Anthropologist Graeme MacRae discusses the (im)practicalities of getting around in Bali – and the bitter conflict between the ‘traditional’ drivers and their web savvy competition. 

photos (and captions!)  ©Rio Helmi


Agus couldn’t pick us up at the airport, because he had a ceremony at his house, so he sent his car, with one of his friends driving. The next morning he turned up, to deliver a motor scooter and make apologies. We gave him some money – more than enough for any cars and motor scooters we are likely to use while we are here. But my days of long- (even medium-) distance scooter driving are over, so a few days later, when I needed to go to Denpasar, I called Agus again. This time it was another ceremony (or was it some other problem?) so he arranged for another friend to take me. I paid what seemed like a fairly high price (fortunately somebody else was covering it) then I had to show the driver how to find his way, then wait for him to reappear for the return trip. A few days later we needed to go to Sanur and it was the same story again, then a couple of weeks later when I came back from Jogjakarta.

Agus was very apologetic and promised that he would be clear of all these obstacles in a few days. He is an old friend – I’ve known him since he was a rather wild and disorganised young man renting bikes beside the main road near the puri. Over the years, we’ve watched him grow into a responsible middle-aged family man. He has a reasonably successful homestay and a busy Facebook page with photos of happy-family outings and he’s even given up playing in his rock band. But he is tired of driving, and he is ever-less reliable.

ABOVE: But big Jakarta based taxi companies like Bluebird (here one of their ‘Big Bird’ buses) are ok. Oh wait, a few years ago there were riots between local drivers and Bluebird – hmm must have been resolved.  BELOW: now here’s a message that should touch an anthropologist’s heart.

I want to support (what is left of) local business, and I enjoy having a long-term relationship with a driver/friend, but it is starting to feel like I’m paying a lot for the privilege and getting not much in return. So for the return from Sanur we decided to give Uber a try (am I allowed to say this on UNT?). The driver located us in an obscure back street, arrived in a matter of minutes, delivered us to exactly where we wanted to go without any help from us, the price was less than half what we would have paid an Ubud driver, all prepaid by credit card, with no messing around or haggling with cash, just an online receipt in case I needed it. A few days later I had to make an emergency trip to a dentist in Denpasar at peak hour, so I decided to risk an Uber pickup in Ubud (am I allowed to say this?). It got off to a shakier start this time because not even Uber’s GPS system can make sense of Ubud’s one-way system and traffic jams. But after that it was easy and again the price was less than half. Since then I’ve done it a couple more times, in Jogja as well as Bali.

Local drivers object to the online services (Grab, GoCar, Gojek and maybe others) on grounds that they do not comply with Indonesian law and consequently have lower overheads, even that they are essentially “thieves” stealing the livelihoods of honest, legal operators – especially when it means outsiders taking income away from local community. There have been nasty scenes, all over the world, reportedly even in front of the corporate HQ of this publication. All my Uber drivers to date have been non-Balinese (Sumatra, Timor, Jogja) but they assure me there are Balinese ones too, some of them refugees from the conventional taxi industry. All say they make better money working for Uber (where do the taxis’ profits go?) and have less down-time and more flexibility. Balinese friends (outside Ubud) tell me they regularly use Grab and Gojek, mainly because of price. Others, mainly expats who know Indonesia better than me, refuse to use regular taxis on principle, because they refuse to support the transport “mafia”.

ABOVE: A registered taxi (yellow plates) cruises through Pengosekan – the “Zone-One” driver’s association has the backing of the Adat (traditional community) village. BELOW: Welcome to Uber-freeUbud.

I take no pleasure in playing this game, but I’m starting to feel I don’t have much choice if I want to be able to function reasonably efficiently and without unnecessary drama (the price difference is secondary for me). So what to do about it?

There seems little doubt that the established taxi industry in Bali, as most other places, is living on borrowed time – resistant to change, perhaps incapable of change, clinging to what it sees as time-honoured entitlements and denying the inevitable. Ironically all this is happening just as the top levels of Uber seem to be getting some pretty bad press. The online operators no doubt have their faults and problems and we should have no more illusions about their motives than those of any other commercial transport operators. Nor do we know what a totally Uberised post-taxi transport environment might look like. But I doubt the Ubers and Grabs are going to disappear and the passengers have started voting with their feet, so maybe communities like Ubud need to think about how to deal with it.

The present defensive knee-jerk ban is clearly not working and is unlikely to be sustainable. A commonsense option might be a collective reform of the local industry to provide a better co-ordinated and more competitively-priced service, at least outbound from Ubud. Even better might be an app-based local Uber look-alike (Ubudber? Uberbud?) using local drivers and local IT expertise.

ABOVE: You can tell when you enter a new village district not by official markers but by the local driver’s associations banners…. BELOW: We’re not really sure how hotel buggies got licence plates and are allowed on public roads seeing as they are technically not roadworthy, but we guess as long as it’s not Uber and you don’t book it online….