A new app hopes to get Jakarta walking again

The app in action. Image: Squee.

Growing up in Jakarta, one of the most vibrant yet congested cities in the world, I used to be highly dependent on cars for daily commuting. However, having moved countries several times over the past four years, I’ve come to realize that nothing beats moving around the city by foot: it gives a great sense of freedom and is far more enjoyable.

Even in Jakarta, where cars rule the roads, walking has the potential to be a faster and more practical alternative way of commuting, if successfully combined with public transport or taxis. By adopting this kind of “multi-modal” approach to commuting, I have far more liberty. I can speed up or slow down as I wish, fit down any outdoor or indoor pathways, reroute anytime or escape traffic congestion when necessary.

Every day, at least 15m commutes are completed on foot or by bike in the Greater Jakarta Area, up to 40 per cent of the total modal shares. This number has also increased by 6 per cent in the last decade, gaining popularity among young and professional Jakarta residents.

Unfortunately, Jakarta’s existing transportation landscape can be daunting and exhausting. Most of our formal urban sidewalks and bike lanes are located along motorised roadways. On top of the stress, danger and pollution from motorised traffic, finding a pedestrian shortcut to a destination in Jakarta can be a challenge. Further, since Jakarta has been car-centric for so long, we citizens lack the information as well as the motivation to build a mental map of viable walkable and bikeable routes within our city.

Tapping into the potential of urban kampongs

Yet, despite heavy reliance on cars, Jakarta holds a whole network of hidden, low-rise pockets that we call urban kampongs (villages). They are everywhere, located strategically between primary urban roadways, and near to our homes, work places, and public transport network.

Many of the kampongs have been developed into modern residential, commercial, or even superblock complexes, while some have persisted in their original form. Those that have remained retain their organically-shaped neighbourhood roads and passageways, which are generally separated from major urban thoroughfares.

Two of Jakarta's urban kampongs. Image: Squee.

Partly covered by greenery, these areas are less polluted and a have a milder temperature than the bustling main roads. By nature, kampong roadways are often utilised as short-cut accesses – referred to in by locals as Jalan Tikus – to reduce travel time or to avoid the hustle-bustle of busy Jakarta. However, routes through urban kampongs are generally unmapped and solely known to kampong-dwellers or frequent passers-by.

I got together with some other Jakarta-based innovators to try and solve this issue. Our desire is for Jakarta commuters to use these forgotten “rat-running trails” hidden behind Jakarta’s imposing network of wide, busy roads and high-rise buildings. The concept for Squee mobile app was born out of this desire.

Enabled by GPS-based mobile technology and crowdsourced information mapping, Squee aims to unify pedestrians and biking communities in Jakarta. The app encourages them to travel together in groups and helps commuters plan and navigate walkable, or bikeable rat-running routes.


By squeeing together, people can share real-time information and enjoy a more pleasant commute. Most importantly, they help keep these routes safe by embracing a new kind of mobility that we call ratwalk-sharing.

Winning the Jakarta Urban Challenge award at the New Cities Summit 2015 was a milestone: my three co-founders and I can now kick-start Squee mobile app as a tech-startup. The week following the Summit, the governor of Jakarta invited us to join him for lunch to discuss our project in more detail and explore the possibilities for future collaboration between us.

With the support from Jakarta City Government, Squee could also be integrated into Smart City Jakarta program. Thus, the Squeeians – our users – would be equipped with an integrated timetable and navigating information for all different types of transport available in Jakarta’s public transport system. Access to this information via Squee will enhance active transport to a more extensive transit-oriented level in the future.

Our ratwalk-sharing concept has a social goal: to bring back the good function of roads and urban kampongs. Aiming to revisit walking and biking as feasible alternative ways of commuting, Squee will not only improve kampong navigation but also help the Squeeians to experience and recognise different information, details, and puzzles of everyday streetscapes. This will eventually create a four-dimensional mental map of Jakarta that cannot be experienced when travelling along the primary roads.

Arlene Nathania Chryssilla is an architect and urban planner. She is the co-founder and CEO of Squee, a social media-based navigation app that unifies pedestrians and cyclists to travel together across kampong rat-running trails in Jakarta.

This article was originally published on the New Cities Foundation's blog.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.