Updated: Feb 28
Hello Pinay Artist followers!
In this blog, I will share with you more about jeepneys - what they are, a brief history, and my thoughts on the jeepney phaseout plan.
The jeepney, also called jeep, is among the most utilized modes of public transportation in the Philippines. They look like small buses and are usually decorated in bright colors, sometimes with colorful lights (not to be confused with police or ambulance lights!). Drivers decorate their jeepney according to their style, beliefs, home province, or personality, and it is a delight for locals and tourists alike to see them. As an homage to their prevalence, jeepneys are often called the King of the Road in the Philippines.
Riding in a jeepney is a unique experience where you interact with a variety of strangers. You will find some passengers that are very friendly and talkative. If you want to get off but the driver can’t hear you, the other passengers may help out and shout “para po!”, a request to halt the jeepney, if they notice you can’t be heard by the driver. On a jeepney ride, you will also often see passengers pass the payment and change around to help out the driver, on the honor system. It is a high level of trust between Filipinos that allows the driver’s livelihood (and passengers’ payments) to pass between the hands of strangers.
The jeepney dates back to the American Colonial period around the 1930s. During that time, the predecessor of the jeepney, called auto calesa (or AC), was used as a cheap passenger utility vehicle in Manila (see image below). The term calesa refers to a two-wheeled horsedrawn carriage that was primarily used in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. (Did I just use the word colonial a second time?) Over time, the AC was modified to allow for more passengers, up to a maximum of 10. At the end of World War II, most of these vehicles along with military jeeps that were used by the American military forces during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines between 1942 and 1945 were destroyed. The surviving military jeeps that were left behind by the American troops were either sold or given to the Filipinos.
Now comes the interesting part: Inspired by the ACs, Filipinos further modified the abandoned military jeeps to meet the local demands for public transportation. The vehicles were decorated on the sides, inside, and hood, and the back of the truck was altered with the addition of two long parallel benches to allow room for up to 10 passengers on each side, each facing towards the center of the vehicle.
The passenger jeepneys are not only used as a public transit, but they also serve as delivery vehicles to transport produce across provinces and for private charter services. I used to ride a jeepney during my years as a student in the Philippines, from elementary school through graduate school. It is not always the most convenient, especially if you have a tight schedule. However, it does offer a huge benefit in terms of cost. I recall paying less than Php 10.00 ($0.20) on a discounted student rate for a 2.5km/1.55mi ride from home to the University of the Philippines where I took my undergraduate degree. I would have paid five times as much for a regular taxi.
Recently, our iconic jeepney is facing a threat from the government jeepney phaseout plan that began in 2017. This phaseout plan reminded me of the many environmental justice and sustainability issues the world is addressing. Are we ready to wipe out this symbol with rich cultural, historical, and social value? First, let me talk about this phaseout plan. Officially referred to as the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), this was launched by the Philippine Department of Transportation in 2017. The aim was to phase out public utility vehicles including jeepneys that are at least 15 years old and transition to safer, more comfortable, and more environmentally friendly modernized jeepneys by April 2022. This program was put on hold because of COVID-19, but is back and ready to keep on rolling.
At first, it is easy to picture this as an amazing plan that can reduce pollution and increase road safety. Jeepneys are known to be a major contributor to air pollution in big cities in the Philippines; studies have shown that they are also linked to higher incidence of COPD among drivers due to the constant exposure to emissions. Of course, I agree that we should push for cleaner air. But think about the more than 600,000 Filipino drivers and small jeepney operators who are at risk of losing their source of livelihood.
Sustainability takes into consideration not just the economic and environmental side of the issue at hand, but also equity. One of my former professors, Michaela Zint, at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability calls this the 3Es - Environment, Economics, and Equity, which are the pillars for sustainable development. The first two Es I mentioned are already part of the common discourse. The last E, equity, refers to our ethical responsibility to (wo)mankind. We need to look beyond profit and take into consideration justice, wellness, poverty, and inequity.
On the environmental front, I would reiterate that I fully support a push for cleaner air - everywhere - and I understand that this does require some sacrifice. The implementation is the tricky part. While an era of the modernized jeepney has promising impacts to the environment and human health, it is not clear what form of sustained support our traditional jeepney drivers will receive. What alternative livelihoods are offered to them? Will they receive free training to operate the modern jeepney? Who will really benefit from this jeepney phaseout plan financially? Are the millions of people that rely on jeepneys for transportation ready to pay the higher cost associated with this modernization plan? There needs to be a roundtable discussion among the many stakeholders involved in this plan. As what my current supervisor at Clean Water Action, Maurice Sampson, would always quote from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu”. These situations always force us to revisit the question of the government’s role in society - both in the ideal case and how it actually has been realized. This was the first question that Professor Arun Agrawal asked in class when I took up his International Environmental Governance course - What is the role of the government? 🤔
We should work on solutions to address traffic congestion and carbon emissions, without simply eliminating the jeepneys altogether and taking away thousands of livelihoods. Aside from investing in large private corporations for higher profits, we should invest in the talents of our people - our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, among others. Maybe we could work with our experts to design a more sustainable plan that everyone can live with. One thing I learned from the environmental negotiation and mediation class that I took under Professors Steve Yaffee and Julia Wondolleck is that we don’t need everyone to be happy with the compromised plan, we just want to ensure that everyone can live with it. It is impossible to arrive at the best solution without clearly hearing from all the stakeholders involved.
Culture and tradition played an important role in my upbringing. We should be aware that many modernization plans have been used to eliminate not only the people but their culture and identity. As a woman tracing my roots to one of the first groups to inhabit the Philippines, I value cultural preservation. As for the future of the jeepney, I say Long Live the King of the road!
As a parting note: If you enjoyed this post and wanted some jeepney-themed merchandise from my online shop pinayartist.com, use the promo code KingJeep10 at checkout to get a 10% discount on any merchandise under the collection Only in the Philippines! This code is valid until April 30, 2022. Be sure to check back later on as I expand my offerings.