Vicky Amin, Jakarta – Pointing at somewhere in the distance, a middle-aged woman asked a bajaj driver: "How much to the station?"
"Twenty-five thousand rupiah (US$1.70)", the driver responded, and an intense negotiation ensued under the afternoon sun by a Jakarta street, before both settled at 10,000 rupiah.
Bajaj (pronounced as "buh-juhy") is the iconic auto rickshaw of Jakarta named after the initial manufacturer in India.
Its fares are cheaper than regular cabs but slightly pricier than ojek (local motorcycles for hailing) because it has a roof sheltering passengers from the sun and rain, with extra room to carry luggage and shopping bags.
However, passengers must first endure the customary haggling to beat down the irrational rates quoted by the drivers. Those who lack the ability to bargain find the process rather painful and exhausting, which is part of the reasons behind the diminishing popularity of bajaj.
Furthermore, customers are getting increasingly pampered by the easy access and fixed fare structure promised by ride-hailing apps, leading some to predict that bajaj would be phased out sooner or later.
Is the end coming for bajaj? Ride hailing firms do not think so.
Bajaj enters the fray
In May 2019, Grab Indonesia in partnership with Jakarta Transportation Agency launched GrabBajay, a rather surprising move for those who have earlier dismissed bajaj as having no place in the realm of digital economy.
Their doubts are not unfounded, as past efforts to welcome bajaj into the e-hailing fold in the Indonesian capital had not taken off. Some bajaj drivers said they have been using an e-hailing app called BajaiApp, although it is not very popular among the consumers.
However, such concerns did not deter Grab, which believes bajaj deserves a spot in the league of e-hailing.
"Bajaj are there around us, yet can only watch us from outside because they've yet to tap into the technology," Mr Tri Sukma Anreianno, Grab Indonesia's Head of Public Affairs Grab, told CNA. "We want to enable them with our capabilities."
In the metropolis notorious for its traffic congestion, Go-jek first jump-started Jakartans' appetite for ride hailing when it rolled out a fleet of 20 ojek riders in 2010 for hire through phone calls. Its mobile app came later in 2014, following the entry of Uber and Grab.
There are also smaller players in the market, such as Tekno, Anterin and Bonceng. According to local media, another firm, Tron, will make e-hailing available for angkot (minivan) and bajaj.
Grab Indonesia estimates there are currently about 11,000 bajaj in Jakarta, a slight drop from the official figures of some 14,000 in 2015. However, only 25 per cent of them are still operating actively, the company claimed.
The integration of bajaj into Grab, according to Mr Anreianno, entailed putting safety standards in place.
All GrabBajay vehicles are registered with official operators known as cooperatives, and have passed the roadworthiness test. Only drivers below 55 years old are accepted.
After the selection process, GrabBajay was launched with 60 vehicles from Jakarta's top three cooperatives.
Jakarta Transportation Agency's Head of Road Transport Massdes Aroufy told CNA that the partnership with Grab Indonesia enables commuters to ride in a bajaj at an affordable price through the fixed pricing scheme.
With such apps, the need to haggle is eliminated because the fares are displayed before consumers order a ride. GrabBajay fixes fares at 3,000 rupiah per kilometer – a fair amount accepted by both riders and drivers.
"The price is really competitive," said Mr Ridho Noviyanto, a bajaj user.
"With conventional bajaj, it depends on how good you are in haggling," he added. "GrabBajay lets us skip this painful process and most importantly, it helps the drivers regain customers."
Technology enhances business for bajaj drivers
The concept of e-hailing – matching supply and demand at users' convenience – has worked very well for bajaj.
Besides meeting passengers' daily commuting needs, it also gives hopes to bajaj drivers by welcoming them into the e-hailing ecosystem.
Mr Syukroni, 39, said Grab serves as an extra channel to get more orders, as drivers continue to ply Jakarta streets looking for customers.
He is among the first batch of bajaj drivers deployed in September last year as part of the pilot project, eight months prior to GrabBajay's public launch.
In the initial days, Mr Syukroni, who goes by one name, only received one or two orders a day. "Despite so, it was still better than being left out of the e-hailing market completely," the bajaj driver with 10 years of experience said.
Such apps come in handy when the drivers are on their mangkal time, Mr Syukroni said, referring to a local term for idling at one place while waiting for customers.
"Every day, we're always actively looking around for customers during the morning and evening rush hours, and then mangkal in between. "We activate Grab during mangkal," he said.
Meanwhile, GrabBajay's coverage remains limited for now. Its bajaj can only be hailed at five areas, namely Jakarta Kota, Mangga Besar, Sawah Besar, Mangga Dua, and Pasar Baru.
"We don't want to operate in areas with a low presence of bajaj or few customer demands, so we chose spots where our partners and their drivers usually operate," explained Grab Indonesia's Mr Anreianno. "Otherwise, what's the point?"
Places like Kota Tua and Pasar Baru are Jakarta's major attractions swarming with international tourists, especially those from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries where Grab also has a presence.Another area, Mangga Besar, is the drivers' gold mine as it is the city's bustling local nightlife district.
"We get lots of ride orders from staff members of hotels and discos commuting between their workplace and homes," said GrabBajay driver Mr Karyadi.
However, not all drivers are poised to benefit. Senior drivers, for instance, will be left out because the regulation states that drivers shouldn't be over 55 years old.
"I don't have the skill to operate the app anyway," said Mr Tari, a 60 year-old bajaj driver. "And I know my limit – I wouldn't be able to compete with those youngsters."
The future of bajaj
The e-hailing market in Indonesia has a huge potential to grow, a positive sign for drivers who have come onboard the hailing platforms.
A joint study by Google and Singapore's Temasek Holdings estimated the gross merchandise value of the ride hailing sector (including online food delivery) in Southeast Asia at US$7.7 billion last year, with Indonesia accounting for almost half of it.
From US$3.7 billion last year, the value of ride hailing services in Indonesia have the potential to reach US$14 billion in 2025, the report said.
For Grab Indonesia, it has plans to expand its bajaj fleet by reaching out to more cooperatives. Besides Jakarta, it also launched e-hailing services for other local rides similar to bajaj in cities, such as GrabBentor in Gorontalo, Sulawesi and GrabBetor in Medan, North Sumatra.
Gojek did not respond to a query on whether it has plans to venture into the bajaj market in Jakarta.
In general, bajaj drivers are relieved that hailing apps has breathed new life into the three-wheelers, instead of driving them into extinction.
Jakarta Transportation Agency's Mr Massdes is confident that bajaj will be here to stay as it still serve the interests of users.
"Although it is not glamorous, bajaj is still needed by customers who seek a comfortable transportation for short-distance travel.
"Plus, compared to regular cars, bajaj is very useful for navigating through small alleys and roads in Jakarta," he said. CNA/tx(aw)