Improvised Infrastructure: The Motorbike-Taxi Economy in Indonesia

Robbie Peters

University of Sydney

The motorbike-taxi drivers of today and the public minibus drivers of the past in Indonesia reveal how an improvised public transport infrastructure funded by the household can overlay, and even substitute, an inadequate transport infrastructure funded by the state. I argue below that improvised infrastructure is only possible when its repair and maintenance are handled by the underemployed majority through their survival strategy of crowding – or bringing the city together in one place. Crowding makes improvised infrastructure possible. Unlike the fixed infrastructure of planners that controls possibilities, the improvised infrastructure of the underemployed opens possibilities. In particular, it opens the possibility of redistributing social goods to redress the injustices caused by the maldistribution and malfunctioning of fixed infrastructure. Through the lens of improvised public transport and the people who bring it about in the large port city of Surabaya, I elaborate these ideas to show how redistribution is a subversive political project that challenges and reworks state projects of distribution. I argue that this redistributive project is only possible, however, through strategies of tinkering and unaccountability that enable the underemployed to put infrastructure on their terms and profit from it.


Robbie Peters is an anthropologist whose current work tackles such issues as the cultural politics of death and its commemoration in the Indonesian city; the on-demand motorbike taxi economy in Indonesia and Vietnam; and the effect of new cash transfers programs on Indonesia’s urban poor.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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