Thursday, August 12, 2004

I love this country # 3

What's good about riding in a public transportation? Many. First, information. There are things you would miss if you keep away from interacting with lay people. It's ironic that you talk about poverty on TV while you don't have the slightest idea on what poverty really means out there. Using traditional mass transportation is one way to get in touch with them ("them" -- for lack of better term, sorry). Second, reality. You surely know how bad the traffic situation in Jakarta is, by driving every morning and evening. But you don't know tidbits beyond that. When you drive your car, you close your window; turn on your AC and maybe, your radio. You feel the fresh air and enjoy your morning news -- to ease your frustration out of the traffic jam. But you certainly "miss" these: the toxic combustion from, especially, buses, trucks, minibuses, and motorcycles; the ammoniac smell from abandoned rainwater (even, human-) drainage/runoffs by the street (really, BY the street, uncovered and blackish!); and of course, the many-kind of "human fragrance"!

This morning, I rode a "mikrolet", again. This is the kind of Toyota-made economy car modified for use as a public mode of transportation. Many of you might not have seen it, so click here (you will also see other modes: "bajaj", "becak", "bemo", "bis", "ojek", etc). Now, look closely at the mikrolet. Do you know how many passengers it can take? Six? Seven? No. Thirteen! Including the driver, we are thus looking at 14 persons in one mikrolet. How so? Well, 2 passengers can sit next to the driver (if you are lucky enough, you can assume the by-the-window seat; otherwise, you have to sit in the middle: should prepare your right thigh and knee to meet with the manual transmission stick every now and then. Girls, don't sit there with miniskirt -- don't say you haven't been warned, later). Now, put 4 people on the left side (by the door) and 5 (or 6, sometimes) on the right side (behind the driver). That makes it 12 or 13 persons. Hey, there is more room. See that brownish, wooden box on the side door? That's a seat! And it can be used by... 2 more persons. There we go.

A little economics quiz. Where is the safest place to seat in a mikrolet? Remember the dictum: one, "people respond to incentive"; two, "people act rationally". From the first dictum, we know that a person will move to where (s)he can gain marginal increase in utility. Talk about "safety" as "utility" for now. So "incentive" here means "extra safety". By the second dictum, we realize that everybody maximize his/her own utility (let's assume away altruism for now). As for the "safety" story, think about the situation in the mikrolet. Do you care with other's safety? Honestly, I care with my OWN safety. Everybody cares with his/her OWN safety. So, the driver cares with his own safety. Naturally he (I haven't seen a female mikrolet driver so far) will act as to protect himself.

Now, look at the situation on the street. Traffic lights are to be violated. Vehicles cross one another, from either side, within 3 centimeters apart. Motorcycles intercept cars every second -- sometimes in high speed. In short: traffic is chaotic. What would you do? Thinking economically, I would sit as close as possible to the driver. Why? Because he cares with his own safety. The closer you are to him, the safer you are. If another mikrolet rear-ends yours, you have less likelihood to feel the impact. If your driver crosses another car, your mikrolet might bump that car from its left side (or if it happens to be its right side, he would surely have been more careful, because ... he IS on that right side. Note: To add to your confusion, in this country we drive on the left side of the street). Now, there are only two seats closest to the driver. Right behind him, or right to his left. I would choose the first one. Why? First, I hate that transmission stick. Second, accident can always happen regardless of how your driver drives. Suppose, a truck run into your mikrolet from the opposite direction. Who would get hit the most? What's the downside of sitting right behind the driver? He, and many I have seen, smokes! Wind will blow the smoke to your face. But, well, any passenger might smoke, too. You cannot really avoid this one.

By the way, the driver of the mikrolet I was riding in this morning was constantly grumbling. Instead of the expected total of 13 passengers he would have gotten, he only got 4, including me. What a "diseconomies of scale". "Damn motorcycles!", he said. I asked him why. It turns out, these days, people have been switching from using mikrolets and other public modes to owning motorcycles. (Not to mention those who use them as another mode: "ojek" -- go back to the picture). The driver explained to me that now you can buy motorcycle "very easily". Meaning, you don't even need to pay "downpayment" (big chunk of money in advance prior to a series of flat installments). Before, if you choose installment scheme, you have to provide Rp 4 million (about $ 500, assuming Rp 8000 per $ 1 rate -- conservative) in advance as the downpayment. Installments thereon were around Rp 500 thousand ($ 75) each month for 2 years. Crudely calcualted, at the end you actually needed to spend around Rp 16 million or $ 2,000 for claiming that motorcycle (yes, vehicles are expensive here, relative to, say, there in the US. With that amount you could have bought a 1990 Corolla DX in Illinois). But, now, as the driver said, you don't need to pay down-payment! You can get that motorcycle "just" with flat installments as much as Rp 500 thousand each month for 3 years. The only "down-payment" which they call "insurance" is Rp 800 thousand ($ 100) in the very first month. And... the driver said, "this one is easier". Well my back-of-the-envelope (again, ignoring inflation and interest rates) calculation makes it Rp 18.8 million or $ 2,350 (a 1990 Camry DX in Illinois). It appears to me that the driver perceived the Rp 4 m down-payment as "too hard". It is very likely that others think the same. And translates to more and more motorcycles on the street.

Note, the motorcycle I am using in this illustration is the most expensive one for its class. I have been talking about Honda Karisma 125 cc which is priced at Rp 13.5 m ($ 1,688) for without installments. In fact, you can have a "cheaper" one (a Chinese-made Honda! I'm not kidding!) for Rp 8 m ($ 1,000) -- again, if you pay everything in advance. But the story remains.

And... as "people respond to incentives" -- no matter how misleading the incentives are, there are now more motorcycles on the street then ever... To the mikrolet driver's headache.

No comments: