Motorbike taxi
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2020 - 12:00am

It all started decades ago, with what is known as the habal-habal: motorcycles used as public conveyances, especially in the countryside where there are few public utility vehicles or PUVs.

Under the law, two-wheeled vehicles cannot serve as PUVs, so all the habal-habals have been operating outside the law. Yet because of the inadequacy of mass transport facilities, their operations have been allowed and have drawn hardly any official attention.

Until Angkas came along.

Inspired no doubt by ride-hailing firms Grab and Uber, Angkas began operating in Metro Manila in 2015.

The uniform and helmet of the motorcycle ride-hailing company has become ubiquitous and easily recognizable all over Metro Manila. Angkas reportedly told transportation officials that the company has 27,000 riders registered on its app.

A media colleague has been an enthusiastic convert, saying his Angkas experiences so far have been pleasantly efficient. In Metro Manila’s infernal traffic, Angkas for him is cheaper and more convenient than a four-wheeled taxi.

That convenience is one of the reasons for the popularity of Angkas.

And that popularity has attracted the attention of potential competitors, including Grab, which is said to be seriously considering the revival of its GrabBike.

*      *      *

Alberto Suansing, who serves as consultant of an interagency technical working group on motorbike taxis, said the TWG has found out that the 27,000 is the number of rides recorded by Angkas rather than the riders.

The TWG is currently conducting a pilot run of motorcycle taxis in Metro Manila and other parts of the country, for commuter safety and regulatory purposes. The test, initially for six months, has been extended for another three months, until March 23.

The extension is seen to coincide with the entry into the motorcycle taxi industry of new players JoyRide – a spinoff from its parent company, online delivery service We Move Things Philippines – and Move It.

This in turn has stirred up controversy that (not surprisingly in this country) has taken on political color, after a lawyer’s group disclosed that Sen. Koko Pimentel had endorsed the inclusion of JoyRide in the pilot test.

Pimentel has admitted this, saying JoyRide owners Ralph Nubla Jr. and Bea Chua are friends of his family and he didn’t want a monopoly in the sunrise industry.

It was also bared that JoyRide’s business development adviser Edwin Rodriguez happens to be the secretary-general for Quezon City of the PDP-Laban, the political party of President Duterte and Pimentel.

Rodriguez has denied seeking his party’s help in behalf of JoyRide. Last Monday, JoyRide spokesman Noli Eala told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News that Rodriguez became part of JoyRide only in November 2019, while Pimentel sent an endorsement letter to the Department of Transportation (DOTr) on Sept. 2.

Eala said their company had been looking for areas of expansion and liked the motorcycle taxi. They approached Pimentel for an endorsement, Eala said, because the lawmaker headed the Senate’s committee on trade. “We don’t find it improper… everything was aboveboard,” Eala stressed.

Pimentel merely asked the DOTr to look at the facilities of JoyRide, Eala said.

“The inclusion of JoyRide into the program was not because of that letter,” he told us. “What we have done is that we have become worthy of becoming part of this program. We have shown that we have even better facilities than Angkas…We are the best among all the operators.”

 He said that since early last year, the motorbike-hailing service “was already part of the business model of our company. As a matter of fact, Angkas was our model.”

Eala reiterated that Sen. Bong Go, Pimentel or any other politician is not a part owner of JoyRide. The company, Eala said, is 100 percent owned by “young (Filipino) businessmen who want to get into the industry… we don’t want to hide anything… there were no connections with the PDP Laban.”

*      *      *

Suansing, who faced The Chiefs together with Eala on the first Monday of the year, said Angkas is registered as a technology provider with its ride-hailing app, but is in fact operating as a common carrier.

This raises questions about the company’s ownership, since common carriers must be 60 percent Filipino-owned, Suansing pointed out.

Following the disclosure about Pimentel’s role, the TWG has unearthed that the owner of 99.99 percent of Angkas, as registered in the Securities and Exchange Commission, is Singaporean Angeline Xiwen Tham, who is also the company president with P9.8 million in subscribed shares.

The TWG has since put a cap of P10,000 on the number of riders for each of the three motorcycle-taxi companies. This is the reason for those protest rallies by uniformed Angkas riders. The company has warned that the cap would put 17,000 of its riders out of business.

JoyRide and Move It can of course absorb anyone who might be displaced. This has led to accusations of poaching from Angkas.

*      *      *

Suansing told us that the culture, regulatory environment and enforcement capabilities in the country tend to promote undisciplined motorcycle driving.

The pilot test is being undertaken to craft rules and regulations for the service, including possible amendments to transport laws so motorcycles can be allowed to function as common carriers or public conveyances.

While by law motorcycle taxis cannot serve as common carriers, their operations have been “tolerated” due to the inadequacy of mass transport facilities especially in Metro Manila, Suansing said. But he noted that motorcycle operations are difficult to regulate and the riders tend to be among the most undisciplined or pasaway and therefore unsafe for commuters, unlike in Vietnam or Thailand where there are motorbike-hailing services.

There are also concerns about the pollution caused by motorbikes, and the wisdom of putting on the road PUVs that can each transport only one passenger.

Suansing raised the possibility that by the end of the extended pilot run on March 23, the government will simply scrap motorcycle taxi services altogether.

It’s doubtful that the habal-habal drivers – and their clients – will respect such a ban.

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