The inimitable Jeepneys of the Philippines
The mainstay of public transport in the Philippines is the iconic jeepney. With their loud colors, individualistic facade decorations, and unique vehicular bodywork, they make good advertisements in tourist brochures. Apart from beauty queens and sandy beaches, the jeepneys embody the 7,107 islands.
It’s more fun in the Jeepneys
There was the thrill of novelty climbing on board the Philippine icon for my first few rides. No matter how full the vehicle is, when the 2 rows of lateral bench seats seem to be fully taken up, another passenger could always be accommodated. He or she simply puts butt between two sitting passengers, a mini Moses-like butt-parting occurs and a small space is created. I don’t know how a wholesome butt could fill a 6 inch space but they do. The fares are passed from one passenger to the next to the driver in front. If it’s your fare you say “Bayad, po – and your destination”. If you are relaying someone’s fare you say “Bayad dow”. If there is change, the money counterflows through various hands back to you. If someone wishes to alight, they say “Para, po” and it amazes me that one does not need to shout, somehow the driver hears through the cacophony of the noisy traffic. If the driver misses the call, some helpful passenger will repeat “Para dow”. Para, by the way, is Spanish for stop, and it is used only in this situation of instructing a driver. Then there are the street ushers, locally known as ‘Barker boys’, guys who chanel passengers to the jeepneys. Their job is basically superfluous, but jeepney drivers will pass them a peso or two, it’s a sort of the poor helping the poor. Street urchins may cling to the back steps for a short thrill ride for free. Occasionally some shady looking characters come on board and that momentarily jolts everyone out of a mundane ride. People are generally wary because of the high crime rate. At other times, some guys will come on board, sing a wacky tune, and pass a hat around.
The jeepney driver is a multi-tasking master. Apart from driving, he is simultaneously collecting fares, counting his collection, wrapping peso notes in between his fingers, returning change to passengers, and prospecting new passengers on the sidewalks. On top of this, he often stops to buy a stick of cigarette or a bottle of water from street vendors who peddle their wares weaving in and out of traffic. There’s just too much going on in the driver’s seat, I only wish he has both hands on the steering wheels instead. Lane discipline is unheard of. Jeepneys zip in and out of lanes every few seconds as drivers compete voraciously to pick up passengers.
Jeepney rides are cheap but terribly uncomfortable and the exposure to vehicular emissions that fill the air is really bad. I salute the Filipino commuters for their great consideration towards each other in the jeepneys. There is hardly any display of annoyance whether someone is shabily dressed, or tugging baggages or bags and the fact that everybody gets into each other’s way as they board and alight. And, amazingly, boarding and alighting takes place just about anywhere, even right in the middle lanes of the road.
And here’s my lasting impression of a jeepney ride. If you are over 4 feet tall, you have a problem. All adults need to do the crouching walk in the jeepneys, which I personally feel entails a loss of some dignity. For a newbie like me, it needs practice so I got myself a video. (Video credit : Roger Parish III).
If you are not a jeepney crouchie then you don’t understand Filipino daily frustrations.
Oldies are not goodies – they are killing our lungs
To me, the jeepney is a sick manifestation of a governing system where the economically and the politically empowered classes have foresaken their responsibility to provide for a more decent way for the masses to travel. The government entity LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board) simply registers operators and performs some overseeing function. The self-operated jeepney drivers are left to their own accord, including route selection. As a consequence, the industry is mired in WW2 technologies. Jeepneys run chaotically in the cities and they are a major cause of slowing traffic flows on the roads as well as contributing greatly to air pollution.
Jeepneys originated from US Army jeeps written off in WW2 and the Vietnam War. They were cannibalised and reconstructed into the shapes we see today. Over the years, small local companies started to produce newer versions by importing engine parts and reassembling them onto locally produced car-cases. Some of the very old ones are still on the road. A DOTC report noted vehicular traffic is responsible for 37% of air pollution in Philippines and, out of this, the jeepneys contribute 80%. That’s how bad it is.
