End of the road for the Jeepney? | Daily News


End of the road for the Jeepney?

Every country has peculiarities in public transport. Here in Sri Lanka, we have death (and gravity) defying three wheelers and private buses, while in the Philippines they have the rather unique Jeepneys. As you might have guessed, they are derived from the Jeeps used in World War II and to be frank, some of them are really close to that vintage.

The Jeep is unmistakably a Filipino institution and a cultural icon. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for the colourful lorries that play the precarious trade routes in mountainous regions of India and Pakistan. But if you want to ride a colourful, graffiti and art infused and often rickety contraption for a few Pesos (around 10), the gas-guzzling, smoke-spewing Jeepney is the only way to go.

During a recent visit to Manila as part of the Jefferson Journalism Fellowship, I had the opportunity of not only witnessing hundreds of these ancient conveyances, but also actually riding in one. Being not all that adventurous, I would never have done it on my own, but CNN Philippines anchor and producer Rex Remitio was on hand to guide me through the somewhat harrowing experience.

But first, Rex gave me a ride in the city’s ultra-modern above-ground Light Rail Transit (LRT) train after a visit to the Mall of Asia shopping complex. This was a foretaste of what Colombo will get (the LRT) by around 2025 if everything goes well. It was a super-smooth ride, in sharp contrast to what was to come.

With dusk coming in, Rex wanted to take me to my hotel, the Manila Hotel, itself a Manila institution. “Let’s take a Jeepney,” said Rex, even though I was a little nervous about getting into one. But then, having had numerous rides in our sardine can private buses, I mustered the courage to get on board. Getting on board is often not for the faint-hearted because one usually has to climb on from the rear entrance while the vehicle is moving. There are only two rows of seats on either side, so it can get a little cramped. In rural areas where the transport and road infrastructure is much less developed than in Manila, people are known to travel on the roof as well.

There are so many Jeepneys plying on so many routes, that not even the locals know where they are all going. Rex had to ask each driver who whizzed past whether they would be going near the Manila Hotel. After so many negative answers, we finally found one going in that direction and barely managed to hop in before the driver slipped into a higher gear.

It was only after we were properly seated and the fare paid that Rex drooped the bombshell. “The Jeepneys are on the way out.” I learned that the end of the road was nigh for the conventional diesel powered Jeepneys. President Rodrigo Duterte has targeted the country’s 1.5 million Jeepneys in his drive to curb traffic, slamming them for endangering public health while insisting that they must “modernise or get out”. Traffic choked Manila indeed suffers from high levels of air pollution. And what will replace them ? Hybrid and fully electric Jeepneys and mini buses. The same fate will befall on the city’s motorcycle powered tricycles, of which there are 4.5 million through the Philippines.

The Government’s 2017 Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) took square aim at the Jeepney, calling for the phasing out of all vehicles 15 years or older in favour of leaner, greener machines. In the last six months, some of the modernized Jeepneys have begun to hit the streets of Metro Manila.

Rex tells me that other cities in the Philippines have already started the drive to replace the Jeepneys. Davao, 1,500 Km away from Manila, is trialling an integrated bus system and will soon say goodbye to Jeepneys altogether. But many other cities have opted to modernize them instead while phasing out the old ones.

Although the Jeepney is ingrained in Filipino life, there are signs that people will not miss them once they are gone for good. One reader in a local newspaper commented that “these old Jeepneys are not only unsightly but a road hazard, and dangerous to the Filipino riding public.They are also polluting, noisy, crowded, not air-conditioned, and stop anywhere blocking the traffic. Should be replaced by buses and minibuses asap”.

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) study shows that it costs about 2.75 Philippine pesos per km to operate an electric Jeepney, compared to 4. 50 pesos per km for a diesel one. Leaving maintenance and fleet savings aside, an e-Jeepney could potentially save 175,000 pesos (about US$ 3,300) per 100,000 km (EV power trains last up to 800,000 Km), on fuel alone, says the ADB.

One problem is that EV costs are still high. But some local e-Jeepney manufacturers have changed their thinking - one company is giving away e-Jeepneys to fleet operators for free, in exchange for advertising rights. Star8 Green Tech Corp., an Australian renewable energy company, has given away an initial 1,300 units of e-Jeepneys in the Philippines. But costs and prices will come down as battery manufacturers develop batteries that cost less but have a longer range between charges.

I managed to spot a few of the new e-Jeepneys. The new versions feature swinging side-entry doors instead of the traditional rear-entry, electronic speed limiters, CCTV and other passenger safety features. They are roomier, with roughly triple the ‘official’ capacity of old Jeepneys (around 14). A few even have air-conditioning and Wi-Fi. The downside? One could cost up to US$ 30,000 or 1.5 million Pesos. The Government has introduced a buy-back scheme and promised to subsidize transitional costs.

But Rex tells me that resistance is still rife, not only among the owners/drivers but also among the painters and graffiti artistes who are fearful that the new Jeepney operators might not go the colourful look. But even if they do vanish from Philippine roads, you can have one – at least a scale model from toy manufacturer Tamiya. Car collectors can immortalize the Jeepney with Tamiya’s limited-edition, battery powered Jeepney race car model named “Dyipne”, which will be, fittingly enough, made in the Philippines itself for the global market. The toy Jeepney model is priced at just 700 Pesos, which is just a fraction of the price of a new E-Jeepney.

With the imposing façade of the Manila Hotel looming on the windshield, my 30-minute ride was coming to an end. I witnessed a world of goings-on inside the Jeepney, with regular commuters catching up on news and gossip in rapid-fire Tagalog (Rex translated some stuff for me) and the driver’s sidekick collecting the fares over the din. The driver expertly maneuvered the Jeepney and in contrast to our private bus drivers, he never once tried to overtake the Jeepney in front or cut across another one. After all, there is room for all the Jeepneys and there is no struggle to fill the seats. But it would be a sad day if and when they are gone forever from the streets of Manila.

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