Field notes

End of road for Philippines' jeepney

WWII-era jeeps-turned-public transport trucks to give way to modern, green fleet

The jeepney has been the smoke-belching, gaudy mainstay of the Philippine public transport system for over 70 years.

Passengers still sit knee-to-knee, face-to-face, on long vinyl benches. There are no seat belts and air-conditioning. Ventilation comes from the open doorway at the back and the unprotected windows on both sides. There are no doors protecting the driver, just the spare tyre that hangs on his side of the cabin.

But starting this month, the government will retire jeepneys that are at least 15 years old. By 2021, these diesel engine-powered vehicles will be gone forever, replaced with vehicles that run on electricity, solar panels or engines that produce less toxic emissions. President Rodrigo Duterte wants vehicles that are environment-friendly, safer and more convenient.

AN ICON

It was 1953 when Mr Leonardo Sarao, a mechanic, set up an auto shop one hour south of Manila with 700 pesos he borrowed from his in-laws and friends to repair jeeps the Americans had left behind after World War II.

Then came an epiphany. Mr Sarao repurposed the jeep into a public-utility vehicle for the masses. He carved an opening at the back, stretched the rear, and the jeepney was born.

In 1955, the first jeepney rolled out of his backyard factory. It was painted red. Its marque was a small, silver mustang that stood on the bonnet. Long, thin strips of plastic in garish colours billowed out on all sides.

That would become the prototype for all jeepneys to come. Over the years, the rear would be stretched even further to seat up to 40 passengers, the diesel engine would gain more horsepower, and the paint jobs would become even more bright and kitschy. But the classic design would remain the same.

The jeepneys were a hit with buyers - mainly individuals who would buy one or more of these vehicles to start a business ferrying passengers.

Each was customised according to the buyer's preferences, as an advertisement of himself, his family and his beliefs. Portraits of his children or a scene from the Bible might be painted on the side, and quotes such as, "Basta Driver, Sweet Lover" (If it's a driver, it has to be a sweet lover), "God knows who does not pay", or mottos such as, "Katas ng Saudi" (Fruit of Saudi) would adorn every nook and cranny.

In a way, every jeepney was the same, but no two were ever completely alike.

END OF THE ROAD

At 68, jeepney driver Bernardo Laurente, gaunt and with most of his teeth already gone, has seen as many summers as the jeepney.

Mr Laurente thinks that like the jeepney, his time may be up.

"I'm old. I'm already 68. I've been driving since I was 21. If they want the jeepney out now, there's nothing I can do, although I probably have three years left in me," he said.

He bristles over what he thinks is Mr Duterte's brusque, disregard for poor, hard-working drivers like himself.

In a ranting speech in October, the Philippines' populist leader put his foot down, and said he wanted jeepneys off the road by Jan 1. "If you can't modernise, leave. You're poor? Go ahead, suffer in poverty and hunger, I don't care," the President said.

Drivers will not be the only ones losing jobs.

Mr Eduardo Valenzona, 35, a "barker" - someone who ushers passengers onto jeepneys - said he would have to find another way to make about 300 pesos (S$7.70) a day. "If that's what Duterte wants, then there's nothing we can do. But it will really affect our lives," he said.

MOVING WITH THE TIMES

The Department of Transportation has ordered modern replacements for the jeepney, fitted with padded seats, side-opening doors, air-conditioning, and electric engines. Other proposed specifications include closed-circuit television cameras, a GPS navigation system, an automatic fare collection system, dash cameras and Wi-Fi.

Recently, it offered financing plans for drivers and owners who are likely to lose their vehicles.

The government, under the Development Bank of the Philippines' Programme Assistance to Support Alternative Driving Approaches, promises to offer help amounting to 1.5 billion pesos to transport firms and co-operatives to buy new vehicles.

That covers the 5 per cent equity for vehicle purchase, 6 per cent interest rate, and seven-year repayment period. Individual jeepney operators will not be granted a franchise if they are not part of a co-operative or consortium.

'MARKETING PLOY'

Critics argue that the government financing will fall short of what drivers will need to buy new jeepneys. A jeepney costs about 800,000 pesos, but the prototype vehicles are expected to range from 1.2 million to 1.6 million pesos.

