Jakarta Transportation office also said that the number of cyclists in the capital soared by 1,000 percent during the pandemic. In 2019, the increase was just 560 percent.

Chairman of the Bike to Work (B2W) community for 2016-2021, Poetoet Soedarjanto said that the number of cyclists in the Greater Jakarta Area (Jabodetabek) has definitely risen compared to before the pandemic. He said that cycling was more appropriate as a sports in times of physical distancing requirements during he pandemic.  People also cycled to prevent crowds such as in public transportation.

Air pollution is not a new issues in Indonesia, especially in large cities such as Jakarta. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), said that emissions from motorized vehicles contributed 70 percent of pollutants such as Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and particulates (PM), in urban environments.

Specifically for Jakarta, land transportation is the main factor behind the high level of pollution, contributing up to 75 percent according to the Jakarta Office of the Environment.

In Yogyakarta, air pollution issues only began to surface in early 2020. As a tourist city as well as a student city, the air pollution is mostly due to the annual rise in the number of motorized vehicles. A study conducted by the Center for Transportation and Logistical Studies of the Gadjah Mada University in 2015 showed that motorized vehicles contributed more than 60 percent to the total emission from roads.

In Jakarta the Air Pollution Standard Index issued by the city’s environment office showed that for the entire year of 2020 there were only 19 days that could be classified as having good air quality. Another 225 days had what is categorized as medium air quality while 89 were unhealthy and three very unhealthy.

In 2020, Yogyakarta experienced 67 days of medium air quality and five that were unhealthy, while the rest was categorized as having good air quality. The city itself only acquired its first air pollution monitoring station in September of 2019.

Even though air data for 2019 is still classified as under testing phase, the station recorded that among the 122 days between September 1 and December 31 of 2019, 13 days had unhealthy air quality, 69 had medium air quality and only 40 days had good air.

 “It is true that motorized vehicles are the cause of this air condition in Yogyakarta. The bad air quality is shown by the CO parameter which was between medium and unhealthy especially in January-April 2020,” said Sutomo who heads the technical unit of the Environmental Laboratory of the Yogyakarta City Environment Office. In May-December, air quality in Yogyakarta improved although  the unhealthy CO parameter remained.

In 2021, the Gadjah Mada university and the Purpose Climate Lab initiated the Jogja Lebih Bike movement aimed at a better  control over air quality in Yogyakarta. This coalition  installed Airly air quality sensors that were connected by Nafas, an application that monitors air quality in real time and can be accessed by the general public.

There were five locations monitored in Yogyakarta city. One of those is Sleman District where subdistricts Umbulharjo, Gondolayu, Sayidan, Sorowajan, and the Gadjah Mada University were monitored. The location of the Airy sensors were determined as a result of a study on air quality measurement conducted jointly with the university’s Center for the Studies of Transportation and Logistics.

“From the points we monitor, although the situation during the pandemic showed the average daily air status as moderate but art certain times, the air quality is often not healthy for vulnerable groups.” said Dionaldy Permana,  a campaigner for the Purpose Climate Lab Yogyakarta. 

The sensors that were installed in 2021 showed that the monthly average air quality in Yogyakarta for the first five months of 2021 was around 70-113 μg/m3. That meant that air quality was within the range of moderate to unhealthy and could impact human health, especially vulnerable groups.

The sensors were indeed installed at locations close to mobile emission sources that were behind the worsening air quality in Yogyakarta. KLHK data showed that in the first eight months of 2021, there were 210 days with good air quality and 24 with moderate quality.

Aldy said that Yogyakarta will continue to face the threat of air pollution if control on air pollution at their sources is not conducted seriously. The pollution could give rise to serious ailments and a lowering of the people’s quality of life.

“If it continues to worsen, it could accelerate the death rate even though we know the quality of life in Yogyakarta is good,” he said,

A WHO study shows that air pollution causes around seven million early deaths every year. Although there are yet no comprehensive studies on the impact of air pollution, it already had long been felt by people living or conducting activities in the capital.

