Is jeepney “modernization” the answer to the Philippines’ land transportation woes?  Or does the solution lie elsewhere? Will that scheme put in place a safe, rational and reliable transportation system all over the country, or in the National Capital Region at least?

Or does developing a system of efficiently and safely moving people from place to place that’s crucial to national development depend on the adoption of those basic social, economic and political reforms that have long eluded  the Filipino people?

The Philippines has one of the most chaotic and most dangerous land transportation systems in Asia, thanks to the total absence of any centralized planning for this sector. In the National Capital Region alone, getting from one place to another is not only time-consuming; it is also costly in terms of man-hours lost.  But it can also be dangerous, not only because of the frequency of glitches in the operations of the Metro Rail Transit System (MRT), which have included the uncoupling of cars and doors’ not closing while the trains are running, but also because of the near-epidemic of traffic accidents involving motorcycles, trucks, buses and other vehicles in the mean streets of Philippine  cities.

In addition to the horrendous traffic those who drive, or take taxis and buses, have to deal with daily while coming from and going to work or school, there are  also the jeepneys whose numbers choke most  streets and which in many cases are the only available means of transportation for those with limited means.

The jeepney evolved from the US Army World  War II military vehicle, the Jeep.  The US military left several hundred of these vehicles when those of its units  involved in the war against Japan withdrew from much of the Philippines in the late 1940s.  Harry Stonehill, a former GI who decided to stay in the Philippines–and who was accused of bribery during the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal–made a fortune selling them as surplus goods in the aftermath of the WWII destruction of Manila’s public transportation system.

Conventional wisdom credits Filipino ingenuity with converting  those vehicles into means of public transportation. Although thought to be only a temporary solution to the transportation problems of the post-war era, over the years the jeepney, thanks to their drivers and operators, were further modified in appearance as well as passenger capacity.

The Jeep’s drab gray soon morphed into chrome and multicolored moldings and panels, while its capacity of four soon became 10,  14 and even 16. While the front body design more or less conformed with the Jeep’s, the passenger compartments assumed lives of their own, while the engines became mostly Japanese in the 1960s. From temporary conveniences, 70 years since they were adapted to the country’s  needs, jeepneys have become permanent fixtures on roads all over the Philippines.

Although hailed as icons of Filipino ingenuity and creativity, jeepneys have long outlived their usefulness. They are  inefficient, polluting, and, despite claims to the contrary, hideously unrepresentative of Philippine folk art. A jeepney consumes as much diesel fuel as a passenger bus. Its emissions  contribute heavily to the pollution that makes many people prone to respiratory and other ailments. Its center of gravity makes it top-heavy and unsafe at even moderate speeds. And there’s not enough chrome on the planet to hide its inherent ugliness. Too many jeepney drivers are also notoriously undisciplined and without any trace of civic-mindedness. On any given day they will load and unload passengers in the middle of a thoroughfare, block traffic lanes, and drive like maniacs with no regard for traffic rules and pedestrian and passenger safety.

But none of these realities justifies jeepney drivers’ and operators’ being denied their livelihoods and condemned to  worse poverty and even starvation. Neither should they be forced to purchase expensive replacement vehicles costing from P1.2 to P1.8 million. To make the monthly payments (some P24,000, or P800 daily), and to support their families, they will have to charge higher fares — to the detriment of a riding public that’s already burdened by higher taxes and the rising costs of food, shelter, medical care and their children’s educational needs.

Some alternative to the jeepney as a major means of public transportation must be found.  But to make sense it must be part of a plan to put some order into the chaos that is the land transportation system so as to solve such problems as the traffic jams in the country’s major cities that are already the stuff of legend, and the accidents that exact a daily toll in lives, injuries and man-hours lost, among other consequences.

Such a plan must provide for the livelihood and future of former jeepney drivers and operators. It will necessarily include the reeducation of everyone who drives a motor vehicle and the institution of means to limit private vehicle acquisition, such as those that have worked in Singapore, where a license is needed for anyone to purchase an automobile or any variant such as a sports utility vehicle.

That limitation works because of the efficiency, comfort, convenience and safety of the public transportation system, which has been assured through the Singapore government’s commitment to providing the public a viable alternative to owning and driving its own vehicles.

In the Philippines, the welfare and future of the thousands of jeepney operators and drivers that over the last seven decades have made the jeepney their only source of livelihood must be addressed through some other means than a “modernization” program that by itself will not make the transportation system any less chaotic, unsafe and unreliable. It will instead create a huge debtor class whose burdens it will certainly pass on to the riding public.

Transportation is a key element in development as well as in the making and unification of the national community. Its impact on both is evident in the Philippines’ continuing to be one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, as well in the distrust and conflicts that divide Philippine ethnic communities.

There was some hope that with the adoption of a mutually acceptable agreement on the fundamental economic, social and political reforms that could have resulted from the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the armed political and social movements such as the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the problems of the transportation and other systems could eventually be addressed. This is another way of saying that without  basic reforms — among them putting an end to landlessness, industrializing the country, and most importantly, enabling ordinary citizens to participate in their own governance rather than leaving the State to the mercies of the political dynasties that have neither the will, the vision nor the need to institute the reforms needed — the inefficiencies  and dangers of the transportation system will remain unresolved.

Without the social, economic and specially the political reforms that for decades have demanded implementation, the most that can be done is to address every problem piece by piece and in isolation, and with little effect on  major issues.

You can’t plan a rational transport system without the political means to do it. That could have been made possible by the citizenry itself, once it was empowered to put in place the reforms needed. Unfortunately, the possibility of that happening has passed not only in the transport sector but also in education, health, housing and other vital areas of Filipino life. The pity of it is that it had seemed, if only for a short time, so near and so possible.  It was one more opportunity missed in this land of lost opportunities.

First published in BusinessWorld

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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