[MANILA] A former Singaporean banker's motorcycle taxi app is emerging as a key rival to Grab - and a test case for Manila's resolve in unclogging the world's most congested streets.
Founder Angeline Tham's Angkas - the Filipino word for "hitching a ride" - has in three years become one of the Philippines' most popular ride-hailing services with three million downloads and 27,000 registered drivers. That's despite getting shut down twice since its inception because of a five-decade-old law against the use of motorcycles for public transport, a ban intended to enhance road safety. The 37-year-old chief executive's app is now operating on a temporary licence but hopes to secure full legality when regulators review the prohibition in December.
Ms Tham founded Angkas in 2016 after experiencing the world's worst traffic first-hand, spending six hours in one day just travelling across Manila. She argues that the view of motorbikes being deadly is outmoded and has in past months enacted a number of measures to try and increase safety, including setting up two training centers offering free driving courses and campaigning for proper helmet use.
"We've been able to maintain our safety record at 99.997 per cent," Ms Tham, previously a JPMorgan Chase & Co associate and vice-president at a Softbank Group Corp venture capital fund, said in an interview. "We're even safer than condoms."
Angkas is challenging South-east Asian ride-hailing giant Grab by promising faster commutes starting at 50 pesos (S$1.30) a trip. But it's operating in a grey area, impeding efforts to secure funding. After Angkas's closures provoked a strong public outcry, regulators in June allowed Angkas to operate over a six-month trial period. If Manila decides to green-light the service, that could open the door to a clutch of new competitors to Grab, including potentially Indonesia's Gojek.
For the pilot run, Ms Tham is focusing on the main concern of policymakers and first-time users: crashes. More than half of vehicular deaths in the Philippines involve motorbikes, she said. But her startup imposes some of the region's strictest safety standards for motorcycle taxis, she said. Only one in four drivers pass a written exam and driving course that Angkas mandates on top of the usual government requirements for a professional licence.
Ms Tham, who in August drew condemnation for a marketing promo that likened the app's services to sex, is confident her startup has performed well enough to rally both public and political support to amend the Philippines' transport law. She said Angkas could expand to more cities given strong interest from regional VC funds to invest in myriad solutions for Southeast Asia's clogged cities.
"The goal is to give time and power back to the people," she said. "So much of our life is chained to traffic."