Istu Prayogi (56), has been suffering from chronic lung ailments since 2016. The native of Purworejo who had moved to Jakarta in 1989 said  he did not smoke and always wear mask when conducting outdoor activities in Jakarta.

“The diagnose from the doctor was that I am sensitive to dirty air.  Whenever I am in Jakarta, I also suffer from headaches, maybe this is because of the high level of pollution,” said Istu who now lives in Depok, West Java.

Meanwhile, Khalisah Khalid worries about the health of her children whenever they play outside. Her eldest  is 10 years old who has an allergy and often suffers from nosebleeds . The doctor’s diagnosis is that his blood thickness is 1.5 times higher than normal. Khalisah said that whenever her son’s nose bleeds, it could last up to one hour and can sometimes happen three times in a day. 

“With such a condition my son is among those groups that are vulnerable to air pollution,” said Khalisah.

Istu and Khalisah are part of the 32 citizens who have jointly filed a citizen lawsuit against air pollution, “We want to see children grow and develop in a healthy environment and good air quality,” Khalisah said.

Vehicle mobility must be controlled

There are at least  20 million motorized vehicles on the streets of Jakarta every day, leading to air pollution. An analysis conducted by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) showed that the air quality in Jakarta was low for the 2017-2020 period.

For example in 2017, there were only l40 days with good air quality in the capital and this number continued to dwindle.  In 2018 it became 25 days and in 2019, a mere eight days.

As the country the pandemic, when large scale social restrictions were put in place, people were led to believe that the amount of pollutants in the air would be significantly be lower. The sighting of the Pangango Mountain in Bogor from Jakarta, became a trending topic on social media.

However, the CREA noted that there has since been not a single day where the sky and air was clean because of the presence of coal-fired power plants around the city.

Related story: In coal-hungry Indonesia, dirty fuels are made ‘renewable’

In Yogyakarta, a research conducted by the Center for Studies on Transportation and Logistics of the Gadjah Mada University in 2015 found that motorized vehicles contributed more than 60 percent of emissions from roads.

The study finds the core of the emission, in the form of concentrated CO is one of the reasons behind the worsening quality of ambient air in Yogyakarta besides the concentrations of PM2.5, PM10, SO2, O3 and NO2.

When the restriction on resident mobility was applied as part of the emergency large scale restriction on July 3, 2021, Sutomo says one of the parameters of ambient air quality that was used, CO, declined significantly., down to 40% within a week.

“Usually, the average is 1,000 ppm per day and during the emergency restriction it went down by an average of 400 ppm. July showed a better air quality compared to the previous month and there were a number of days with medium air quality,” Sutomo said.

However, the threat of air pollution remained as the number of motorized vehicles increased every year. The Central Bureau of Statistics said that in 2017 there were 1,1 million units of motorcycles, and 158,9721 four-wheelers in Yogyakarta. The number rose by respectively 9,000 and 76,000 units the following year. 

Sa’duddin, a researcher at the  Center for Transportation and Logistics Studies at the Gajahmada University (UGM) worries that if the result of the study was not followed up with the appropriate policy, air quality in Yogyakarta would only worsen adding that  “almost 88percent of the people in Yogyakarta are still dependent on motorized vehicles, especially motorcycles.”

The results of the research was also validated by a follow up research conducted by the regional administration that showed a fluctuating trend for CO from vehicle activities. They were usually high in the morning and in the late afternoon.

ISPU Jakarta dan Yogyakarta
Jakarta and Yogyakarta Air Pollution Standard Index in 2020. Infographic: Betahita/Mongabay Indonesia

Air pollution control has been a concern of the Yogyakarta administration across its offices and among the related parties. Ni Made Dwipanti Indrayanti, the head of the Yogyakarta transportation office said that the local administration already has a design for sustainable transportation to sustainable mobility that puts humans as its priority, putting pedestrians first, then cyclists, followed by public transport, and last, private vehicles.

