Motorbike-hailing app Go-Jek gaining in popularity in Jakarta

A motorcycle driver from Indonesian start-up Go-Jek on a street in Jakarta.
A motorcycle driver from Indonesian start-up Go-Jek on a street in Jakarta.AFP
A motorcycle driver in Jakarta displaying the Go-Jek app on his phone.
A motorcycle driver in Jakarta displaying the Go-Jek app on his phone.AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - A popular motorbike-hailing app is putting a new, two-wheeled spin on smartphone taxi services in the Indonesian capital, with thousands of motorcyclists in distinctive green jackets and helmets offering commuters an escape from Jakarta's notorious traffic gridlock.

Go-Jek is an Indonesian start-up that has won widespread praise, as well as triggering aggressive competition from other businesses already fighting for a stake in the market.

Like app-based taxi service Uber, which made its debut in Indonesia in August, Go-Jek is a smartphone-based service. But instead of allowing users to hail a car, it lets them book a personal motorcycle driver.

The service takes its name from Jakarta's ubiquitous motorbike taxis, known as "ojeks", which have been occupying street corners in the capital for decades but always operated informally with no safety standards or pricing guidelines.

It is proving popular as a means of getting Jakartans more rapidly through jams than taxis, on bikes that are newer and more reliable than standard "ojeks", which are often shabby and neglected. It is also a much needed addition to the city's scant public transport options, such as spluttering old buses and auto-rickshaws.

Jakarta is the largest city in the world without a subway or mass rapid transit system - although one is under construction - causing havoc in a sprawling metropolis with poor infrastructure where millions commute by road every day from nearby satellite cities.

Go-Jek's founder and chief executive Nadiem Makarim admits his business isn't a panacea for the city's intractable gridlock, rated the worst in the world in one study this year, but hopes it can go some way to helping.

"We're basically giving Jakarta customers an option to opt out," he said.

Go-Jek first launched in 2011 but revamped itself in January with a new-look mobile app. It has seen exponential growth in the past six months in the tech-savvy city of 10 million, where even the shortest journey by car can result in hours wasted in traffic snarls.

The number of drivers has jumped from 1,000 six months ago to 10,000 today and the app has been downloaded almost 400,000 times, making it currently the most popular app in Indonesia on both Apple and Android handsets, according to Mr Makarim.

Unlike the informal "ojek" sector - where passengers must seek out drivers and negotiate a rate on the spot - Go-Jek informs the passenger of the price upfront and provides the driver's name, contact number and a photo.

"With Go-Jek, you just put in your destination and where you are and boom - you know the fare, and it's definitely cheaper," 33-year-old corporate worker Dina Denso, who has just started using the service, said.

But in an echo of the problems that Uber has faced in many countries, the success of the start-up is agitating traditional drivers who cannot compete on price and are feeling the pinch as distinctive bikers clad in green Go-Jek branding swarm the city.

The service was forced to release a statement this month condemning threats of violence made against its drivers while Jakarta's governor has been criticised for publicly throwing his support behind the venture.

It also faces challenges from other companies.

South-east Asian outfit GrabTaxi launched a motorcycle service GrabBike in May, offering free rides for an initial period and with drivers sporting bright green uniforms similar to those worn by Go-Jek motorcyclists.

Mr Makarim is all too aware of GrabBike - "copied us to a tee" - but is prepared for a fight. Go-Jek launched a food delivery service in April, throwing its hat into an already crowded ring, and also offers a courier service delivering everything from shopping to medicine.

"We're competing on multiple fronts," he said.

Some predict the business model will go global and inspire similar homegrown start-ups in other traffic-clogged cities.

Mr John Rossant, chairman of Paris-based think-tank New Cities Foundation, said crowded megacities from Cairo to Delhi would be keeping a close eye on Jakarta and the innovations it comes up with in the future.

"The way young Indonesians embrace these kind of things is completely amazing," he said, holding up a smartphone.