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Ride-hailing apps a boon for Asia's motorcycle taxis

Wireless broadband and smartphones driving changes in region's transport habits

Singapore's Grab operates a mobile ride-hailing service for tricycles, a form of public transportation that combines a motorcycle with a sidecar.

Mobile ride-hailing apps are fast finding a place in Asia's taxi industry via motorcycles and motorized tricycles, typically cheaper alternatives to autos.

The trend is being helped along by the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and improved wireless infrastructure. A Cambodian ride-hailing service plans to increase its fleet of vehicles to 3,000 in the next three years, while Singapore's Grab has launched operations in the Philippines and Thailand.

The services, which can also be used for home delivery, may soon become major pillars in urban-Asia's transportation infrastructure.

Transparent pricing

Cambodia's favored means of public transport, the tuk-tuk, is a familiar sight in the capital of Phnom Penh. Recently, colorful motorized tricycles equipped with smartphones or tablets are being seen in increasing numbers alongside their traditional, well-worn counterparts. Drivers of the sleek new machines are the main users of the mobile apps.

A 24-year-old company employee said he uses the CamGo ride-hailing app for trips to the market or when visiting relatives, saying he likes the ease of use and transparent pricing that the app provides.

Tuk-tuks are popular because they are numerous and easy to spot. But there are frequent complaints about drivers charging unreasonably high fares or intentionally taking roundabout routes to gouge more from passengers.

CamGo has brought transparency to pricing, with drivers charging 3,200 riel (79 cents) for the first 1km, and 1,400 riel for every additional 1km. The route takes the shortest distance to the destination, measured by GPS. The passenger gets to confirm this before boarding.

In contrast, taxi fares start at about 4,000 riel for the first leg, with each additional one tacking on another 3,000 riel.

CamGo chief executive officer Chipsourn Ouk, who has an engineering background, established the company in July 2016, believing that public transportation should be safe and comfortable.

There are still only about 40 vehicles registered with CamGo, but its popularity is growing. The company plans to add 100 vehicles soon and 3,000 in the next three years.

Smartphone popularity

Phnom Penh's ride-hailing market is getting crowded. At least four services, including CamGo, launched in the past year or so. These startups take their cue from Indonesia's Go-Jek and Grab, which turned into businesses worth over $1 billion in just a few years.

The ride-hailing app boom in Asia is closely tied to growing smartphone use and the development of wireless infrastructure. Smartphones, including used ones, are now available cheaply with advanced fourth-generation, or 4G, services costing several dollars.

Grab is still aggressively expanding. In April, it launched GrabTrike in the Philippine city of Angeles, north of Manila. The service is for "tricycles" -- motorcycles with attached sidecars.

Already, more than 300 drivers have registered with the service, which employs a system similar to CamGo's. The company saw great potential in Angeles, with its more than 10,000 tricycles and population of 300,000.

In Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, Grab launched a ride-hailing service in July for microbuses. It now boasts some 300 registered drivers.

Ride-hailing services are also being used to book home deliveries. In India, Jugnoo, a ride-hailing service specializing in motorized tricycles, has partnered with fast-food restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King to deliver meals.

Jugnoo, with revenue now approaching $10 million, claims to have 15,000 vehicles operating in 35 cities. Drug stores and florists are also users of the service.

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