“It is not only pollution but also traffic jams that have received our attention. They not only worsen air quality, but traffic jams also raise stress levels and lower the quality of life,” she said.

Campaigns to return Yogyakarta as a bicycle-friendly city have been carried out consistently in a bid to curb motorized vehicles. This is followed by the development of infrastructure such as pedestrian areas, improvements in the quality and quantity of public transportation, and the provision of bicycle lanes.

“We have plans to build bicycle lanes across districts/municipalities. Although the challenge is the limited roads and the high number of vehicles using them,” said Dwipanti.

Meanwhile in Jakarta the spokesman of the city’s environmental office, Yogi Ikhwan said that the city administration is committed to engage in various efforts to control air pollution, one of them through the provision of five fixed stations and three mobile stations equipped with additional PM2.5 analyzers, all installed between 2009 and 2020.

Yogi said that greening efforst must also continue to help control air quality in Jakarta . “The regional administration is optimizing the greening of public facilities and infrastructure by planting plants with high pollutant absorption capabilities from 2019 and pushing for the adoption of the green building principles for all buildings through the application of incentives and disincentives,” he said.

The Jakarta administration also issued an emission testing policy for vehicles as well as an upgrading public transportation. Yogi said that a total of 4,032 units of vehicles under the Jak Lingko network have undergone an upgrade and by May 10, 2021, 3,352 units are back on rotation.

“The government has also been tightening emission testings for all private vehicles since 2019 to make sure that there will be no private vehicles older than 10 years operating on Jakarta roads by 2025,” he said.

The Jakarta administration is also encouraging residents to shift to public transportation by improving comfort for pedestrians through the acceleration of pedestrian facilities development in 25 main avenues, arteries and links to mass transportation. High parking fees will also imposed on vehicles that do not pass emission tests.

Related to policies on bicycles, the Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan plans to build a 500-kilometer bicycle lane, 63 kilometer of which have been realized. While the Sudirman-Thamrin main road currently has an 11.2-kilometer dedicated bike lane.

Anies is targeting another 101 kilometers of bike lanes. ”So, God willing, by the end of the year we will have more than 170 km of bicycle lanes,” he told the media in June.

Deliani Poetriayu Siregar, Urban Planning, Gender, and Social Inclusion Associate of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP),  said that despite the administration’s “willingness” to move to a better direction, it needs to double down on its efforts.

She said that the rising public interest in cycling should become a momentum for the government to, for example, accelerate infrastructure development, improve road safety and overhaul of transportation systems.

“We actually have always been cycling, even before the pandemic, but this has not yet become a priority for policy makers,” said Deliani adding that the current city planning concept is still stuck in a status quo and remained focused on motorized vehicles.

Aldy from the Purpose Climate Lab chimed in by saying that awareness regarding the air quality and the environment where the community lives needs to be increased.

“Access to information also needs to be improved and made easier. How to create a public trust through policies that are pro-cyclist and improve air quality.”

An alternative solution

Sa’duddin says that bicycles could become the bridge in air pollution control efforts in a number of big cities, including Jakarta and Yogyakarta. For example in Jakarta, workers can ride their bicycle to their public transport departing point to go to their office. This is very applicable considering the very adequate public transportation system in the capital, compared to Yogyakarta for example.

In Yogyakarta the existing public transport facilities do not yet allow the use of inter-modal transport such as bicycles as not all bus shelters have parking space and the buses are not equipped to carry bicycles.

However, UGM and the Purpose Climate Lab along with cycling communities, have begun to campaign about good air quality in Yogyakarta. The #dekatbersepeda (close with cycling) campaign carried in the Jogja Lebih Bike, calls for people to start cycling for short distances.

A study conducted by ITDP jointly with the University of California in 2015 showed that a 20 percent increase in the number of cyclists in the world could help reduce carbon emission from the transportation sector by 11 percent in 2050.

And if commuters and drivers shift to cycling, a saving of $24 trillion could be made between 2015 and 2050. A figure calculated from the reduction in energy use, improved living quality, and climate change mitigation efforts. 

