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A Tribute to the Philippine Jeepney

Philippine Jeepney
Edited Photo. Original by Lawrence Ruiz

A Tribute to the Philippine Jeepney: Adobo Magazine called the Filipino jeepney the ‘king of the road’. Culture Trip cited it as a ‘national symbol’. Now facing an impending phaseout, let us look back on the Filipino jeepney and how it has embedded itself into the country’s culture and identity.

Background and History

Jeepneys have been recognized as the most popular mode of transportation in the Philippines, known for their unique seating and kitsch decorations. It has become a symbol of the country’s culture and passion for art – and has even captivated international audiences. During the 1964 New York World’s Fair, a Sarao jeepney was exhibited at the Philippine pavilion as a national image for the Filipinos.

The Filipino jeepney originated from ‘shared taxis’ during the American colonial period. Such were called ‘auto calesas (AC)’. These evolved during the 1930s and served as utility vehicles in Manila. However, most of these were destroyed during World War II and the need for replacement vehicles led to the use of leftover U.S. military jeeps from the war. Thus the word ‘jeepney’ is said to be a portmanteau of the post-WWII jeep and pre-WWII ‘jitney’.

Over the year, the jeepney industry flourished, with passenger capacity reaching fourteen to eighteen. These were referred to as ‘Public Utility Jeepneys (PUJ). To regulate its operation, the Philippine government imposed requisites – such as special driver licenses, regulated routes, and fixed fares. Those who operated with a franchise were referred to as ‘colorum’.

Phaseout and Modernization

Fast forward to the present, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) introduced the Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) Modernization Program that aims to phase out vehicles, particularly jeepneys, that are more than 15 years old. In a presentation, DOTr stressed that the current public transport system is “deemed unsafe, unhealthy, and uncomfortable.” It also indicated that “PUBs and PUJs serve 67% of demand but use 28% of road space (JICA 2014)” and that “PUJs dominate road-base public transport.” The agency also added that 90% of PUJ units are beyond 15 years old (LTFRB) and that it is a major contributor to air pollution and road accidents.

The PUV Modernization Program “envisions a restructured, modern, well-managed, and environmentally sustainable transport sector where drivers and operators have stable, sufficient, and dignified livelihoods while commuters get to their destinations quickly, safely, and comfortably.”

Included in the program are regulatory reform, LGU capacity building, route rationalization, and fleet modernization. Under fleet modernization, vehicles should be compliant with being environment-friendly (clean air act compliant engine, Euro 4 emission or better), safety (side door, speed limiter, automatic braking, overall compliant to safety standards), security (CCTV, GPS, AFCS, dashboard camera), and comfort (elderly-friendly).

With the impending modernization, the initiative was not wholly welcomed by the transport sector. Transport groups described the program as ‘anti-poor’, and that operators will bear the burden of modernization. An article by CNN Philippines detailed a timeline from January 2016 to the present day where the issue still remains unresolved. Read: PUV Phaseout Program Timeline by CNN Philippines.

“Efren Borela, a jeepney owner for 15 years, earns around 2,500PHP ($48) per day, and has invested his savings into his vehicle. His savings are compromised if he has to go out and buy a new roadworthy one. In a society where jobs are transient and many fear losing their livelihoods on a daily basis, narratives like that of Efren are shared by many other current jeepney drivers,” excerpts from an article published on Stanford Future Bay Initiative.

Two cents: It is just fair to recognize the contribution of the Philippine jeepney to the country. Will they be removed from the streets and retired into museums as ‘artifacts of the past’? Evolution is inescapable. Modernization is imminent. We can only ponder from a distance. Hoping for the best for both parties.

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