Bali’s traditional taxi driv­ers’ bold tac­tics for fend­ing off ride-hail­ing rivals

With ride-shar­ing apps such as Uber, Grab and Go-Jek mak­ing in­roads in the tourist hub of Bali, me­tered taxi driv­ers still bound by their traditional hon­our sys­tem are re­sort­ing to violence to scare off the com­pe­ti­tion

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Words by Justin Ja­cobs Pho­tog­ra­phy by Jo­hannes P. Christo

When Budi pulls into 9 An­gels, a quiet café tucked be­neath a pas­sion fruit grove just south of Bali's yoga mecca of Ubud, he makes sure to stash his motorbike be­hind a jun­gle-green wall. As we speak, Budi is present but not re­ally there. His eyes fol­low pass­ing cars as he ner­vously stirs his tea, his fore­head damp with sweat. He in­sists he's in dan­ger any time he's in Ubud, that he's a wanted man.

Budi, 29 – his name changed to pro­tect his iden­tity – has been driv­ing full time us­ing the pop­u­lar ride-shar­ing app Uber since 2015. And on an is­land that has no public trans­porta­tion sys­tem but wel­comed nearly 5.7 mil­lion tourists in 2017 alone, ac­cord­ing to the Bali Tourism Board, his cho­sen pro­fes­sion is in­creas­ingly in de­mand – much to the dis­may of the is­land's in­tri­cate net­work of traditional taxi driv­ers.

These driv­ers aren't alone. Anti-Uber protests in Turkey, Greece, Canada and else­where have seen driv­ers tak­ing to the streets, lob­by­ing leg­is­la­tors to more strictly reg­u­late use of the apps to slow down the takeover of their in­dus­try.

But un­like in other mar­kets, the strug­gle in Bali isn't just about money. It's about hon­our.

On the fiercely tribal is­land, an in­flux of tourist dol­lars has steadily grown the lo­cal econ­omy even as a sense of ter­ri­to­ri­al­ism reigns. Traditional taxi driv­ers speak of Bali's “lo­cal wisdom”, which dic­tates that they alone should at­tend to the needs of tourists staying in their ban­jar, or lo­cal com­mu­nity. Driv­ers ad­here to strict ban­jar bound­aries, drop­ping off tourists across the is­land – out­side their ter­ri­tory – and re­turn­ing alone, thereby spend­ing round-trip gaso­line ex­penses for a one-way fare. The prac­tice keeps their base­line fares sig­nif­i­cantly higher than those set by ride-shar­ing apps such as Uber, Go-Jek and Grab.

But tech­nol­ogy doesn't bend to un­writ­ten vil­lage law. The ride-shar­ing in­dus­try that's in­tro­duced these apps to the global trans­porta­tion mar­ket in the past decade is boom­ing – San Fran­cisco-based Uber saw net revenue in­crease 61% in 2017's fourth quar­ter from the same time in 2016, bal­loon­ing to $2.22 bil­lion, while global fare to­tals topped out at $11 bil­lion. Malaysia's Grab says its 2.6 mil­lion driv­ers

Tech­nol­ogy doesn’t bend to un­writ­ten vil­lage law. The rideshar­ing in­dus­try that’s in­tro­duced these apps to the global mar­ket is boom­ing

cur­rently move nearly four mil­lion peo­ple a day across South­east Asia, and the Grab/ Uber merger in South­east Asia, an­nounced on 26 March, is set to boost the ride-shar­ing in­dus­try even more in the re­gion. “One of the po­ten­tial dan­gers of our global strat­egy is that we take on too many bat­tles across too many fronts with too many competitors,” wrote Uber CEO Dara Khos­row­shahi of the merger.

The rapid growth of ride-shar­ing has cre­ated a rift in Bali that's sucked in thou­sands of Ba­li­nese driv­ers on both sides of the app ar­gu­ment and, in­creas­ingly, tourists at­tempt­ing to save money on a ride.

Budi hes­i­tantly looks back on one of his more har­row­ing nights on the job: wait­ing to pick up a tourist out­side a dance club in up­scale Seminyak in 2016, a man knocked on his win­dow.

