Manila’s colourful jeepneys make way for carbon-free minibuses

Only 4 per cent of the Philippines’ 158,000 jeepneys have been replaced with a more climate-friendly alternative. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA – They vanished from Philippine roads in the thick of one of the world’s strictest pandemic lockdowns. Now, Manila’s colourful jeepneys may disappear for good as the government seeks to cut planet-warming emissions.

The country is pursuing a plan to replace highly polluting jeepney models with modern minibuses that run on cleaner fuels or electricity.

But the programme is facing pushback from drivers who need more financial support to make the shift, putting at risk the country’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent by the end of the decade from 2020 levels.

Only 4 per cent of the Philippines’ 158,000 jeepneys have been replaced with a more climate-friendly alternative since the government’s programme began in 2017, according to official data.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office in 2022, has given drivers until the end of the year to form or join cooperatives to help them fund the transition – or risk losing their permits to operate.

The mandate is a major worry for drivers like Mr Roger del Monte, who returned to Manila’s roads last year after the pandemic halted his main source of income for almost two years.

Jeepney drivers like him typically earn about 650 pesos (S$16) a day, putting the cost of a modern jeepney – which can go for as much as 2.8 million pesos – far out of reach.

“We will not be able to shoulder the cost,” the 46-year-old said as he waited for passengers to board the rickety jeepney he has driven for seven years so that he can send his two children to school. “We will be deep in debt.”

Called the “king of the road” because of its bulky frame, flashy designs and notoriously aggressive drivers, the jeepney is the cheapest mode of transport for many of the Philippines’ 110 million people.

The 20-seater vehicles, often decorated with graffiti-inspired spray paint, evolved from the army jeeps used during World War II and run on diesel, one of the dirtiest fuels available.

A study by De La Salle University in Manila said replacing old models in the capital may reduce carbon monoxide and dangerous particulate matter emissions by 90 per cent.

The problem for the Marcos administration is finding the money to back up its green plans. State resources remain scarce as the economy recovers from a Covid-19-induced slowdown.

The government currently offers a subsidy of 160,000 pesos per jeepney, and did not set aside funding specifically for the jeepney modernisation programme in this year’s budget.

Last year, it allocated 1.8 billion pesos for subsidies and social safety programmes for drivers – a fraction of the 64.2 billion pesos that the land transport agency estimates is needed to raise the subsidy per jeepney to 360,000 pesos.

“This is torture for drivers,” said Mr Modesto Floranda, who heads Piston, one of the transport groups that organised a strike against the jeepney modernisation policy in March.

Some 900,000 drivers may lose their jobs if the government removes old jeepneys from roads, he warned. “The government left us on our own to carry out this programme.”

The government’s end goal is to transition drivers to zero-emission electric vehicles, but the Philippines still lacks sufficient charging infrastructure.

A jeepney travelling next to an electric-powered minibus on a road in Las Pinas, Metro Manila. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It is more common right now for those able to make the shift to buy minibuses with Euro-4 compliant diesel engines, which have catalytic converters that are more efficient at filtering out pollutants such as sulphur and carbon monoxide.

Those who have taken the plunge tout the benefits to their health and income.

Mr Elisio Estoque, who plies a regular route between the capital and nearby Rizal province, said he earns more after switching to a Euro 4-compliant minibus due to its bigger capacity.

The vehicle belongs to a cooperative, which pays Mr Estoque a fixed 750 peso daily wage and takes the rest of his earnings.

“I get to ride an air-conditioned vehicle in this heat and I am not exposed to smoke outside,” said the 44-year-old.

Jeepney drivers resting during a transport strike against the phasing out of traditional jeepneys in Quezon City on March 7, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Helen Viloria, who manages a cooperative in the capital, said her group has to take out loans from a state bank to fund its fleet of 52 jeepneys. The government should give the drivers more subsidies as well, she said. “Drivers will not be able to do this alone.”

The Marcos administration should also consider pilot-testing the programme with local governments that are more prepared, said Ms Reycel Hyacenth Bendana from Move As One Coalition, a civil society group pushing for safer transport.

Mr Marcos has said his government will review the programme until December, and make sure that transport workers will not carry the additional burden. “We have to make sure that no one loses their livelihood because he or she cannot afford a vehicle,” he said.

While the government has good intentions, putting the cost on drivers and operators from the poor and lower-middle classes is “not acceptable”, said Dr Antonio La Vina, associate director for climate policy at research group Manila Observatory.

He suggested that officials try to get financing from developed countries to advance the programme. “We cannot transition well to a green economy if we don’t do it in a just manner,” he said. BLOOMBERG

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.