MANILA — Her lithe frame wrapped in crash guards, Angkas CEO Angeline Tham maneuvers a big bike past a row of orange cones, nearing the finish line of her safety course as support mounts for efforts to legalize motorcycles as a commuter alternative in the traffic-choked Philippine capital.
The Singapore-born mother of one says she is on a mission to save office workers from tardiness, prevent gridlocks from driving a wedge between girlfriend and boyfriend who live on opposite ends of the metropolis, and make roads safer for bikes and 4-wheeled vehicles.
Tham, who left Grab to start Angkas after the former’s bike-hailing service folded in the Philippines, says she often gets told “bawal yan (that’s prohibited)" or “hindi pwede (that's not allowed)” but she presses on, taking from her favorite Tagalog expression, “Bahala na si Batman (Leave it to Batman).”
“If you believe you’ve done all that you can, then bahala na si Batman because you’ve pushed all boundaries and you tried everything,” Tham told ABS-CBN News during a break from a police-run safety course on Jan. 18.
“I think that's a good saying, but I do believe you have to try. If you just sit in a room, nothing is going to happen to you,” she said.
Tham said she wanted to “understand” those who are against Angkas and motorbikes in general and show them what the platform is doing both for commuters and riders.
“That's how disruption happens. What we are disrupting is, we are looking at new and innovative ways of doing things. People riding bikes, it’s been around for a long time. We want to make it more professional and safer. I think that's the way of the future,” she said.
Angkas is among a host of app-based ride-hailing and logistics apps that challenge existing providers and laws.
Grab was at loggerheads with regulators for a large part of 2018 due to demand-based or "surge" fares and a cap on the number of vehicles that can use the platform. It also recently took over the Southeast Asian operations of rival Uber which is also involved in regulatory tussle in other parts of the world.
Earlier in January, Indonesian ride-hailing giant Go-Jek failed in its bid to set up in the Philippines after regulators cited foreign ownership cap issues
In a breakthrough for Angkas before the close of 2018, the Department of Transportation announced a technical study on classifying motorcycles as public transport. Earlier that month, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on a lower court decision that barred authorities from arresting Angkas drivers.
Bills have been filed to amend a half-century old traffic code that bars Angkas from being used for public transport. Last week, a House of Representatives panel urged regulators to allow Angkas to operate.
“We’ve seen that change on the consumer side and were starting to see that change on the government front,” she said.
Citing a recent survey, Tham said 1 in 3 Filipinos own a motorbike, half of bike owners use the vehicle for livelihood and all of the owners belong to low-income households. Only 5 million of the 14 million motorbikes on the road are registered, she said, citing regulator data.
Until new guidelines are issued, the law is revised or the TRO is lifted, Angkas, which has some 27,000 drivers, can operate only as a courier service.
An updated study by the Japan International Coordination Agency estimated daily economic losses due to traffic in the Philippines at P3.5 billion. Tokyo is also helping Manila build its first ever subway system in Mega Manila.
New bottlenecks build up, especially in areas where new transport systems are being built.
Tham said she got the idea for Angkas when 5 years ago, she was late to several meetings with 6 hours spent on the road.
“When you get there and you’re late, it’s a very acceptable thing,” Tham said. “That makes us less efficient.”
Tham said she heard of couples who break up since the boyfriend had to cross city traffic twice to bring his girlfriend home before driving back to his own house.
“That’s girlfriend-boyfriend. Imagine if you work, that's a daily grind that you have 1 to 3 hours to get to work one-way,” she said.
Angkas puts a premium on safety and half of driver applicants fail its test on their first try. They don’t get accepted until they pass.
“When government says that motorcycles are really dangerous, I think the danger is not the motorcycle itself, because the motorcycle can be ridden in a way that is safe and responsible. It’s really the people using the motorcycles,” she said.
When Metro Manila’s mass transport system is overhauled and motorbikes may no longer be needed, Tham said the future for Angkas may be in the skies.
“We’ll do something else to help the people. Helicopters, drones right? Whatever alternative modes of transportation or movement to help people or help the lives of our drivers,” she said.