Since the first jeepney rolled out of Mr Leonardo Sarao's garage in 1955, the jeepney has changed little. Passengers still sit knee-to-knee, face-to-face, on long vinyl benches. There are no seat belts and air-conditioning. Colourful jeepneys on the
Colourful jeepneys on the streets of Manila may soon become a thing of the past as the government moves to introduce vehicles that are environment-friendly, safer and more convenient. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

According to a study by Senator Grace Poe, chair of the committee on public services, the new vehicles could cost as much as 2.1 million pesos each with interest, an amount that far exceeds the government financial aid. The proposed budget, Ms Poe warned, will be enough to modernise only 25,000 of the country's 234,000 jeepneys.

Mr George San Mateo, head of the jeepney drivers advocacy group Piston, sees the modernisation plan as a "marketing ploy".

"What they have now is a marketing programme to sell vehicles they are peddling - Isuzu, Hyundai, Toyota," he said. The real plan is to open the door for large corporations to take over the industry, he added.

Mr Mateo said single-unit jeepney owners and small co-operatives lack the means to buy replacement vehicles, despite government assistance. The costs will force them into debt or drive them out.

Mr Mateo said rather than requiring small business owners to buy new vehicles, owners want money to be directed towards updating existing jeepneys, and the government to support a national industry for making cars.

AN OPPORTUNITY

But assemblers such as Sarao Motors are ready to move on. Mr Ed Sarao, who now runs Sarao Motors after his father died, hopes to revive the family business by riding on the modernisation programme.

At its peak, Sarao Motors was assembling six to 10 jeepneys a day.

Mr Andres Bartiz, 55, a welder at Sarao Motors since 1979, remembers the halcyon days from the 1960s into the mid-1990s.

"We were selling jeepneys like they were toys," Mr Bartiz said. "People would walk in, pick a jeepney, pay in cash, and then drive their new jeepney home."

Since the first jeepney rolled out of Mr Leonardo Sarao's garage in 1955, the jeepney has changed little. Passengers still sit knee-to-knee, face-to-face, on long vinyl benches. There are no seat belts and air-conditioning. Colourful jeepneys on the
Since the first jeepney rolled out of Mr Leonardo Sarao's garage in 1955, the jeepney has changed little. Passengers still sit knee-to-knee, face-to-face, on long vinyl benches. There are no seat belts and air-conditioning.  ST PHOTO: RAUL DANCEL

These days, it is considered a lucky year if the business gets three orders.

At its factory in Las Pinas city, only a handful of mechanics and welders are left. They drop by each day, hoping some beat-up jeepney will roll in that they can work on, or some hotel, resort or tour operator will place an order for a speciality jeepney, or even a tram.

Mr Ed Sarao could chalk up millions by selling the factory, but he and his siblings have decided to keep it, in deference to their father's legacy. The factory now serves mainly as a makeshift museum, hosting walk-in tourists, students and history buffs. On display there are the 1955 jeepney and a concept jeepney by Mr Ed Sarao's son.

Sarao Motors began to flounder after the government stopped issuing new jeepney franchises, and as commuters opted for vans that charged a higher fare but offered more comfortable seats and air-conditioning.

To turn his business around, Mr Sarao has been in talks with a couple of firms on assembling an electric vehicle that would build on a version that Sarao Motors rolled out months ago.

Version 1.0 was a traditional jeepney fitted with an electric engine. Version 2.0 "will meet government regulations, but with a touch of the old and the new", said Mr Sarao.

The door would be moved from the back to the side, with a higher head clearance. It will have a minimum range of 120km to cover a whole day, as downtime in between rush hours could be used to recharge the batteries.

But passengers will still be sitting knee-to-knee, face-to-face, and each jeepney will still be customisable.

Sarao Motors has eschewed mass production, making its business less cost efficient and manpower intensive. But that allows it to cultivate a loyal customer base.

"Our shop was popular because of our skilled craftsmen. You lose the human touch when you go to mass production. People went to our shop expecting their jeepneys to be built like bespoke suits. They could order alterations on the spot, such as a wider fender," said Mr Sarao.

READY FOR BETTER RIDE

Ms Allison Lopez, 35, a writer for a non-profit group who commutes to her office two hours each way by jeepney, said she is ready for a better ride. But she worries how it will disrupt the lives of drivers who will not be able to afford the upgrade or commuters who will have to deal with higher transport costs.

"I am not very sure if the government can deliver on its promised support to the affected sector," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'End of road for Philippines' jeepney'. Print Edition | Subscribe