In a country where the public transport system is generally quite poor, travellers to Indonesia frequently end up using the taxi as a way to get from place to place. And at least in Jakarta or the tourist meccas of south Bali, it's very easy as taxis are everywhere. Yet cab-catching takes a fair degree of street-smarts if you don't wish to get ripped off. The industry is full of slick operators who will try various ways squeeze you for some extra cash, some overt and some subtle.
Now I should state that getting "ripped off" by Indonesian taxi drivers is generally not a huge blow to the pocket of the average Western tourist. My quasi-socialist mindset tells me that paying the equivalent of 1 or 2 US dollars extra is not a whole lot in the scheme of things, while for an Indonesian it's worth a lot more. Which is why I try to stay vigilant, while still keeping a sense of perspective about these things; perhaps it's not worth getting worked up over a relatively piffling amount of money. But of course, it's the principle of the thing, and no one likes to feel like they're getting worked over. I have relatives who always ask how much I paid for a cab ride, since they expect as an outsider I'm a prime target for ripoffs. And it's always faintly embarrassing to hear them say that I paid more than I should have. So some personal pride is at stake.
And there's a scarier side to dodgy taxis as well. There are well-known stories about drivers who work in concert with robbers and thugs, setting up their passengers to get accosted. This is obviously an extreme case, but it's just one more reason why it's good to know how to separate good taxi companies from bad. More often, dodgy drivers use tricks such as meters that run faster than they should, or driving the long way to a given destination (easy to get away with if the passenger is not a local). The most common one is drivers trying to haggle for a fare rather than using a meter; again, something that works best on non-locals. It should be noted that in many parts of Indonesia outside the large urban centres, haggling for a fare is standard practice since there are often no taxi companies in operation there; just random guys with vehicles offering to take you somewhere. And there are no meters for Jakarta's bajaj (tuk-tuk) or Yogyakarta's becak (tri-shaw).
There are myriad different taxi companies in Indonesia's major urban centres, but one company is famous for it's commitment to being a trustworthy taxi service: the Blue Bird group. Lest this sound like an advertisement for this company, I'm merely repeating the advice that locals have always given me; if you want a taxi, look for Blue Bird first. Recently another company, Express, has risen to a similar level of respect amongst the taxi-catching public in Jakarta.
Blue Bird's secret is not especially innovative; in an industry with its share of shady characters, Blue Bird merely demonstrates a higher emphasis on not acting shady. That means drivers are courteous, always use reliable meters and don't try to inflate the fare, and have to maintain a high standard of vehicle cleanliness. This last point is not insignificant as drivers of all companies frequently sleep in their taxis - as you would too if you had to drive around Jakarta all day - but there's a difference between napping in a taxi and living out of it, which some do. Blue Bird is also sensitive to customer complaints; from what I understand, they have a points system in which accruing too many complaints means dismissal. New drivers need to stay complaint-free during a three-month probation period, or they are out. And well might they be stringent on this. When the primary factor that gives you an edge over your rivals is the perception of trustworthiness, any employee who fails the party line is doing severe damage to the brand.
I've heard recently that a number of other companies have responded to the market dominance of Blue Bird by mimicry; copying their colour scheme and even having logos that look superficially similar. I'm a bit confused as to exactly how true this is, because some of these companies (such as Cendrawasih, which is purplish rather than blue and has a bird of paradise as its logo) are actually subsidiaries of Blue Bird. But I've certainly had the experience of catching a taxi that by night appeared to be a Blue Bird, yet the driver wanted to name a price rather than use the meter; once inside the taxi it was clear that there was nothing with the Blue Bird branding.
From an economic perspective I find this very interesting. Since it is fairly obvious why Blue Bird has come to dominate the market, you'd think the obvious way for rival companies to compete would be to raise their standards to a comparable level. Yet, perhaps in a case of shady folks doing what shady folks do, they've mimicked the appearance of respectability without actually trying to earn it. Surely it is more cost-effective to enforce driver behaviour than it is to redesign your fleet? Or maybe it's not.
My experience with Blue Bird has not all been perfect. Like Indonesian taxi drivers in general, and Indonesians in general, their drivers do not tend to use maps to get around. And given that GPS is still out of the price range of most drivers and companies at the moment, they have to rely on road knowledge, either their own, their customers, or passersby, or even their associates. Having drivers stop on the side of the road to ask locals for directions is commonplace, and I've had one driver pull over three times, and get out and ring one of his fellow drivers for information about the area, when the locals couldn't tell him anything. All while the meter was running of course.