Jeepney modernization: Road paved with difficulties, debt, danger

Mikael Angelo S. Francisco

Posted at Jan 07 2021 03:12 AM

Jeepney modernization: Road paved with difficulties, debt, danger 1
An unmodified jeepney sits idly, waiting to be decorated before it eventually hits the streets. An enduring symbol of Philippine culture, these outdated but iconic vehicles are poised to be replaced for good by newer, more environment-friendly models. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Even before COVID-19, jeepney driver Ernie Cruz had already been preparing to navigate a bumpy ride ahead of him: the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), or the jeepney modernization program.

This national initiative aims to bring harmful vehicular emissions in the Philippines to a screeching halt by phasing out units with outdated engines.

Unfortunately, it could also take jeepney drivers on a one-way trip to debt and starvation—a collision course that, because of the pandemic that stopped their operations for months, has become more of a reality.

When there’s smoke

Cruz and the other members of the National Confederation of Transport Workers Union (NCTU) clearly understand the program’s urgency and significance. They know that despite the Philippines’ relatively small contribution to global, man-made climate change, the country will bear the brunt of increasingly severe natural disasters without mitigating action.

“We believe in climate change,” said Cruz, who serves as NCTU’s National President, “as well as the concept of transforming the informal economy into a formal economy.”

While jeepneys running on diesel aren’t the only sources of air pollution in the Philippines, recent studies show that they do contribute a lot. According to 2011 data from the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), public utility vehicles reliant on diesel fuel — of which jeepneys comprise the majority — emit 15,492 tonnes of particulate matter pollution, or 48 percent of the annual total.

Jeepney modernization: Road paved with difficulties, debt, danger 2
A jeepney waits in front of a supermarket, its driver aiming to meet the vehicle's maximum passenger capacity. Once the Philippine government's jeepney modernization program sees nationwide adoption, it is the drivers--whose daily earnings are barely enough for them to get by--who will bear the brunt of the exorbitant cost of progress. Photo by Lawrence Ruiz/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

However, alongside thousands of drivers in the Philippines, the NCTU vehemently opposes the idea of a jeepney phase-out without just transition: “It’s not the program we’re against; it’s the process of how we’ll get there.”

Driving force

Right now, numerous jeepney drivers, including Cruz and the NCTU, are in a race against time.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) recently announced that existing franchises that did not re-register and adopt compliant units by January 1, 2021 will cease to be valid. The board required operating jeepneys to have Euro 4 or electric engines.

This is in line with the plan’s three-year grace period, which expired on December 31, 2020. Cruz already submitted their requirements on November 16; as of this writing, they have yet to receive a response.

Jeepney modernization: Road paved with difficulties, debt, danger 3
Before the pandemic, streets such as this intersection in Taguig were filled with colorful lights and loud sounds of traffic, especially at night. It is the kind of environment that is quite familiar to many jeepney drivers--a life from what seems to be an eternity ago. Photo by Meo Fernando/Pexels

The cost of modernization is another issue. According to numbers shared by Cruz, the newer jeepney units cost between Php 1.915 million to Php 2.4 million apiece. Factoring in other costs, it would take about Php 400 billion from jeepney drivers to successfully roll out this program nationwide. Even with bank loans, these numbers are simply unattainable for drivers and operators who don’t earn that much to begin with.

The proposed jeepney upgrading scheme places the responsibility of payment squarely on their shoulders—a problem that COVID-19 made even worse.

The Philippines is among the nations with the longest lockdown periods due to the pandemic. Jeepney drivers have felt the sting of losing their sole source of income, with quite a few being forced to beg on the streets after spending months off them.

As quarantine restrictions have eased up across the country, drivers are resuming their operations, complying with government-mandated coronavirus prevention guidelines, such as installing plastic covers serving as dividers to maintain social distancing inside the vehicles. However, many of the nearly 700 routes across the country have not been allowed to return.

Shifting gears

In October 2020, the government announced a service contracting agreement for jeepney drivers. Under the arrangement, two drivers will be allowed to take turns operating one unit for 18 hours a day, earning them a performance-based subsidy of up to Php 1,000.

During an online briefing, LTFRB Chairman Martin Delgra III shared the program’s guidelines. He said it was designed to “help raise the level of service, reliability, and efficiency in the country’s public transport system.” The LTFRB reported that 1,520 drivers applied for the program on November 25, the first day of general registration.

Jeepney modernization: Road paved with difficulties, debt, danger 4
As the sun sets, the Metro Manila skyline glows faintly, light scattering behind clouds in a polluted sky. The jeepney modernization is geared towards brighter skies, among other things--but leaves the hope of a brighter future for jeepney drivers up in the air. Photo by Mikael Angelo Francisco

Still, local transport groups stressed that the government must rethink the stipulations of the jeepney modernization program.

Cruz said the government should allocate a budget for the modernization program. It was unrealistic to expect that the inevitably meager bank loans would be enough for jeepney drivers to be able to pay for the new units, he went on to say.

Cruz added that there’s more to jeepney modernization than just replacing older jeepney models. Over a two-year period, efforts must be made to transform the system, including establishing designated jeepney stops and eliminating the boundary scheme that puts pressure on the drivers to make as many trips as possible.

Throughout the decades, the iconic jeepney has provided Filipino commuters with an affordable transportation option, and drivers with a way to put food on the table. Without a just transition, accelerating the modernization program will leave a trail of shattered lives in its wake.

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