Safety issues that nobody cares about
Jeepneys are mean machines. Even with so much cannibalising and retrofitting, there are no annual inspections or safety tests. Forget about emission tests. There are no safety standards in place. The aggressive solid metal rail front bumper that protrudes 1 foot out is a killing device. Lateral seating is not only bad, the exposed sides leave passengers’ backs vulnerable to extruding materials from vehicles brushing by – in the Metro’s crowded streets, vehicles are often separated by just inches. The open rear and doorless driver and front passenger seat are simply unacceptable in other countries. There are no safety belts. The riot of colours and exterior decorations are undue distractions on the roads. Sleepy drivers try to chalk up as many driving hours as possible each day, some resorting to shabu to stay awake. Many jeepneys are so old their roadworthiness is just unbelievable. At full capacity, they are simply way too overloaded. That’s not even considering the provinces where people clamber onto the rooftops. Rear seat passengers have no cushion protection from a rear collision. Squeezing 2 passengers into the front seat cramps the driver’s mobility. Being one-man operated, the driver spends too much time dealing with fares; that puts him in the uncompromising, awkward position of one arm stretched backwards as he collects fares or returns change whilst zipping in and out of lanes.
Change is coming
There is no disagreement that the public transport system in Philippines is pathetic. Administrations in the past have lacked both finances, concern, and more importantly, political will, to implement severely needed overhauls. Adding to this woeful story is the lack of executive continuity, a deadly disease of the Philippines. Succeeding admins fails to build on the previous admin’s work. A new admin tends to totally rewrite plans started by the previous executive. Either they have different visions and priorities, or, are trying to corner contracting privileges.
In the case of public transport, the Pnoy admin had actually made several initiatives which have been publicly announced, but I think not well dissemminated. Hence 16.5 million yellow haters remain totally ignorant, refuse to see, or are unable to comprehend. The main initiatives were :
- LRT2 extension projects
- Construction of the Skyway Stage 3
- Proposed Metro Manila subway
- Bus rapid transit (BRT) system
- Point-to-point buses
- Express buses
- Jeepney upgrading
- GPS on public buses to allow fleet management by DOTC.
These are very complex projects that require extensive studies and analysis before any concrete plans can be laid. Take for example one critical data needed — commuters’ traveling patterns. It takes years to survey and obtain origin-destination data and then analyse them. The Pnoy admin has completed most of the study and planning, and some work has, in fact, proceeded. For example, the origin-destination survey for jeepneys has been completed, and the software for the GPS system to monitor buses has been acquired.
It is a good thing that Duterte’s admin has committed to continue with programs started by Pnoy where they deem them to be good ones. Basically, the execution part is now left to the current admin. That is not to say execution will be plain sailing. Duterte admin has its work cut out for them. They still need to tweak the programs, manage change and oversee the implementation.
This is a long overdue upgrade that calls for the phasing out of jeepneys more than 15 years old. Nation-wide there are about 200,000 jeepneys and 150,000 were over 15 years in 2016. With manufacturer capacity at 27,000 per annum, the phasing out will be done in stages.
The govt recently announced the program to upgrade old jeepneys and that triggered a strike by jeepney operators/ drivers. In a highly polarized country, Duterte supporters are quick to take credit for anything good without recognizing the hard work of others and so they were proud of the proposed upgrade. In the aftermath of the strikes, they were even quicker to devil-point Pnoy admin for being the ones who planned the upgrade. As to what was planned at the macro-level, and what was tweaked at the micro and implementation level, we don’t really know. It is dumb to go fault finding round the mulberry bush.
The upgrading program calls for :
- phasing out of jeepneys above 15 years old
- operators must own a fleet of 20 jeepneys
- routes will be determined by DOTC.
- cost of new vehicle Php 1.5mm
- drivers will be salaried employees
There are good and debatable ideas here. Getting rid of the old jeepneys is absolutely good for the environment. Our city air will be cleaner for sure. New means safer and more comfortable rides for commuters. Determination of routes by DOTC on scientific bases will lead to greater efficiency by reducing duplicity which in turn improves traffic. Will salaried drivers improve customer service — left to be seen.
Why the jeepney strike?
The jeepney industry players are small time investors who own a few vehicles and rent them out for a daily fee known as ‘boundary’, owner-operated jeepneys, and drivers who rent for 12 hour sessions. Driver income is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely a very tough working environment and their take home is in the low range.
This sector has no means to cough up Php 1.5 mm for a new jeepney, let alone for 20 vehicles. Many are still paying off loans for their aged vehicles. If there are 200,000 vehicles to be phased out, and assuming they operate on 2 shifts, then 400,000 jeepney drivers will be marginalised. While there certainly are advantages that can be said of salaried employees, I’m betting most drivers are happier with their independent status. That’s the way it has been for decades for them.