Another study  shows that individuals who cycle every day have an 84 percent lower carbon emission that if they used other vehicles. An average person who switches transportation from a car to a bicycle for just one day a week, can reduce their carbon footprint by 3.2kg of CO2, or equivalent to emissions produced from 10 kilometer of driving.

The study said cycling is an alternative transportation mode that could quickly reduce emission and has the potential of having a global impact.

Sepeda diyakini bisa menjadi alternatif transportasi tanpa polusi
SOLUTION WITHOUT POLLUTION. With the support of an integrated public transportation system, bicycles can be an alternative transportation without pollution in urban areas. Infographic: Betahita/Mongabay

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted millions around the world to ride bicycles, including in Indonesia. In 2020, the Indonesian Bicycle Entrepreneurs Association (APSINDO) noted an increase in domestic demand for bicycles during the pandemic, reaching 7 million units. This figure far exceeds the purchase of motorcycles, a total of 2.1 million units as of July 2020.

According to the DKI Jakarta Transportation Agency, the number of cyclists in the capital increased by 1,000% during the pandemic. That number increased dramatically compared to 2019, which recorded an increase of 560%.

Deliani said that many were already riding their bicycle even before the pandemic, especially women, but as their range was limited to within their village or residential areas, they did not make the statistics..

In their work with villages, ITDP found that for the period of 2018-2019, female cyclists spent 12 hours cycling in their village or residential areas as hawkers of jamu (traditional remedy), bread, and rice meals.

”At the urban ward or sub-district levels, the approach does not necessarily have to lead to protected bicycle lanes such as along the Sudirman-Thamrin avenue. It is just about how to improve the safety of cycling, through interventions such as speed limits for motorized vehicles,” said Deliani. 

B2W’s Poetoet said that bicycles can become a personal alternative transportation mode and a form of contribution by communities  in reducing urban problems such as traffic jams and air pollution.

“Bicycles are actually a ‘solution without pollution’ that can help overcome a number of urban problems,” he said.

One recently established cycling community is the  Puan-Puan Bersepeda (ladies cycling), that was initiated by ITDP in January 2021. ITDP’s Communication and Cooperation Manager Fani Rachmita, said that this community aims to provide a safe space for urban women to get familiar with cycling, a trend that so far has been dominated by their counterpart.

“This movement is to accommodate female cyclists because in the issue of sustainability, the role of women and vulnerable groups is vital. But the obstacles are also many, they concern not only security and safety but also sexual harassment,” said Fani

On the issue of infrastructure, Poetoet expressed hopes that the government will soon complete development of the additional bicycle lanes in the capital to total 200 km. Other supporting infrastructures such as parking facilities, a network of safe and comfortable networks of lanes to and from public transportation areas such as train stations, bus terminals and shelters, should also be provided.

Noer Cholik notes that there are a lot of policies that accommodated the interest of cyclists and pedestrians that looked good on paper, but are not in sync with users’ needs. “Even though we are capable of finding back alleys that go through kampongs, bicycle lanes are still needed in the landscape design of a municipality.” he said. 

There is a need for concrete policies for cyclists, for example the creation of safe spaces for cyclists at red lights. Not only where cyclists could stop and wait as lights change, but perhaps they should  be allowed a few seconds head start over other vehicles  when the light turns green to reduce risks of accidents.*

*This story has been edited for clarity.

This story is part of the “Environemental Story Grant” organised by Ekuatorial and the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ). It’s a collaborative report between Betahita dan Mongabay Indonesia that was first published on respective sites on 10 September 2021.

About the writer

Kennial Laia started her career as a journalist in 2013. Kennial discovered her interest in environmental issues and the climate crisis while covering forest fires in the Riau Islands in 2014. Based in...

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Lusia Arumingtyas

Lusia started her journalism career in 2015 with Jawa Pos, in Jakarta. She currently works as a freelance journalist for Mongabay Indonesia, covering the capital city Jakarta and its greater areas. She...

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