The Car Free Day in Surabaya: a pro-environment event?

By Freek Colombijn

Every Sunday morning from 6 to 10 a.m. part of the main street of Surabaya is closed for all motorized traffic for an event that is called ‘Car Free Day’ (often abbreviated as CFD, Chay-Ef-Day). Car Free Days are organized in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia too, but I know the event best in Surabaya. I first attended the CFD as part of my research on pro-environmental behavior, but as it has turned out, it has little to do with the desire to reduce the use of the car. On the contrary. It attracts many visitors who come by car or motorcycle and park in the vicinity. When the Car Free Day was launched in Semarang, another city, the governor of the province of Central Java was said to be annoyed that he had to walk the last hundred metres to the platform from where he had to address the audience, instead of being driven all the way in his service car.

However, the Car Free Day reveals many more interesting phenomena than the environmental measure only. The close street has become a free public space where people show a kind of liberal behavior they would not normally show in public. The street has become a big amusement park, and naturally food and drinks sold from ambulant food stalls are an important part of the scene. What kind of anomalies can we observe at this day?

People walk or jog up and down the street and the physical exercise in a place where one normally cannot walk is in itself already a liberating experience. As is the common practice of sitting on the edge of the roadside to rest and to watch, which well-behaved people would never do during the rest of the week. Other people play badminton, some use roller skates and many come on bike.

Pimped bike. Photo by Freek Colombijn.

Cyclists catch my special attention. The CFD is a meeting hub for cycling clubs, large and small. There are small groups of around five persons who congregate and then make a tour through the city. For other groups the social gathering is more important than the cycling. Some of the cyclists form themed groups, for instance lovers of an old brand of bicycles that can only be bought second hand. Another group loves local old bikes and have customized their vehicles with leather saddles and drum brakes. To add to the special appearance of their bikes, they have decorated them with large bells, iron figures (e.g. a model of the Eiffel tower) and a sound system playing old-fashioned keroncong music. The cyclists themselves often dress up in colonial attire.

The freedom felt at the CFD is also visible from the somewhat looser sexual norms. Some women wear tight clothes that one does not usually see during ordinary weekdays. Husband and wife show affection in public and fling one arm around the waste of their companion. Even shy young lovers sometimes dare to hold each other’s arm or hand in public. There is also the possibility to do aerobics and both the dancers leading the movement and some in the audience swirl  their hips in a way that would normally not be allowed in public.

Adding to the liveliness are groups that promote a good cause. Some stay on one spot and promote for instance a healthy lifestyle with low blood pressure. Others go around holding a carbon box collecting money for victims of some natural disaster. Or so they say. Often there are supporters of the local Persebaya football club who parade up and down the street, waving banners and making a lot of noise. Making noise is a sign of power in Indonesia and during election time (as it was the last month) the quality of the candidates is partly measured by the quality and loudness of the sound system they use.

A haven of peace is a group of followers of falung gong. They sit on a less frequented part of the pavement. On the tones of a soft music, they quietly make their ritualized movements. Although falun gong has a Chinese origin, I see people from various backgrounds and not only Chinese sitting here. Undisturbed they do their exercises, also when a group of Persebaya passes with all the noise they can produce.

I have been following the event since two years now and attend it as often as I can. It is never the same.  But there is one constant element and that is Pak Mehdi Becak, a public figure. He is a former becak (a sort of rickshaw) rider, who also works as an artist, making colourful paintings, and as unpaid social worker promotes the reading of books by youngsters. Every week he is dressed up differently but always with white paint on his face and also with his painted becak, which bears the slogan “Read books!”

Mehdi Becak on his bike. Photo by Freek Colombijn.

This remarkable man stands out in another way too. He now and then goes around and collects waste that is lying around for no other reason than cleaning the street. For some, the event apparently is a pro-environment event. Such behavior is extremely rare in Indonesia: mostly, people who pick waste seek economic gain. The CFD is truly a place where people show exceptional behavior.With so many out on the street in endless appearances, I can easily blend with the crowd and do fieldwork. However, I still attract attention. Once a stranger asked me: “Are you perhaps an anthropologist?”, “Yes, how do you know?”, I asked in reply. “Because you watch so attentively.”

Freek Colombijn is universitair hoofddocent aan de afdeling Sociale en Culturele Antropologie van de Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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