By Naomi Gregorio, B.S. Candidate, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford
The Origin of Jeepneys
After the damage dealt by World War II, the Philippines faced a post-war crisis of developing a new system of urban transportation. Within the urban area of Metro Manila, the cable cars that had once been used as a primary form of transportation were now left in a state of ruin because of all the bombings that occurred in the city. However, a new system of mobilizing the urban population soon arose from all of this destruction. The Americans had abandoned war jeeps, and local manufacturers modified them to accommodate more passengers. Despite having started as a temporary solution, Jeepneys have evolved into a cultural symbol that now serves almost 40% of transport users in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces.
Official records show that there are almost 180,000 franchised jeepneys in the Philippines today. Part of their appeal to the masses is that they are extremely economical. Costing just 8PHP ($0.16) a ride -- compared to 12PHP for a bus ride or 15PHP for a train -- jeepneys serve as an affordable alternative to Filipino commuters. In a society where a substantial part of the population lives under the UN definition of poverty, the jeepney has become a fundamental part of people’s lives as they are forced to move among different locations for employment. The vehicle’s size and shape also allows them to navigate streets untouched by the country’s limited public transit system.
As a cultural symbol, the jeepney is famous for having designs as loud as their engines. Jeepney drivers and owners use vibrant colors and kitschy ornamentation to decorate their vehicles in order to tell a story. Often these narratives include references to family members working overseas, nature scene’s from a family’s original province and heritage, as well as basketball players and cartoons that emphasize the Filipino obsession with Western pop culture in the post-colonial period.
Phasing Out the Jeepney
Despite its long-standing popular appeal in economy and mobility, jeepneys bear a fair amount of responsibility for contributing to the traffic and pollution crisis that is prevalent throughout Metro Manila. A typical jeepney will be able to seat 10 to 16 commuters, all sitting knee-to-knee on twin benches, and does not have internal air-conditioning or windows to shield passengers from heat, rain, and fumes. With Manila as one of Asia’s most gridlocked mega-cities, passengers often have to withstand these conditions for hours. There are also no seatbelts or methods for the vehicles to accommodate commuters with disabilities. Because the jeepney industry does not involve any mass-production, it instead relies on a fleet consisting of second-hand vehicles modified with scavenged parts and dependent on polluting diesel. Because of the jeepney industry’s contribution to pollution and traffic congestion, the current presidential administration in the Philippines has updated its regulations regarding Public Utility Vehicles. Some of the new rules are based on vehicle size, accessibility, and engine quality, which could effectively stamp out thousands of the vehicles that are currently in service and in turn the livelihoods of their low-income drivers. Any vehicles that fail to meet these standards as well as those built more than 15 years ago were required to have been taken off the roads by Jan 1, 2018.
Rebranding the Jeepney
An alternative to the jeepney was recently commissioned by the government, and it bears minimal resemblance to the traditional jeepney and instead is more similar to mini-buses that are common in other countries. These new designs incorporate Euro 4 engines or solar panels, safety features like speed limiters, accessibility features like ramps and seatbelts, closed-circuit television cameras, GPS, and a dashboard camera. It will also come with free wifi for the convenience of commuters. In addition to the design modifications, the internal system of this form of public transportation will also be changed. The current jeepney system consists of passengers tapping on the roof to stop the vehicle and passing on fares through a line of passengers to the driver. The new model will introduce formal ticketing and drop-off points. In addition, these vehicles will be locally made and assembled. While certainly an attractive option in terms of mitigating the negative externalities that have been made by traditional jeepneys over the years, this new Public Utility Vehicle bears a price tag of PHP1.6 million ($30,000).
Consequences for the Urban Poor
While most jeepney drivers and other motorists acknowledge the need to upgrade Public Utility Vehicles to make them safer for drivers and commuters, they are overwhelmed and dismayed by the high cost for drivers to replace their old jeeps. 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. Recently, a transport group named Piston organized a round of protests involving more than 6000 jeepney drivers who would be impacted by the regulation. Within the context of the public outcry, the government argues that it will be setting up financial loan schemes as part of the urban transport rehaul effort.
Ride-sharing Services as an Alternative
Amidst the public outcry among jeepney owners who will be potentially impacted, other transportation alternatives have conducted their fair share of capitalizing on the market vacuum. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Grab (a local version) have cropped up and risen in popularity over the years. On the day of the third jeepney driver strike, Uber released a promotion for those who ‘may be affected by the day’s proceedings.’
There is much criticism regarding the viability of ride-sharing services as an alternative solution to the country’s transportation problems. Stephen Zoepf discussed his report in an SUS seminar on how ride-sharing services contribute to racial and economic discrimination. Internationally, ride-sharing services demonstrate the same trends. In the Philippines, ride-sharing services are fundamentally no different to jeepneys, tricycles, and pedicabs. They just cost more and make use of more expensive means to hail and stop drivers. However, neither conventional PUVs nor ride-sharing services can really be considered true public services as both inconvenience sectors of society who are not either’s patrons. PUVs, for their part, turn Philippine roads into monstrous hellholes for private motorists and pedestrians (and are hazards even to their own patrons). Transportation network vehicle services (TNVSs), on the other hand, further add to the proliferation of private vehicles that provide non-mass-transit “public” transport. Both PUVs and TNVSs contribute virtually the same problem to Philippine public transport in general in that both are competitive private enterprises rather than true public mass transit systems that are truly egalitarian in the level of service made available to the public.
As an alternative, ride-sharing services are really only accessible for those who can afford private cars. If the solution is not something that may be made available to those who are in need of it the most, it poses a scenario similar to that of the jeepney when it was first developed. As a form of proprietary foreign technology, these technologies will render Filipinos mere users and consumers and will be hinder them from building a modern and competitive automotive industry in a more organic and localized way.
 Nebrija, Julian, “Philippines’ brightly decorated jeepneys face an uncertain future,” November 2017. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/jeepney-philippines-cultural-icon/index.html
 Rey, Aika, “Local companies should manufacture new jeepneys,” February 2018. https://www.rappler.com/nation/196946-jeepneys-local-manufacturers-puv-modernization-house-hearing
 Chen, Heather, “Philippines strike: Filipinos rally around iconic jeepney drivers,” October 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41632035
 Morris, Davis Paul, “Philippines lifts Uber suspension after it pays nearly $10 million in penalties,” August 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/30/philippines-lifts-uber-suspension-after-it-pays-millions-in-penalties.html