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Ride sharing takes to two wheels in Southeast Asia

CNET's Aloysius Low takes a trip to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, to find out how Uber's competitors are innovating with different business models.

It's hot and humid and I've been stuck in an almost non-moving car for about an hour as my taxi driver struggles to navigate the usual Jakarta traffic jam to my hotel from the airport. As I pondered the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything, motorbike drivers, unaffected by the congestion, whizz by my cab with nary a care.

About one hour and 40 minutes and 32 kilometers later, parched and in urgent need of a bathroom, I finally arrive at my central Jakarta hotel. It took about the same time to fly the 900 kilometers from Singapore to the Indonesian capital -- and that includes the immigration checks.

Jakarta ranks among the worst cities in the world when it comes to traffic congestion. If you thought LA was bad, it's nothing compared to places like Bangkok or Mexico City, and they're nothing compared to Jakarta, according to a Castrol study.

The constant congestion has opened up new opportunities for the ride-sharing industry. Regional Uber-competitor Grab, for instance, is taking advantage of a local practice -- motorbike taxis, known as ojeks.

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There are some shortcuts you can take on a bike.

CNET

Nimble and quick, these GrabBikes zip through traffic, weaving between cars to get their sole passenger to his or her destination quickly. Grab says what is a one hour car ride can take just 15 minutes on a bike.

It's also cheap by western standards. An 8-kilometer ride costs just 12,000 Indonesian rupiah, a little less than a dollar. A hardworking driver can make about $525 (£495, AU$695) a month, which is twice the city's minimum wage.

Grab, which debuted its bike service in May 2015, isn't the only player in the market. It competes with hyperlocal startup Go-Jek, which began service in January 2015, and Uber, which launched UberMotor in Jakarta in April 2016. All three ride-sharing apps tap existing bike owners, which numbered around 77 million in 2012, to be drivers.

It's not clear which company is the biggest. Go-Jek says it has a combined 60 percent market share for the two-wheeler and car ride hailing business. (The ride-hailing business is a partnership with the country's largest taxi fleet, BlueBird.) Grab cites internal numbers that are similar, saying it has more than 50 percent of both the bike and car-hailing businesses. Uber declined to comment.

Both Go-Jek and Grab also use their bikers for courier services. Go-Jek also lets you request services such as having a make-up artist come over to give you a makeover.

GrabBike isn't limited to Jakarta, it's available in Bali and two Vietnamese cities. It will be available soon in Bangkok. The Uber competitor has big plans for the region, one being to open two new R&D facilities in India and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Go-Jek doesn't have plans to launch outside of Indonesia and will focus on its home market, the largest in Southeast Asia.

Danger, danger?

It might be fast, but is it safe? Motorbikes are, after all, seen to be more dangerous than cars. A study last year of motorcycle accidents in South Australia found 18 percent of the country's serious accidents in 2015 happened on bikes. One mistake from a careless car or truck driver can be fatal to a biker.

Jakarta is no safe haven for motorcycles. Road shoulders on expressways are often treated like an extra lane for impatient drivers. While accidents in the capital city have decreased, there were still about 7,400 traffic accidents that caused almost 700 fatalities in 2016, according to the Jakarta Traffic Police.

But if you're in town and need to get somewhere quickly, taking a bike is the quickest, cheapest and easiest solution to beating the jam.

So that's what I did.

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Having only ridden on a bike once -- a friend's Vespa -- and being more of a car person, my first GrabBike experience was one of both terror and exhilaration.

"Relax and put your hands on your thighs," my driver said to me after noticing my apprehension and the tight hold I had on the handle behind me.

That advice went unheeded as I maintained my death grip in a bid to not fall off his bike as he accelerated through a rare stretch clear of traffic.

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Safety first

Potential GrabBike drivers have to attend a theory session that teaches them how to use the driver app, as well as take and pass a practical safety driving test first. GrabBike tells me its drivers are limited to a maximum speed of 60 kilometers per hour with drivers getting reminders if they break the limit. There's a three-strikes program for serious offenses, such as passenger harassment, to ensure errant drivers are dismissed.

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Bikes sit parked at Grab's training center awaiting a road-worthiness inspection.

Aloysius Low/CNET

At Go-Jek, the situation is similar. Drivers have to undergo a defensive riding course that includes practical and theory lessons covering pre-trip inspections, safety and comfort driving, as well as riding techniques.

Uber doesn't have a test, but its drivers do go through a background check.

Accidents can still happen, and they do. Grab declined to share numbers, but the company says its accident rates have gone down by 10 percent month-on-month since the introduction of its defensive riding course in March 2016. Speeding has also dropped by 35 percent thanks to app tracking.

Uber and Go-Jek didn't comment on accident rates. All three bike-hailing services provide personal insurance for both passengers and drivers. You'll get a helmet to wear as well for the duration of your trip.

I took a total of three rides around the city and came away unscathed. And as an inexperienced bike passenger, I was definitely a lot more comfortable and relaxed on the third trip than I was on the first.

It's no surprise to find seasoned pillion riders merrily surfing away on their phones as they get to their destination and on longer journeys, I'm told, some even bring along a book.

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This nondescript building is actually home to one of Grab's operations offices located around Jakarta.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Riding for income

Much like how Uber has created new jobs through ride sharing, becoming an ojek driver is now a lot easier.

For Nurhayati, a 39-year-old mum of two, it's a job that offers plenty of flexibility. The former assistant bank manager quit to become an ojek driver one and a half years ago because she wanted to spend more time with her kids, who are national athletes.

While she used to be more active, doing up to 28 trips a day, she's since cut back down to about 10 a day.

"I don't really care about the incentives," said Nurhayati through an interpreter. "I'm just glad I can focus more on my kids first."

With more than 80 percent of GrabBike drivers male, Nurhayati is one of few female drivers in Grab's fleet in the predominantly Muslim country. Nurhayati appears fearless when it comes to her job, adding that she's not too worried about getting into an accident. But she doesn't drive too late, as night robberies can be a concern.

That said, robberies are preferable to meeting ghosts -- modern ghosts who use smartphones.

"There was one time where I had a passenger who made a return booking. After picking up his groceries, he got on the bike. Halfway through the ride, he vanished. And the strange thing was, the Grab helmet he was wearing was properly clipped on the bike, like he never was there, and the groceries were left behind," said Nurhayati.

Luckily, the ghost had already paid her upfront the 5,000 Indonesian rupiah fee (about $0.35) in cash, so at least it wasn't a wasted trip, she added with a chuckle.

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Nurhayti is one of a handful of female drives in GrabBike's motorbike fleet.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Soon after my test rides with GrabBike, it was back to the airport once more, luggage too large to saddle on a bike. It was back to the slow taxi crawl, watching the bikes whizz by.