Perspectives from abroad - Bali

Perspectives from abroad – Bali

I recently spent some time in Bali and it was a bit of an eye-opener in a number of ways. Of relevance for here are the roads.

They are crazy. At least, from the perspective of anyone used to roads as we know them in Australia or any other similarly developed nation.

It’s not just that they’re narrow or in really bad condition, or even that they’re really, really congested, all of which is true. It’s how everyone uses them that really takes some getting used to. Let me set the scene.

The first thing you notice is that lanes are merely a suggestion. You simply go where you need to go to get where you need to get to. Even if it’s along the kerb at the opposite side of the road, meaning that there is often oncoming traffic on either side of you.

Everyone gets really close to each other. Again, it’s quite congested in the cities and scooters fill every available gap in traffic, so if there is more than a couple of feet between vehicles there will be a scooter or a car trying to fill it. Scooters continuously flow through the banked up cars and trucks and then at a certain speed the cars and trucks overtake them again (if they ever catch them).  Those certain speeds are achieved relatively rarely in the cities and towns, so one can see why scooters are so popular in Bali. Obviously it’s not always bumper-to-bumper and now and then you get a clear bit of road, but impediments to unobstructed progress are constant.

When the speeds equalize and then favour the cars is when things seemed diciest. Scooters never struck me as being uncomfortably close to each other, perhaps because I’m used to riding next to other people, but cars and trucks are constantly inches away from people not only on scooters, but pedestrians as well. And dogs. Tons of dogs, who all seemed completely indifferent to vehicles whizzing past them with millimeters to spare.

Footpaths are only provided some of the time and only in cities, and even then are often unusable, so pedestrians are in the mix with some regularity. We spent most of our time in more rural parts of Bali, so not only were footpaths definitely absent, but the speeds were slightly higher and the roads even narrower. Life, both business and pleasure, not only exists right up to the roadside, but often spills onto it.

Vehicles stop where they want to, pull out when they want to, and pass when they want to, so the unpredictable is the only thing you can count on.

No bikes. I saw five cyclists the entire time we were there. A couple of kids, a couple of old men, and one determined soul in Lycra. There is truly no room for cycling in Bali in those conditions, though I have to say that none of them looked particularly worried.

To summarize, if you are on the road in Bali, it is safe to say that you are either passing or being passed at all times, on busy, narrow, rough, single-lane roads with every-day activity spilling into it from both sides, with scooters, cars, large trucks with heavy loads, and pedestrians, operating within inches of each other, in all directions.

And yet…

…Everyone is chill. Everything seems to flow. It looks like chaos but it all seems to work. People slow down in both directions for others to pass. Everyone seems pretty comfortable with cars and trucks being inches from their exposed selves on scooters or on foot. I can only assume that there is an underlying trust that everyone cares enough not to actually run into you.

Scooters everywhere, but especially outside of the bigger centers, had entire families on them, with small children holding onto the handlebars on mum’s lap or sitting casually behind without even holding onto anything, and newborns in mum’s arms while sitting behind dad. Carrying huge loads, including two guys on a scooter with the one on the back balancing a collection of what had to be at least 15m wooden beams on his shoulder.

Having to slow down and wait for an opportunity to pass slow-moving trucks on the narrow roads – not for the handful of seconds people have to wait here to pass a cyclist, but for minutes at a time – is constant and no big deal. There are any number of reasons why people have to slow down and even stop, and it seems to happen every few seconds (seriously, not a minute goes by without having to slow down for something), but again, everyone is chill about it. That’s just how it is. No point getting upset about it. 3 hours to drive 80kms? Totally normal.

Who are the crazy one’s?

Contrast that to our wide, well-kept roads with clear infrastructure, plentiful parking, actual footpaths and even a few bike lanes, etc., with most people driving on them according to the rules in an orderly fashion. Basically, the opposite of every aspect of their transport environment. It should, you’d think, be easy, predictable, clinical, far less stressful. Yeah. We lose our minds when we have to slow down for even a second, but in Bali even the most absurd maneuver that results in a near miss results in nothing more than a bit of a chuckle and a shake of the head. If that.

Horns in Australia are a tool to show one’s displeasure with others behaving in ways we don’t like. Horns in Bali are a simple, “here I am!”, used to communicate your position on the road as you pass. I can’t think of one time I heard a horn sound out of anger or frustration.

Obviously there is something in their culture, in their prevailing attitudes towards life, that does not disappear once they get behind the wheel. Everyone we met was insanely polite, kind, generous, humble, and good-natured, which is all I’ve ever heard anyone say about the Balinese, and even driving didn’t put a damper on that.

What seemed to be the case is that there wasn’t much of a presumed attitude of “you can’t do that!”, or “but that’s not allowed!”. Everyone has things to do and places to go, everyone realized this, and everyone accommodates this and is accommodated for. It seemed like having only soft rules in play and adhering to them quite flexibly actually maximized the efficiency of the roads. Of course, you have to assume that this arrangement only works when everyone is on the same page and gives as much as they take.

Now, of course, actual safety is likely a little closer to how safe things appeared. In 2015 there were 504 deaths among Bali’s 4.2 million residents, versus 1209 among Australia’s 23 million residents.

But again, be that as it may, that’s not actually what interested me the most. It was among all this apparent chaos and danger that lay a distinct lack of the attitude that suffocates Australia’s roads. More reason than us to be frustrated and throw tanties but none to be found.

What’s their secret?

No idea, but we need some of it.

What’s the point?

I’m sure the answers are out there, but I suppose the point I’d like to communicate is that there is another way. We don’t have to be monsters on the roads. People elsewhere actually have it much worse and manage to be much better people about it.

Maybe in our capitalist, wealthy, product-driven nation, we are too used to seeing the world around us as a collection of objects to make us happier rather than being happy with the world around us, and maybe we’ve come to assume that the roads exist to serve me, not society collectively, but me.

Their infrastructure is terrible (from our perspective), but we can certainly learn much from the people of Bali when it comes to how we interact with each other, on the roads and off.

Maybe the more important work to be done is to look inwards at the infrastructure of our hearts (oh yeah! I went there!).  Seriously though, just like adding more lanes will never solve for congestion, continuing on with the same attitude towards the way we interact with our built environment and those sharing it with us will result in the same level of satisfaction we have with it. Which is reasonably woeful, if anyone is wondering.

So, no, I don’t expect everyone to all of a sudden change their perspective, but it would be a good start to recognize and take to heart the fact that people all over the world somehow manage to be more happy with less – in this case, usable (road) space.

So chill out, learn from the people of Bali, be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and just go with the flow.


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