The proposed 20 vehicle ruling is neither here nor there. Existing drivers cannot take up the challenge as they have no financial wherewithal. Big corporates cannot enter the market because 20 vehicles is too small a base. It’s a right fit for some fat cats with Php 30m to spare as a side investment, but don’t expect them to drive innovation and move the service to greater heights.
Progress and development need not necessarily always be at the expense of the poor and for the benefit of the oligarchs. Neither should a poor system inherit a ‘too-big-to-fail’ status. Apart from the consumer public, any proposed change must take the interest of the drivers into consideration. As for the small time investors who owns a few vehicles, the environment for them has changed, that’s all.
Drivers’ participation in the industry revamp
The business of public bus service has the unique peculiarities of running peak and non-peak hours, and a profit motivated objective to seek profitable routes vs a social service to run non-profitable ones. An operator needs a critical mass in order to take on loss-making routes and resources to run peak hours and absorb idle time during non-peak hours. Furthermore, for a country that does not socialise the cost of certain infrastructures for public transport, such as bus stop shelters, it is left to the operator to provide such. For these reasons, public bus services are often operated by huge corporations which can seek economies of scale advantages.
Can there be a role for existing jeepney drivers in this? Is it possible to organise them into cooperatives where they continue to drive as salaried employees but have a stake in the business? In metro Manila alone, there are 60,000 jeepneys. Let’s say they work on 2 shifts, that gives a total of 120,000 jeepney drivers. Supposing they each contribute php5,000, an affordable sum, that should provide a total of php600 million seed capital which is a fairly strong base to work on. The govt can help to arrange bank financing for the acquisition of the fleet of new jeepneys. Break them up into 3 or 4 cooperatives to provide competition which can drive the industry forward.
The govt proposal also failed to understand that the jeepney is a ticketless cash business. A one-man-operated salaried driver and a ticketless cash fare is a bad business proposition. There are, however, low cost solutions, such as tamper-proof coin boxes next to the driver (requires passengers to have exact fares ready). There are also coin machines that print tiny tickets. These are operational problems that a professionalised entity operator can address.
Jeepney drivers’ equity participation may take away the understandable emotion against the upgrade proposal.
Critical question — Is the upgrade viable?
While upgrading jeepney services is good, the question on the public’s mind is, will it lead to upward revision of fares? Coming at a time when inflation is beginning to bite, a fare increase will have a political cost and provoke social unrest. It boils down to whether or not the upgrade is viable.
The table below is a simple analysis for marginal cash contribution of a jeepney. Corporate costs and tax not considered. This is an interactive table. Do your own ‘what if’ analysis. You may change the variable data in the white cells. Colored cells are formulated. Your changes will not be saved.
The analysis does not seem to indicate the upgrade is financially viable. My data are all educated guesses, and it may well be they are all wrong. Do your own ‘what if’ and see if it makes sense.
The Makati experience
The E-Jeepney Transport Corp has a franchise operating e-jeepneys in Makati. The company has a small fleet of e-jeepneys using salaried employees. They are the first franchise to operate with employee drivers. I have no idea what the salary scale is like. One visible aspect I can see of these jeepneys is the fact that there is no haphazard driving competing for passengers since the motivation for speed is not there. Driver discipline is definitely much better. The capital investments for e-jeepneys are far lower at Php 600,000 each, making it more viable. Their experience is probably worth studying.
If jeepneys are to be phased out, why replace them with more jeepneys? It is going to be a massive project. Why not take the opportunity to replace jeepneys with mini-buses? Too many buses may be a problem for the roads, but mini-buses do not take up larger footprints than jeepneys. Mini-buses have more capacity and they spare passengers from the indignity of the crouching walk.
Whilst the jeepney upgrade is primarily being used to phase out old vehicles with a view to improving safety and reducing pollution, it also tries to reduce traffic congestion by better route planning. However, a major cause for traffic slowing down unnecessarily in Metro Manila is due to jeepneys’ constant lane switching, picking up and droppping off passengers indiscriminately at any point, even less than ten meters apart, and slowing down to prospect people standing by the roads who often are just waiting for someone else. The constant stop-go-stop-go pattern of jeepneys is a major cause of traffic slowing down. Traffic flows will be enhanced simply by killing off these two practices via :
- Having designated jeepney stops on all city streets. Commuters need to bear with a small inconvenience of walking to these stop points. This will avoid the indiscriminate stopping every ten metres or so and the slowing down to prospect for people standing on the streets.
- Strictly observing lane discipline.
The video below demonstrates how silly driver actions are a major cause that impedes the free flow of traffic.