All systems go for GoBike in Bangkok

WHILE the merits of and disruptions brought about by Uber and Grab are being hotly debated worldwide, in Bangkok, GoBike Co Ltd, a joint venture between a Malaysian and a Thai, has rolled out a hailing app for licensed motorcycle taxis in the city.

GoBike is the only ride-hailing app for motorcycle taxis in Bangkok, at least for now.

However, GoBike’s business model is different from the other ride-hailing apps. Passenger rides are not its source of income. In fact, motorcycle taxi drivers registered with GoBike need not share the fares with the company while passengers need not pay to hail a taxi via the app.

This is the key element that has made GoBike’s app appealing to the Motorcycle Taxi Association of Thailand (MTAT) and the local authorities.

“We don’t charge the passenger rides … we charge other value-added services, for instance, delivery of documents, running errands,” says GoBike CEO Lian Wah Seng, a Malaysian who travels between KL and Bangkok every week.

“We target to have 10,000 motorcycle taxi drivers registering with us to use our app by the end of the year,” he says.

After the morning rush hours, Lian observes that motorcycle taxi drivers are usually unoccupied in the afternoon.

“With the app, more motorcycle taxi drivers can make use of their free time to provide delivery services or run errands for customers to earn extra income. For these services, GoBike imposes a minimum fee on transactions that are done through the app,” he says, adding that there is profit-sharing between GoBike and MTAT.

In Bangkok, it is common for people to get motorcycle taxi drivers to pay their bills, buy a meal or collect laundry.

“At the moment, there isn’t a platform or an app that enables the public to book motorcycle taxi drivers for delivery services,” says Lian. Currently, city dwellers have to walk to the pick-up points. “With the app, if I want to buy a few cups of coffee from a café, I could use it to ask a motorcycle taxi driver to get them for me,” Lian remarks.

On average, each motorcycle taxi makes 30 to 40 trips a day. The charge for a passenger ride is usually THB10 to THB20, depending on the distance.

“For non-passenger rides, we will set a higher fee as a form of incentive to drivers to accept the jobs,” says Lian.

He stresses that GoBike’s taxi-hailing app is to complement the existing framework. It does not cause disruptions to the licensed motorcycle taxi drivers.

“Our business model operates within the existing framework. We are not reinventing the wheel. We studied the ecosystem of the motorcycle taxi in Bangkok before we launched it. When we presented our business model to the association (MTAT), social enhancement was an element we talked about.

“GoBike will leverage the existing pool of motorcycle taxis to provide value-added services. With that, the drivers could earn more,” Lian explains.

For those who have not lived in Bangkok, it may be hard to imagine how important motorcycle taxis are. These started as a form of informal public transport for the people of Bangkok, whether they were blue-collar workers or bank officers.

Bangkok dwellers love the two-wheelers though they are not very comfortable simply because they can swiftly weave through the traffic-clogged roads, narrow alleys and “soi” during the peak hours. No other form of public transport can do it better.

Shortly before Bangkok’s metropolitan rapid transit (MRT) commenced operations in 2004, one of the steps taken by its operator, State Railway of Thailand, was to talk to MTAT.

SRT knew that the association would be able to set up pick-up points at the train stations that were deemed essential. It learnt this lesson from the Bangkok mass transit system, which is more commonly known as the BTS or the Skytrain — equivalent to Kuala Lumpur’s light rail transit.

Without the motorcycle taxis transporting city dwellers from their homes along narrow alleys that are inaccessible to four-wheelers to the train stations, the MRT and Skytrain might not be as packed as they are now.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra legalised motorcycle taxis in Bangkok by issuing licences to the drivers plus an orange vest for them to wear on the job. The vest to which the licences are attached might be their most valuable asset.

Currently, there are about 100,000 licensed motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok. On top of that, there are 70,000 to 80,000 non-licensed drivers. The Thai government is making an effort to get these drivers to register with the Transport Ministry and issue them with licences at a minimum fee.

Including the illegal drivers, some quarters estimate that the number of passengers that the motorcycle taxis transport each day is six million, which is more than what the rail services carry.

Provision of delivery services could just be the tip of the iceberg. Lian believes that there are many things that this large pool of highly mobile bikers could do to cultivate new income streams.