Go-Jek, the Poor Man’s Uber in Jakarta

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo goes to the US on Oct. 25 for an official visit, among the prominent figures and business people in his entourage will be Nadiem Makarim, a young Harvard graduate and originator of what might be called the Uber of the motorcycle world.

Makarim has been described as the personification of the young professional that Jokowi, as the president is known, is looking for to boost the country’s creativity sector. The 31-year-old Makarim in 2011 founded Go-Jek, a play on the Indonesian word ojek, or motorcycle taxi. The service has become wildly popular on Jakarta’s traffic-choked streets.

Go-Jek won the Global Entrepreneurship Program Indonesia in 2011. The young entrepreneur was also selected by the Geneva-based New Cities Foundation as one of the world’s nine outstanding urban innovators in 2015. He has spoken to hundreds of global urban leaders about their success in tackling some of the greatest current urban challenges.

While motorcycle taxis are ubiquitous in Jakarta, Makarim combined a penchant for marketing genius with up-to-date technology, dressing his drivers in smart green jackets and helmets and using Android and iOS apps so that their customers can track them as Uber does.

Customers can order a Go-Jek to either transport them to their destinations or stay home and ask the driver to deliver goods, order food or even shop for them. As with Uber in other more advanced metropolitan areas, users can track the driver’s location via a global positioning system (GPS), which tells them exactly how long it will take for the driver to arrive.

Go-Jek’s popularity has been rising on the slogan “An ojek for every need.” After launching “Go-Box” which serves customers with various sizes of trucks for transportation, it also introduced “Go-Glam” for beauty care services, “Go-Clean” for cleaning services, and “Go-Massage” which offers a private masseuse delivered to customers’ homes.

That has raised antagonism of more traditional ojek riders, much as traditional taxi drivers in other cities have grown angry from the competition from Uber, which is cheaper, trackable via internet, and whose drivers are supposed to be guaranteed to be polite. Go-Jek users need not bargain as the company sets a fixed price for each kilometer traveled. It also offers a flat tariff during non-rush hour of Rs15,000 Rupiah (US$1.10) for maximum 25 kilometers.

Traditional ojek cyclists don’t undergo a vetting process and aren’t registered. They take their payments in cash and prices are a matter of negotiation that can become heated and annoying. By contrast, Go-Jek drivers register, undergo basic vetting, are trained to be polite, and offer passengers helmets and facemasks that are guaranteed to be clean, unlike traditional ojek drivers. That has created fierce competition from traditional ojek cyclists who wait for customers on the streets.

Some have openly attacked Go-Jek drivers when they are about to enter their territory. Media reports have also shown traditional ojek putting up banners saying “Go-Jek drivers are not welcome here.” That has forced Go-Jek drivers to stay undercover to avoid threats and assaults.

Makarim has publicly stated that the company does not aim to compete with local ojek drivers, but to help them develop instead. “We welcome you to join Go-Jek anytime,” he said to traditional ojek cyclists. Go-Jek says it has signed up more than 2,500 participants in Jakarta with more than 35,000 nationwide.

In addition to its consumer appeal, Go-Jek is regarded as a quick, if partial solution to the dreaded Jakarta traffic. Despite previous warnings from transportation experts that gridlock would become total in 2014, the city has failed to take swift action to avoid it despite some efforts to put a light rail system in place. The construction of the rail system, the country’s first, along with several elevated roadways, has exacerbated the problem, a major reason Go-Jek is getting a warm welcome.

According to the Jakarta government, private vehicles grew at a rate of 11 percent in 2013 while road growth was almost stagnant at only 0.01 per cent. There are more than 38 million private vehicles operating in Jakarta, including 26.1 million motorcycles, 5.3 million cars, 1.3 million buses and 6.1 million trucks.

Following its success, the company has recently spread their business to other big cities in the country including Bandung, Bali, Surabaya and Makassar. The company also said that its drivers have been equipped with medical and accident insurance.