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'Beep, Beep,' the Jeeps Weep

Make way for the King—! Except its throne is the road, and its subjects are passengers.

By Angela CantigaPublished about a month ago 4 min read
Jeepneys in Baguio, Philippines | Source: One Chai

In a race for position, blaring horns accompanied by clouds of smoke filled the air. Four-wheeled vehicles, painted in vibrant colors and adorned with gaudy accessories, then began to speed down the street, shuttling people to the sound of roaring engines. This is an everyday scene in the Philippines, where loud and colorful jeepneys reign supreme.

Also called a jeep, the vehicle is an affordable mode of public transport—with fares starting at just 20 cents (11 Philippine pesos)—in a country where the average annual income is around $3,500 (200,000 Philippines pesos). Jeepneys are widely known for their eye-catching decorations, making each a work of art. They can accommodate around 15 to 25 people and have open ventilation, along with an open backdoor for easy passenger embarkation and disembarkation. With designated routes displayed on their sides or their windshield, they stop anywhere on the road to pick up or drop off people.

More than a means of transportation, jeepneys are also a symbol of the Philippines; they are the undisputed ‘Kings of the Road,’ the one-of-a-kind vehicles that take center stage on the streets as an icon of Filipino culture and values.

The Modernization of Jeepneys

However, with the number of worn and highly polluting jeepneys increasing, the Philippine government plans to replace them with public utility vehicles (PUVs) that are safer, more accessible, and environmentally sustainable. Launched in 2018 by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the Land Transportation Franchising Board (LTFRB), the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) aims to solve the safety, health, and environmental problems that jeepneys have by modernizing them. A 'modernized' jeepney is equipped with electric power and/or a combustion engine that complies with improved emission standards, made also accessible for people with disabilities (PWDs) and the elderly.

To “transform the public transport system" to make it "more dignified, humane, and on par with global standards"—the program is an effort from DOTr and LTFRB to see that through to completion.

Groups representing jeepney drivers have held protest actions against the PUVMP, arguing that they cannot afford the cost of transitioning to cleaner vehicles. The main concerns are the lack of funds and the pressure on drivers to take hefty loans to comply with the modernization plans of the government. Most jeepneys are privately owned, thus the transition will push the sole proprietors into debt through financing loans. Only by joining cooperatives or corporations, which will own both the vehicles and the public franchises to operate them, can drivers and small-time operators qualify for government loans and subsidies.

The switch was supposed to be mandated by the government in March 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that. Even in 2017, the future of traditional jeepneys was threatened when vehicles over 15 years old were ordered to be replaced with imported minibuses, as stated in the Omnibus Guidelines. The minibuses come with new features: more spacious seating, air-conditioning, closed ventilation, and cleaner fuel compared to traditional jeepneys—along with a whopping price of about $50,000 (2.8 million Philippine pesos), far out of reach of many.

The Significance of Jeepneys

But is it even possible to imagine the Philippines without its traditional jeepneys at this point? This is not solely a transport matter; it also affects other aspects of society, such as livelihood, culture, and tourism. People have different positions on the issue, but one thing that can offer everyone a common ground is its role as a national emblem.

Jeepneys are arguably the most popular mode of public transport in the country not only because they are economical, but also because of their boundless style. As a canvas for self-expression, it bears the profundity and diverseness of Filipino sensibilities that come in the form of artwork and texts. Sadly, as subsistence becomes increasingly poor for drivers and operators alike, this distinctive trait of the vehicles has gradually disappeared. Worse, with their modernization, creativity will be replaced by plain, impassive PUVs, ultimately erasing this form of Filipino artistry. The vehicle not only benefits residents but also attracts tourists who are curious about this unique representation, and therefore, phasing out this cultural icon would mean stripping off a part of the territory’s identity.

Moreover, this essence of the jeepney shows in how it functions on an honor system. Jeepneys play a significant role in fostering 'bayanihan,' a Filipino word that means helping one another as a community. Even though the jeepney’s design is not completely inclusive, commuters help others board, whether they are PWDs, seniors, or with luggage or kids. Often brimming with passengers, the vehicle offers opportunities for social interactions. It is not uncommon to see strangers talking together or doing simple acts of kindness like helping the fare money of a fellow passenger to reach the driver at the front. It is who Filipinos are—ever the welcoming folks, ever ready to lend a hand.

The Philippine jeepney is a precious emblem due to its meaningful design, spirit of unity, and economic impact. In striving for progress, there must be a collective effort to achieve an equilibrium between preserving the vehicle’s cultural significance and handling social issues in the country. That is why the initiative towards modernizing the public transportation system should not come at the cost of destroying the road ahead of the King.


About the Creator

Angela Cantiga

Writing to express, not to impress.

Hello! I am Angela, a web novel author and journalism student at age 22. I love writing stories, reading books, listening to music, and watching animated series–also, sleeping.

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