Jeepney: The good and bad of the phaseout

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While a symbol of the Filipino penchant for color and resourcefulness, it also represents a failed mass-transit system as well as a tendency toward stopgap measures

By Edgar M. Sembrano, Inquirer Lifestyle

I n the context of the jeepney being a historical and cultural icon, historians are weighing in on the controversial phasing out of the iconic jeepneys and replacing them with mini buses which are being called “modern jeepneys.”

This problem stemmed from the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program launched in 2017 by the Duterte administration geared toward efficient and environment-friendly public transportation, which targeted the decommissioning of not only jeepneys, but buses and other public utility vehicles that are at least 15 years old.

This was supposed to be completed in 2020, but got extended several times, with the latest extension in early March 2023, when the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board postponed yet again the deadline to end of December this year.

The latest extension was due to the threat of a week-long nationwide transport strike participated in by transport groups Malayang Alyansa ng Bus Employees at Laborers para sa Karapatan sa Paggawa (Manibela) and the Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator Nationwide (Piston).

Helen Yu-Rivera, Art Studies professor at University of the Philippines-Diliman, said in an online interview that she is opposed to the jeepney phaseout, as it is a cultural icon.

Yu-Rivera said what the government can do is to allow modern jeepneys that still look like the old ones, like what Francisco Motors manufactures.

“But more than the style is the problem of cost. I think the government should subsidize modern jeepneys and give the operators and drivers enough time to procure new ones,” she said.

A jeepney plying the UP “ikot” route in Diliman

Unfortunate necessity

For Jose Victor Torres, History professor at De La Salle University-Manila, the jeepney has become a cultural icon, which is a dilemma for some heritage advocates.

He said the jeepney is internationally recognized as a product of Filipino ingenuity and versatility, vehicles which were no longer of use to the Americans, but which became an everyday necessity among Filipinos.

“But on the other hand, a modern economy, technology and a changing society’s needs have relegated the jeepney today to being a nuisance on the road, causing a range of problems from pollution to lack of road discipline,” he said.

On the phaseout, he said it is “an unfortunate necessity, but the burden should not be shouldered by the drivers.”

Vehicle purchase, he said, should be driver-friendly, as drivers only earn a measly amount a day.

“Unfortunately, the present plan is so short term in implementation that all it will do is add to the poverty and unemployment of the populace,” Torres said.

“A cultural icon will not feed a driver and his family unless the government does something to solve this imbalance of cultural recognition and survival,” he added.

Dark side

First made from repurposed American jeeps after World War II, the jeepneys, commonly called dyip, were small at first, and grew bigger over time.

Rene Javellana, S.J., former director of the Fine Arts program of Ateneo de Manila University, said the problem here is more than the phaseout, but the country’s poor mass transport system.

“The Philippines’ failure to develop an effective mass transport system is due in part to the aggressive campaign of car manufacturers and gas companies to block trains that efficiently move people around in Europe,” he said.

“So, while we may want to romanticize the jeepney, we also have to acknowledge its dark side: Jeepneys, private cars, buses, motorcycles and tricycles are capitulation to the gas and car companies, and this is where the problem of transportation lies,” he explained.

He said the jeepney has grown in size and evolved in shape and design through the years, from the small jeepneys of the postwar years to the 1960s, and the rounded jeepney of Sarao, to the chrome ones of Atendido and the 18-seater ones that “clog” today’s city streets.

The jeepney, he said, is indeed a cultural icon, but “don’t stop at its external bling and borloloy, but admit its problems.”

“Jeepneys are as much icons of Pinoy ingenuity or yung pwedeng pagkasyahin but also icons of shortsightedness that cannot see beyond pantawid sa gutom,” he said.

Environment-friendly

Eloisa de Castro, History professor at University of Santo Tomas, meanwhile, said that the jeepney, which she said “truly deserves to stay as a historical and cultural icon along Philippine highways and streets,” must also adapt to the changing environment.

“For this to happen, the government and the private sector should put their heads together and the government must concretely show its support by funding both public and private engineering and technological institutions to create green jeeps so they do not do further damage to the earth,” she said.

She also suggested that the government may forge links with the Japanese government, Japan being known for their technological advancements, with the private sector also doing its part in the development of green technology for the modern jeepneys, the design of which “should consider the comfort and safety of passengers of all ages.”

“This is how the jeep can remain relevant environmentally, economically, culturally and historically,” she added.

Icon of good and bad

In the book “The Camino Real to Freedom and Other Notes on Philippine History and Culture” written by Torres, the jeepneys were known to be fashioned out of general purpose or G.P. vehicles left behind by the Americans after the war as an interim solution to mass transport during that time.

Through time, Torres said, it has become an icon but is marred with a host of problems such as perennial traffic violations and accidents, plus an appearance that is far less pleasing than before.

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Torres notes in the book that “even their appearance today belies its popularity as a local icon: plain gray, galvanized iron chassis instead of the brightly colored, chrome-lined bodies with the ubiquitous silver-colored horses, colored lights, and whipping radio antennas on the hood.”

The jeepneys of today also have “fewer plastic fringes and panels with logos and slogans” such as the ‘Katas ng Saudi’ with the “side panels still painted, but these are now hardly the painter’s canvas of decorative motifs, lines and colors.”

The “upholstered interiors, thick-cushioned benches and decorative wood panels” are also hardly to be seen today, he notes.

In the book, Torres admitted that the jeepney, a symbol of Filipino tenacity, is dying “but it will die a slow, fighting death.”

“And as long as it remains as a Filipino icon, the jeepney will roar, cut, belch smoke and speed along our roads for many more years to come,” noted Torres in the book, published in 2016.

‘Auto calesa’

Unknown to many, the jeepney has a forerunner in the form of an auto calesa (AC) pioneered by Russian-born American Emil Bachrach, a successful businessman who owned a number of businesses in Manila during the early decades of the American occupation, including the Bachrach Motor Co. or Bachrach Motors.

Lou Gopal, the founder of the popular Facebook group Manila Nostalgia wrote in a 2015 article that the Bachrach Motors was a distributor in the country of the American Austin and American Bantam cars from the 1930s to 1941, and “operated a public conveyance fleet that was named auto calesa,” and “the ACs were later named public utility jeeps (PUJs).”

The AC’s body then, according to Gopal, was placed on an Austin car cowl and chassis.

“The jeeps then were dalawahan or two passengers per side [and] passenger arrangement became tatlohan or three passengers per side after the war,” notes Gopal.

The jeepneys actually come in different forms and sizes, apart from the iconic ones manufactured mainly by Sarao, as the jeepneys vary from place to place.

In Malolos, Bulacan, for example, their jeepneys, called karatig (meaning nearby place), is small, to allow it to navigate the city’s narrow streets.

In Iloilo, popular are the box-type jeepneys with hoods differing according to the taste of their owners, as these can be copied from the hoods of popular vehicle brands.

And in Cebu and other parts of the Visayas and Mindanao, the use of multicabs in public transport is widespread.

MAIN PHOTO: Tourists atop a jeepney in Sagada —PHOTO BY EDGAR ALLAN M. SEMBRANO