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Duterte threatens to dethrone jeepney as king of the road

07:22 AM December 27, 2017

JEEPNEY It takes 60-90 days to assemble a jeepney body at Sarao Motors Inc. in Las Piñas City. —LYN RILLON

In Alvin Ocampo’s 18-year-old jeepney, the dashboard is held together with yards of peeling electrical tape.

The only concession to Metro Manila’s stifling heat is a fan screwed to the ceiling.

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And unless you count the padlocked metal grate in place of the driver’s-side door that Ocampo installed after a gang of glue-sniffing teenagers robbed him of a fistful of pesos, the vehicle has no safety features to speak of.

Nevertheless, on a recent Friday afternoon in December, scores of passengers climbed aboard Ocampo’s jeepney, one of thousands of locally produced passenger vehicles that are icons of Metro Manila’s traffic-clogged and pollution-choked streets.

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Sitting knee-to-knee, 20 passengers squeezed along the vinyl benches that run the length of the vehicle.

Women clutched purses on their laps, and a few riders held handkerchiefs over their noses to avoid breathing the acrid air streaming through the open windows.

‘King of the road’

For decades, the jeepney, patterned after World War II-era American jeeps and painted in brash designs, has been the most widely used mode of transportation in the country, earning the nickname “king of the road.”

But the jeepney’s place on Philippine roads and in the culture is under attack, said Ocampo, 38, “because of what (Mr.) Duterte is doing.”

President Duterte has threatened to phase out traditional jeepneys, a move that would pit the populist leader against the working poor, who ride and drive them every day.

Mr. Duterte, who has made infrastructure development one of the primary goals of his administration, cited the capital’s poor air quality and horrendous traffic as the impetus for the policy.

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According to a survey by traffic app Waze, Metro Manila has the “worst traffic on earth,” and commuting just a few kilometers can take hours.

Some critics also contend that jeepneys, which typically lack seatbelts, are not safe. Twenty people, including three children, were killed on Monday in La Union province when the jeepney in which they were riding to a Christmas Mass collided head-on with a large passenger bus.

Electric-powered vehicles

Mr. Duterte’s proposal was met in October with two days of strikes by jeepney drivers that resulted in schools’ canceling classes and government offices’ suspending work.

The drivers say removing jeepneys from the road would deprive them of their livelihoods, and shut down small businesses.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) has ordered modern replacements for the jeepney, fitted with padded seats, side opening doors, air-conditioning and electric engines.

The new vehicles, which look more like traditional buses than jeepneys, are intended to reduce pollution, improve comfort and safety, and make public transportation more accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities.

At a busy intersection in Metro Manila, Yana Padilla, 24, an administrative assistant who commutes to her office two hours each way by jeepney, said she would miss the classic vehicle because it’s “the mark of the Philippines.”

Nevertheless, Padilla said, she is ready for a better ride.

Updating the jeepney alone will not improve traffic, but the government’s program also aims to organize routes better as part of a larger effort to improve public transportation in Manila.

Not everyone is convinced.

“We don’t believe it is really a modernization plan,” George San Mateo, president of the jeepney drivers advocacy group Piston, said of Mr. Duterte’s proposal.

“It’s a marketing program for the vehicles they are forcing the small operators to buy,” San Mateo added.

Originally, Mr. Duterte threatened to remove the jeepneys as early as Jan. 1, but the DOTr has backed off from that deadline.

Slower phaseout

Recently, the DOTr offered a slower phaseout of older jeepneys, and financing plans for drivers and owners who are likely to lose their vehicles.

Critics argue that the financing the government plans to provide will fall short of what drivers will need to buy new jeepneys.

A jeepney currently costs about P500,000, but the prototype vehicles are expected to range in cost from P1.2 million to P1.6 million.

According to a study by Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on public services, the new vehicles could cost as much as P2.1 million each with interest, an amount that far exceeds the P80,000 that the government plans to allocate for financial aid.

The proposed budget, Poe warned, will be enough to modernize only 25,000 of the country’s 234,000 jeepneys.

San Mateo said the costs would force small business owners and drivers into debt or drive them out, and open the door for large corporations to take over the industry.

Rather than requiring small business owners to buy new vehicles, San Mateo said owners wanted money to be directed toward updating existing jeepneys, and the government to support a national industry for making jeepneys.

Filipino ingenuity

Edison Lao, manager of Armak Motors, a jeepney manufacturer founded by his father 39 years ago, said the jeepney “symbolizes the ingenuity of the Filipino.”

Over the years, Lao has improved little on the jeepney’s classic design.

Aside from the engine, which is acquired secondhand from Japanese trucks, the Armak jeepney, like most jeepneys in the Philippines, is produced locally, by hand.

In Lao’s workshop there are welders, steel polishers, fender specialists and tailors sewing vinyl seats and roof padding.

“The people who build jeepneys are really experienced craftsmen,” Lao said.

Victorino Capuno, 52, has worked at Armak Motors as a painter for 30 years.

In the 1980s, Capuno said, the jeepneys were hand-painted with religious scenes in the style of the Sistine Chapel.

Nowadays, airbrushed paintings of Italian sports cars are popular.

Capuno said he had painted more than a thousand depictions of the Virgin Mary, as well as cargo ships, teams of horses, neon eagles, cartoon characters and mottos like “A Dream Fulfilled” and “Basta Sexy Libre”—
free rides for the sexy.

“The government doesn’t appreciate these kinds of stories,” Lao said, adding that without support from the government, the jeepney would not survive for another generation.

While working-class jeepney drivers are seen as a bloc that largely supported Mr. Duterte, his approach to dealing with problems within the industry is breeding resentment.

Susan Gordo, 50, an owner of two jeepneys, said Mr. Duterte “has shown that he’s not genuinely for the poor.” —NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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