Can taxi drivers save Manila?

Photo: Trishhhh/CC BY 2.0

Grab – a tale of superheroes and supervillains

By Holly Reeves

A taxi driver will always have the answer to the world’s problems. Or the latest gossip on the president. Or the “best way” to get home.

But can knowledge collected from their criss-crossing of dusty streets make the world a better place? If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic, then the answer is yes.

Your new superhero is the GPS.

A very modern sensor network

Grab, formerly GrabTaxi, is the largest on-demand taxi service in Southeast Asia, and it manages its service via an app on a driver’s smartphone, allocating jobs and tracking journeys. Now, imagine each of those smartphones is basically a traffic probe. They collect an ocean of data every day as their handset sends GPS signals and pings Wi-Fi. Where does he get stuck? Is there an accident? How long is he there?

Grab just announced a new partnership with the World Bank that uses this real-time data to make the lives of the region’s 620 million residents a little better. Grab’s operations in Metro Manila and Cebu City are providing free real-time traffic information to the Philippine government, to try and ease the heavy congestion. And this is very exciting for the way our cities work.

The army of drivers using the app essentially carries with them a sensor network. This is not limited to specific corridors, is continuously updated in real time and does not require any maintenance or upkeep. This could revolutionise traffic management.

X-Ray vision, super hearing

As part of the deal, data experts from Grab are analysing and visualising their real-time road information, passing it to government services on the ground so they can better manage the flow of traffic. In particular, it is hoped this will help tackle the problems caused by rush-hour traffic jams and vehicle accidents. With by-the-minute information, authorities can quickly react and redistribute traffic, before it builds up.

And it is big business. The global traffic management market is expected to reach US$17.64 billion by 2020, suggesting heavy investment in this area. It is also the fastest growing market in Asia-Pacific. The World Bank thinks it is likely that Grab will expand their real-time traffic data services to more cities in this region.

But relations with government bodies are not always this friendly. The company may be stripped of its accreditation to operate as a Transportation Network Company by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), if it does not cease its GrabBike motorbike operation, as reported by CNN Philippines. Safety issues, and the authorisation of Grab to operate such a service, are apparently the concerns.

A dynamic duo

This type of regulatory struggle has become a regular feature of both Grab and Uber’s entry into markets across the world. But unlike Uber, Grab’s policy is pretty straightforward.

Cheryl Goh, Grab’s Vice-President of Marketing, explained: “To win in Southeast Asia, you have to convince the governments. You have to work with them. You cannot be at war with them.”

“We need to work hand-in-hand with the government,” she added.

So is Grab a superhero that will win the battle against congestion? Or is it the bad guy in disguise? They are definitely playing for popularity, at least as far as their relations with those in power.

But the Philippine authorities are not convinced. And Manila taxi drivers are quick to point out the app’s less-than super consequences.

A Quezon City Regional Trial Court suspended the operations of all app-based transport services, including Uber and GrabCar for 20 days last year. The ruling found their impact on the local market was deeply damaging.

“[The local drivers’] claim that they suffer less or low incomes and earnings is found to be persuasive due to the sudden and uncontrolled increase in the number of utility vehicles running in the streets of Metro Manila,” the judgement is reported to have said.

Trying to take over the world?

But what Grab takes away from one market, it gives to another. The Singapore-based company launched its cashless payment service in the capital city last month, enabling passengers to make payments via a Visa debit, credit or prepaid card.

“The Philippines has always been primarily a cash country,” Khriztina Lim, country head of Marketing for GrabTaxi Philippines explained. “That’s why we invested our efforts in making GrabCar available to most Filipinos. Now that we’ve established the brand, we want to be able to reach out to the credit card users and make the app accessible to virtually anyone with a smartphone.”

This is important for the region’s development more widely, as it is hoped it will encourage merchants to accept more card-based payments. This should further drive payment card transaction volume and values.

So, GrabTaxi. The locals don’t like them. And they have definitely got a plan.

It is obvious that a company with a business model based on mass transport has a vested interest in moving traffic quicker. And at the same time, governments need to work a balance between the possibilities of this booming market, and the disruption to existing employment, and economy.

But if their data can cut delays then millions of commuters won’t complain. Less congestion and an easier life? Sitting in the back of a stationary cab – that would sound pretty super to me.