“My car didn't have au­to­matic sen­sor locks, and he tried to pry the door open,” he says. “The guest got in the car on the other side and I im­me­di­ately locked it – but not be­fore this man and his three friends carved a ‘U' on the back of my car. I have been chased. I have been threat­ened. I once begged the po­lice to let me sleep in my car in the sta­tion park­ing lot – driv­ers were chas­ing me on scoot­ers. I needed pro­tec­tion. My doors are al­ways locked now.”

Budi reg­u­larly be­gins his work­day at 4am, when he is least likely to run into trou­ble with lo­cal driv­ers. He says in a profitable month he could earn 25 mil­lion ru­piah ($1,800) – nearly 12 times the min­i­mum wage in Bali.

He re­mem­bers speak­ing to his father the night he slept in the po­lice sta­tion park­ing lot: “He said just to quit this job – why would I work like this? I said: ‘Sure, find me an­other job where I can make this much money.'”

Across town from 9 An­gels, six Ba­li­nese men are sit­ting cross-legged in a road­side bam­boo hut un­wrap­ping ba­nana-leaf pack­ages of chicken and fried rice. It's lunchtime at the taxi stand in Pen­es­te­nan, a guest­house-filled vil­lage in Ubud's north­west cor­ner. Ke­tut Puja, 44, cracks open a durian and passes it around. In a vil­lage of about 1,000 peo­ple, more than 70 of them log

“There are no ar­eas or territories any­more. These driv­ers are tak­ing the food off of our plates – how are we go­ing to sur­vive?”

time at this taxi stand. The driv­ers op­er­ate on a queue sys­tem, driv­ing pas­sen­gers only when their num­ber is up. And busi­ness is down – way down.

“Most of us need other things to do now,” says Puja. “I'm work­ing as a con­trac­tor, build­ing houses. Be­cause here [at the taxi stand], some­times I go a whole day with­out driv­ing. But we still wait here to serve the guests staying in Pen­es­te­nan.”

When the sub­ject of on­line driv­ers is raised, the taxi stand seems to tense. Puja stops cut­ting into the durian; an­other driver be­gins thumb­ing a knife.

“There are no ar­eas or territories any­more. These driv­ers are tak­ing the food off of our plates – how are we go­ing to sur­vive?” asks Puja. “They don't care about any com­mu­nity. They have no re­spon­si­bil­ity to their vil­lage or their tem­ple. We sup­port each other. But when these driv­ers come into our vil­lage, what's their con­tri­bu­tion to us?”

Puja has seen his earn­ings drop by 50% since Uber ar­rived in Bali in 2015, he es­ti­mates. All six taxi driv­ers know they could earn more by aban­don­ing their “lo­cal wisdom” and driv­ing for an app on the side, but the is­sue isn't so sim­ple.

“Ba­li­nese don't have greedy minds. We don't just go and grab any­thing we want,” says Puja. “That's not the way of this is­land; we are loyal to our vil­lage.”

“Ev­ery day I wake up and pre­pare to die”

Initially, taxi driv­ers be­lieved Bali's govern­ment would pro­tect their liveli­hood.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, Bali's gov­er­nor, Made Mangku Pastika, is­sued a let­ter pro­hibit­ing Uber, Grab and sim­i­lar ride-shar­ing apps in­def­i­nitely. The state­ment served as a stop­gap as law­mak­ers in Jakarta strug­gled to is­sue new leg­is­la­tion reg­u­lat­ing the apps. Ten­sion con­tin­ued to mount. Taxi driv­ers printed and posted signs mark­ing their ban­jar bor­ders, say­ing Uber, Grab and Go-Jek were not wel­come. That De­cem­ber, Bali's in­ter­na­tional Ngu­rah Rai Air­port banned on­line driv­ers, re­in­forc­ing the dominance of traditional taxi driv­ers.

In April 2017, first blood was shed. Uber driver Ida Kadek Anom was forced out of his car by four taxi driv­ers in Seminyak, who al­legedly de­manded he pay them 500,000 ru­piah ($36). When he re­sisted, the driv­ers beat him and be­gan smash­ing his car with rocks and wooden posts. That Oc­to­ber, hun­dreds of lo­cal driv­ers protested out­side the gov­er­nor's of­fice in Bali's cap­i­tal of Den­pasar de­mand­ing ac­tion.

