Superheroes of Manila's traffic

Converted World War II vintage jeeps, called jeepneys in the Philippines, are the most popular mode of public transport in Manila. They are cheaper than private buses and more efficient than the city's rail shuttle.

 
By Pamela Philipose
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- THERE was this jeepney driver in the Philippines who, along with an exceptionally devout pastor, knocked on heaven's door for entry. St Peter went through their credentials and bestowed a heavenly smile on the driver, allowing him to pass through the pearly gates.
But, to the pastor, St Peter said, "Sorry, my son, but you have made it only to Paradise." Agitated, the pastor pleaded, "My lord, I've worked very hard for you and this is all I get, while you take that profaning sinner right in." St Peter then explained, "My son, it's like this. This man has got more people to pray to God than you could have ever hoped to do."
Drivers of jeepneys -- Willys jeeps of World War II vintage, transformed through Filipino ingenuity to accommodate 16 -- are a favourite butt of Filipino jokes. The jeepney driver controls the Filipinos' everyday destinies. Besides, he is the stuff of which superheroes are made. Who else can negotiate Manila's maddening, downtown traffic with one hand on the steering wheel and the other receiving fares, with one eye on the traffic and the other on a potential commuter? The instant a passenger gets off, the driver indicates to passers-by that he has a vacant seat.
Hunched over his steering wheel, the jeepney driver look invincible. But the mean streets of Manila exact a heavy price, evident in the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his lips or the chewing gum on which his jaw works incessantly. It's evident in the choice swear words that he spits out when the occasion demands it -- which is often. It's evident also in the pictures of the Virgin Mary and the cards urging "God bless our trip" featured on the dashboard. And, when dusk settles in a haze of carbon monoxide fumes and downtown traffic hiccups its way to the suburbs, it would seem deliverance is possible only through divine intervention.

Cheap, convenient, but hazardous Almost every one of the Filipino workers sweating it out under the Dubai sun dreams of saving enough cash to buy a jeepney and so assure himself of a comfortable income for the rest of his life. The jeepney is to Manila what the phut-phut and autorickshaw is to Delhi -- a mass transport system that is cheap and convenient. But as is the case with cheap mass transport systems in developing countries, jeepneys are an environmental nightmare and blamed widely as the cause for the high levels of vehicular pollution for which Manila is notorious.

Like the Pizza Huts, Dunkin' Donuts and Macdonalds that dot the cityscape, the Filipino jeepney is an American hand-me-down. The hybrid jeepney sometimes has curious add-ons like steel curlicues and dragons above the windshields, ornamental mudguards and banners bearing the names of the driver's wife or girlfriend in ornate lettering. Some are equipped with radios that blare the latest American hits and the Yankee accents of disc jockeys.

There are an estimated 90,000 jeepneys in Metro Manila, of which one-third operate without franchise. Manila has a population of about nine million people. They cover most of Manila and once one knows where to get off, one can get to the farthest corners of the city. Jeepneys have become a vital part of the commuting culture of a city starved of other viable modes of public transport. In fact, Filipinos describe the distance between two points in Manila in terms of the number of jeepney rides the journey takes.

Ineffective, transport system Manila has just one rail shuttle and it's so ineffective, it's largely ornamental. Privately-run air-conditioned buses, called "air con" locally, are expensive. A jeepney ride from Project 6 to Pier would cost not more than eight pesos (Rs 7). An air con ride on the same route would cost 14 pesos (Rs 12), while a cab ride would cost as much as 80 pesos (Rs 70).

"We provide good, cheap, very cheap services," said Tony Esplanda, who has been plying his jeepneys on the Project 6 to Pier route for the last 18 years. His family lives in the provinces, and he earns enough to keep them comfortable. Traffic pollution is a fact of life for Esplanda -- "Ah, you get used to it!" he says. But he agreed that since jeepneys were allowed to run on diesel in the mid-1970s, they give off "more smoke".

However, as the smog gets thicker in Manila, the government announces every now and then jeepneys are to be phased out from Manila roads. But, so far, the jeepneys have survived and even multiplied.

Recently, the Fidel Ramos government tried to force jeepneys off the roads by announcing extension of franchises to operators of mini-buses, which can carry three times as many passengers as a jeepney. Not surprisingly, the powerful jeepney unions are up in arms against the move and Romy Maranan, president of the Federation of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association Nationwide, commented, "Jeepneys account for only 20 per cent of the vehicles plying in the metropolis. What is the government doing about the huge volume of private cars on the streets?" Nothing, it seems, judging by the shiny Japanese cars that flood Manila streets.

Clearly, jeepneys will not bow out of Manila without a good, old-fashioned, treet fight. Ineffective transport system Manila has just one rail shuttle and it's so ineffective, it's largely ornamental. Privately run air-conditioned buses, called "air con" locally, are expensive. A jeepney ride from project 6 to Pier would cost 14 pesos (Rs 14) while a cab ride would cost as much as 80 pesos (Rs 80). " We provide good, cheap, very cheap services". Saod Tony Esplnanda , who has been plying his jeepneys on the project 6 to Pier route for the last 18 years. His family lives in the provinces, and he earns enough to keep them comfortable. Traffic pollution is a fact of life for Esplanda-" Ah, you get used to it!" he says. But he agreed that since jeepneys were allowed to run diesel in the mid 1970s they give off "more smoke". However, as the smog gets thicker in Manila, the government announces every now and that that jeepneys phased out. Recently, the Fidel Ramos government tried to force jeepneys off the road by announcing extension of franchises to operators of mini buses, which can carry three times as many passengers as a jeepney. Not surprisingly, the powerful jeepney unions are up in arms against the move and Romy Marnan, president of the Federation of Jeepney Operators and drivers commented that " Jeepneys account for only 20 per cent of the vehicles plying in the metropolis. What is the government doing about the huge volume of private cars on the streets?" Nothing, it seems, judging by the shiny Japanese cars that flood Manila streets.
Clearly, the Jeepneys will not bow out of Manila without a good, old-fashioned, street light.

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