‘Inevitable Extinction’


THEY vanished from Philippine roads in the thick of one of the world’s strictest pandemic lockdowns.

Now, Manila’s colorful jeep­neys may disappear for good as the government seeks to cut planet-warming emissions.

Jeepneys are the cheapest mode of transport for many of the Philippines’ 110 million people. Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg

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

But the program 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 percent by the end of the decade from 2020 levels.

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

Price too high?

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. 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.

A JMC Costar n6 modern public utility vehicle at the Manila Commercial Vehicle Show, July 9, 2022. Walter Eric Sy | Dreamstime.com

The mandate is a major worry for drivers like 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 P650 ($12) a day, putting the cost of a modern jeepney—which can go for as much as P2.8 million—far out of reach.

A modern public utility vehicle serves passengers along Harrison Road in Baguio City, January 2023. Michael Edwards | Dreamstime.com

“We won’t be able to shoulder the cost,” the 46-year-old said as he waited for passengers to board the rickety jeepney he’s driven for seven years so he could send his two children to school. “We’ll be deep in debt.”

‘King’s’ sunset

CALLED the “king of the road” because of their bulky frames, flashy designs and notoriously aggressive drivers, jeepneys are 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 from De La Salle University in Manila said replacing old models in the capital may reduce carbon monoxide and dangerous particulate matter emissions by 90 percent.

Funding dilemma

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-induced slowdown.

The government currently offers a subsidy of P160,000 per jeepney, and didn’t set aside funding specifically for the jeepney modernization program in this year’s budget.

Last year, it allocated P1.8 billion for subsidies and social safety programs for drivers—a fraction of the P64.2 billion that the land transport agency estimates is needed to raise the subsidy per jeepney to P360,000.

What about the funding, infra?

“THIS is torture for drivers,” said Modesto Floranda, who heads Piston, one of the transport groups that organized a strike against the jeepney modernization policy this month. 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 program.”

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

It’s 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 sulfur and carbon monoxide.

Success stories

THOSE who have taken the plunge tout the benefits to their health and income. Elisio Estoque, who plies a regular route between the capital and nearby Rizal province, said he earns more after switching to a white Euro 4-compliant minibus due to its bigger capacity.

The vehicle belongs to a co-operative, which pays Estoque a fixed P750 daily wage and takes the rest of his earnings.

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

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

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

Marcos has said his government will review the program until December, and make sure that transport workers won’t carry additional burden. “We have to make sure that no one loses livelihood because he or she can’t 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 Antonio La Viña, associate director for climate policy at research group Manila Observatory.

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

Image credits: Bloomberg