Mean­while, ride-shar­ing driv­ers geared up for more violence.

“Ev­ery day I wake up and pre­pare to die,” says Sa­muel Rwin, 32, who drives for Grab and Go-Jek and ar­rived from the nearby is­land of Su­lawesi in 2011. “I know ev­ery gang mem­ber in south Su­lawesi; I'm ready. But I know most [taxi driv­ers] are just key­board war­riors.”

The le­gal­ity ques­tion was fi­nally clar­i­fied on 1 Novem­ber 2017: Jakarta's Min­istry of Trans­porta­tion is­sued new pa­ram­e­ters gov­ern­ing on­line driv­ers – use of the apps was of­fi­cially le­gal but heav­ily reg­u­lated, re­quir­ing driv­ers to reg­is­ter their cars as tourist ve­hi­cles, stay within set territories and more. As of March 2018, Bali's De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion re­ported that 1,426 app driv­ers were reg­is­tered.

Uber's Jakarta of­fice would not re­spond to ques­tions about en­sur­ing that their driv­ers fol­lowed these reg­u­la­tions, but did remark: “Acts of ag­gres­sion against Uber driver­part­ners are a crim­i­nal act which we deeply re­gret. The le­gal­ity of mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions is [now] clear, and we sin­cerely hope that govern­ment en­force­ment can do [its] part to help up­hold the law and pro­tect users of mo­bil­ity ap­pli­ca­tions.” Grab and GoJek did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

Ar­gu­ments of le­gal­ity fi­nally aside, traditional taxi driv­ers found them­selves backed into a cor­ner, de­fend­ing their turf – and, as they see it, their cul­ture – on their own.

Gede Agus Arim­bawa is a mem­ber of Bali Driv­ers United, a 400-strong group of tour guides and driv­ers with “the goal of keeping

Bali's cul­ture and mak­ing sure all our driv­ers have a place on our is­land”, he says. “All of our mem­bers are pure Ba­li­nese peo­ple – and any driv­ers from other is­lands work­ing here just can­not know as much about Bali.”

To Arim­bawa, tourists are also re­spon­si­ble for the col­lapse of his in­dus­try.

“When tourists come to Bali, they must have money,” he says. “Uber prices are al­ways lower, [but] why not pay the nor­mal price and sup­port lo­cal driv­ers?”

His logic echoes that of many lo­cal driv­ers: prices can't be low­ered be­cause of “lo­cal wisdom” and ter­ri­to­rial lines – in many cases, prices set at taxi stands are roughly dou­ble those of apps – but tourists should sup­port the vil­lage host­ing them re­gard­less.

It's an ide­al­is­tic but un­re­al­is­tic outlook, says Steven Polzin, di­rec­tor of mo­bil­ity pol­icy re­search at the Cen­tre for Ur­ban Trans­porta­tion Re­search. “The move­ment towards apps is in­evitable: they of­fer cus­tomer con­ve­nience and safety – safety by virtue of a trip record with some in­for­ma­tion of the driver and trav­eller,” he says. “Lo­cal driv­ers do need to get with the times – and in many cases they will ben­e­fit sig­nif­i­cantly.”

For Budi, the risk is worth the re­ward – both for him and for his is­land, he says.

“I could join the lo­cal taxi stand where I live, but I've heard so many com­plaints from tourists: ‘Why are these taxis so expensive?'” he says. “I don't want to give peo­ple bad mem­o­ries of Bali… It's a tough life. It's hard to have a fam­ily. There's no endgame here – but I'll keep driv­ing.”

A lo­cal taxi driver waits for cus­tomers in Ubud, Bali, where home­made signs warn­ing off on­line taxis are a com­mon sight

For­eign tourists wait for an on­line taxi in Ubud, Bali. Apps such as Grab and Uber are edg­ing traditional taxis out of the mar­ket

Ryan, a Grab car driver, op­er­ates his phone while wait­ing for pas­sen­gers in Den­pasar, the cap­i­tal of BaliA lo­cal taxi parks near one of the in­creas­ingly com­mon on­line taxi-free zones in Ubud, Bali

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