Thousands of jeepney drivers stopped plying Manila streets this week to protest a government plan to phase out the iconic public transport vehicle, a unique symbol of Philippine ingenuity which for decades has ruled the streets.
There had been successful transport strikes in the past during the time of the president’s late father, paralyzing the capital, which members of a group called Manibela would like to replicate now.
Transportation officials from the previous Duterte government were proposing to replace the elongated army jeep with a modern jeepney, which is actually more like a mini-bus.
It is not only an expensive option but the Philippines’ traditional mode of transportation will forever be lost. Decades from now, Filipinos will no longer remember what a jeepney looked like.
Jeepney drivers could not understand why officials in the Duterte government were insisting on replacing the iconic jeepney with a China-made mini-bus.
It is not a jeepney. Perhaps, some officials have made commitments to Chinese suppliers that they could make money because the country has more than 200,000 units of old, creaky and smokey jeepneys.
They even ignored proposals from some jeepney operators and makers to replace the old units with brand-new vehicles but the design would be similar to the old ones.
Before the war, Manila had the “tranvia” or street cars on rails. The Americans introduced the street cars in 1905, similar to those still running in San Francisco, California and other countries, like in Melbourne, Australia.
But the war devastated Manila and the “tranvia” were never returned because the US military left behind thousands of army jeeps. These vehicles were modified with an elongated body to seat 12 people, six on each side of a bench behind the driver.
There were other variations with a longer version that could accommodate 20 people. Later, some jeepneys were modified to place the entrance at the right side of the vehicle and enclosed to install an air conditioning system.
But, whatever the design, there is a common feature of the Philippine jeepney. It is colorful, with artwork on its body that depicts landscapes, saints, names of people, and even bizarre things.
In the 1980s, these jeepneys also had radio or stereo systems blaring rock and roll music that could be heard several meters away.
Most jeepneys had funny and catchy slogans: “God Knows Hudas not pay” or “Barya lang po sa umaga” and “Basta Driver, Sweet Lover.”
The jeepneys have evolved into several models but they remain the “king of the road.”
Jeepneys are so popular abroad that tourists would want to try riding in it when they come to Manila and other parts of the country. In some Philippine embassies abroad, like in Ottawa in Canada, there is a cardboard cutout where people can have their photographs taken as if riding in a jeepney.
A famous coffee shop in the defunct Hotel Intercontinental in Makati was named “Jeepney,” where politicians and businessmen used to hang out.
It would be sad if Filipinos allowed the iconic jeepney to fade away in memory. Other countries tried to preserve their culture but some Duterte officials tried to erase not only symbols but Filipino values.
There could be many lessons to learn from riding a jeepney. People try to squeeze in to accommodate fellow passengers. They would relay the fare given by a passenger at the farthest end of the jeepney to the driver.
Jeepney drivers have the skill to give back change while driving in Manila’s busy, crowded, and narrow streets. They have become a popular mode of public transport because they could stop in front of the passenger’s home or any destination.
But they could also be annoying to other motorists because drivers ignore bus or jeepney stops, and pick up or unload passengers in the middle of a road.
Some jeepneys have become eyesores because they are not only old and dilapidated but emit thick, black smoke that pollutes the air.
Jeepney operators and drivers announced a week-long strike to protest the modernization plan to phase out old and dilapidated units, replacing them with the sleek, air conditioned mini-buses, which officials call the modern jeepney.
The planned strike forced transportation officials to extend the plan phaseout until Dec. 31 this year after senators passed a resolution to scrap the June 30 deadline for operators and drivers to form cooperatives and acquire the min-buses to modernize their jeepneys.
However, many complain the modernization plan is too costly. Many cannot afford to buy the mini-buses which were pegged at P2.4 million per unit. They could not afford the amortization and drivers rejected the fixed daily pay of P400 to P800.
Some drivers say they could earn P1,000 or more daily despite high diesel prices. The fixed salary would not be enough for a driver with a family of five.
If the government was only concerned about the rusty look and smoke emission from old jeepneys, perhaps the transportation officials could take a second look at the modernization plan and accept a proposal from some operators and drivers to install a Euro 4 engine to improve the carbon emissions from jeepneys.
There are two companies that manufacture jeepneys in the country and export them to other countries, like East Timor and Papua New Guinea.
Why did transport officials under the Duterte administration not consider tapping them but instead accommodated Chinese supplies who are offering mini-buses?
Some might say there could be some sweetheart deals with the mini-bus suppliers but there is still no hard evidence to prove that. But one can only wonder why the transport officials have pushed hard for the mini-buses.
Perhaps, the transport officials under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr can revisit the jeepney modernization program.
They could keep the old jeepney models, change the engine to comply with the more environment-friendly models, and stop pushing the mini-bus option.
The transport strike could be averted if the government would only listen to transport stakeholders — the small operators and drivers who will be affected by the shift to expensive mini-buses.
The government must be more flexible and some officials must not think of their personal interests in pushing for the jeepney modernization program.
The government, above all, must preserve the rich Filipino heritage and save the iconic jeepney.