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Riding the ‘king of the road’

/ 05:16 AM January 25, 2018

It was a brave, if not foolish, decision to go and meet friends on the day “carmageddon” was supposed to happen. But there was no other time before the holidays, so I took a deep breath and embarked into Friday-before-Christmas hell.

Afternoon traffic was slowly building up on the roads shortly before four o’clock, and I kept getting “Sorry, but all our drivers are busy” messages from Grab and Uber. There were no taxis in sight. The MRT was out of the question, not because of its countless problems, but because it did not cover this route. All the passing UV Express vans were full.

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Guess what was the only ride option available. The ever reliable jeepneys still with space in which to squeeze my butt.

Since I returned to the Philippines six months ago, jeepneys have been my ride to and from work and I have the scars to show.

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There is an estimated five million daily commuters in Metro Manila. Of course, not all of them take public commute but in general, commuters spend at least three hours daily in traffic.

In 2016, the Japan International Cooperation Agency conducted a study on traffic in the Philippines and found that it caused a daily loss of P2.4 billion to the economy; if it will remain unchecked by 2030, it will peak at P6 billion daily.

Traffic was one of those things I was warned about when I decided to come home for good. This is why I chose to live near where I work. So I take the jeepney, which, according to a recent study by the Department of Transportation, is the most-used mode of transportation in Metro Manila, comprising 19.1 percent of total trips, followed by tricycles (16 percent) and motorcycles (8.3 percent).

There’s a reason the jeepney is the “pambansang sasakyan”—the national vehicle—and it’s not because of sentimental history or cool factor. Jeepneys are very accessible and cater to everyone: office workers, expats like Chinese call center agents and Indian medical students who do not know any Tagalog and mainly rely on locals to say “bayad po” and “para po,” daily wage earners, young students.

This is why many are invested in the government’s planned jeepney modernization program that seeks to replace outdated vehicles that pollute our air and clog our streets. The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board says about 180,000 jeepneys need to be phased out and replaced by modern units with Euro 4 or electric engines.

I’m all for modernization especially if it means a more comfortable ride for everyone and cleaner air for our environment. But safety and pollution are just among the issues; we also need to look at the discipline of jeepney drivers and, on top of many other things, impose a strict jeepney stop rule.

In my case, what usually takes a 15-minute jeepney ride from home to office on the same avenue can take as long as 45 minutes or more on really bad days (such as when it rains). I can walk, why not, if only I won’t smell of fumes by the time I get to work—that is, if I also manage to make it unscathed considering the precarious state of our sidewalks that are truly unfriendly to pedestrians. The situation is even worse for those who have to travel through several cities just to get to and from work every day.

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Last year Manila ranked 10th of the most stressful cities in the world to live in, according to the UK-based dry-cleaning and laundry service Zipjet. It garnered a rating of 8.92 out of 10, with 10 being the most stressful. The rankings were based on factors like pollution, traffic levels, public transport, and the physical and mental health of citizens, among others.

That stress is going to increase for Filipinos soon with possible increases in the costs of basic commodities and utilities, thanks to the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act.

Which brings us back to the jeepneys. Modernization or not, jeepney groups are seeking a hike in the minimum fare to P12 from P8. Taxi operators and car-sharing services like Grab and Uber are not far behind in asking for increased rates following excise tax adjustments on petroleum products. “Carmageddon” didn’t happen on that day it was predicted it would, and I reached my destination faster than I expected. But is a “jeepneygeddon” forthcoming with the TRAIN and modernization program?

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Yasmin Lee Arpon worked with the Asia News Network in Bangkok for 12 years. She has recently joined the Inquirer’s Opinion Desk.

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