Helmet

App Fap: App-Based Transport Solutions

New application-based transportation solutions are taking Indonesia’s jammed boulevards by storm.

Last time out, I gnashed my teeth at the city’s various transportation options and the currently under-construction MRT system, which should see the first trains puffing along its subterranean tracks in 2017 (a date that I, for one, suspect to be about as firm as the six-inch-per-year subsiding soils that said subway tunnels are being bored through).

What I left out, however, was any mention of the more immediate transportation revolution that has transformed the capital over the last year or so. I’m referring, of course, to app-based transportation services such as Uber and their local progeny (GO-JEK, GrabBike and GrabTaxi).

GO-JEK and GrabBike have turned city streets into a sea of green helmets and are proving a huge hit, despite the fact that they are most definitely illegal. It’s not quite the re-greening that Indonesia badly needs in the wake of the worst ecological disaster of the century, but it’s been a fascinating phenomenon to observe nonetheless. Incidentally, female passengers may wish to check out the brand-new and guaranteed-100 percent-grope-free Lady-Jek service and its pink-helmeted female drivers.

If you’ve been living deep in the heart of the rainforest attempting to teach orangutans to play tiddlywinks for the last year, then allow me to run down how it all works. Basically, you take your smartphone, the digital teet that homo onlinus is increasingly weaned on, and download the app of one of the abovementioned companies. You then select where you would like to be picked up and dropped off on the app’s handy Google map, before the name of your driver and the fare for your journey is instantaneously zapped onto your mobile device. Crucially, this fare is likely to be considerably cheaper than either a conventional taxi, in the case of Uber, or a classic, street-corner ojek, in the case of GO-JEK and GrabBike.

You can then watch your ride approaching on the map before you’re whisked off to the charnel house of your choice. GO-JEK and GrabBike fares can be paid in cash, as with regular ojek, and also in credits, however Uber requires its passengers to be the kind of hipster-about-town who possesses a credit card. Perhaps Bitcoin will come into play in the future, too.

These app-based transportation solutions are currently causing controversy the world over. Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a traditional cabbie spurned. Trailblazers Uber, in particular, are proving more of an irritant to the world’s traditional taxi drivers than newspaper articles about immigration. Back in my home city of London, for example, no less an institution than the High Court itself has now waded into the whole poo storm (Uber recently won a case brought against it by the drivers of London’s iconic black cabs).

Here in Indonesia, tempers are also starting to fray. Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago, somebody fired a homemade gun at GO-JEK’s South Jakarta headquarters. Certainly the city’s ‘traditional’ street-corner ojek are hugely miffed at being undercut by these new services and apparently the GO-JEK warriors have to watch where they trawl for fares these days, lest their lovely green helmets get tossed into the nearest kerbside sewer.

Unlike London’s black cabbies however, Indonesia’s old-school ojek drivers, despite the fact that they’ve been kicking around for decades now, have no legal recourse, as they are not technically licensed to carry passengers and their bikes do not sport the official yellow police number plates required of public-transportation vehicles.

PT GO-JEK Indonesia, GrabTaxi Holdings and Uber Technology Inc. are all ultimately on the wrong side of the law as well. The defence offered by these young upstarts is that they are application developers, as opposed to public transportation businesses. The transportation itself, they argue, is provided by the individual drivers of private vehicles, and is ultimately not their responsibility, just as Agoda or Booking.com are not responsible for the quality of the hotel services booked through their websites.

However, issues pertaining to taxation, driver entitlements under the labour law and consumer protection remain unanswered, although to be fair, GO-JEK claims to offer insurance cover of up to Rp.10 million for any losses or injuries suffered by their passengers. In order to become street legal, Uber, GO-JEK and the boys would, as purveyors of non-fixed route transportation services, require both business licenses and operational licences. Without such licences, their drivers are technically risking a two-month jail term. And indeed reports have emerged of police seizing Uber taxis in the capital. GrabTaxi are somewhat more legitimate however, in that they simply connect passengers with official taxis (Bluebird, Express, etc.).

In general though, both drivers and passengers seem to love these new services. The passengers get to enjoy convenience and reduced travel expenses, while drivers have been able to use their new connectivity to coin it in. There is, however, currently some discontent among GO-JEK drivers who are apparently not making as much as they used to – no doubt due to the app-based transportation market becoming somewhat oversaturated of late.

In terms of the ongoing machinations of late capitalism, all of this online application type stuff represents quite a paradigm shift in the world of work. Not that such change represents anything especially new. Street-lamp lighters and telephone-switchboard operators, for example, are long gone. The inevitable backlash and opprobrium coming from those still working in the pre-application universe has to be taken into account, and ranges from attacks on Uber offices in Mumbai and Australia, to protests in San Francisco against Airbnb and its short-term rentals pricing longer-term residents out of the market.

Do these new services and apps simply represent an attempt by the wealthy financiers bankrolling their development to sidestep the law? Is this business model thus inherently anti-government and anti-democratic? Surely then the strict regulation and licensing of such services is in order?

At least in the cases of GO-JEK and Uber though, human drivers are being replaced by other actual flesh-and-blood human drivers. As self-driving cars are rolled out over the course of the next couple of decades, the brown stuff could really start to hit the fan belt. All cab drivers will then be history, just like the warehouse employees that Amazon has replaced with robots.

This, in essence, is the Google weltanschauung. A bright, shiny, utopian future in which the dull drudgery of all menial work is dispensed with in favour of hectares of leisure time during which fully rounded humans can develop and explore their interests. In the US, for example, it is estimated that over 50 percent of the existing workforce will be made redundant by robots and Google-esque automation over the next half-century.

How such a vision is supposed to succeed in our turbo-capitalist milieu, with its roads to success (and indeed failure) paved with heads, still requires clarification. I’m not sure that we’ll all give thanks to our digital lords and masters for our new leisure time as we sleep in penury under the bridges at night. Still, maybe the humble ojek driver will be spared the relentless march of progress. I mean, would you trust a self-driving motorcycle?

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