The jeepney has always been modern
My grandfather, Lolo Polon, was a jeepney driver in San Pablo City in the 1970s, and my mother and aunts (there were five of them, sisters all) had memories of the pasada with him. My aunt JD Agapito—a professor in University of the Philippines Manila—once recounted her experiences in verse:
Bilang kundoktor ay katabi niya ako sa unahan
Ako ang nagsusukli at minsan ay kalituhan
Siempre pagdating sa bayad ay mayroong bilangan
Babawasin ang ipinanggasolinang binayaran
Madaling araw ay umaalis na kami
Biyaheng Tiaong o minsan ay Candelaria pati
Kapag umuulan ay nahihirapan kasi
Trapal ng dyip ang dapat na ikabit na mabuti
Naranasan na rin ang dyip ay tumirik
Ayaw umandar kahit maraming beses iklik
Itinulak at marami naman ang tumulong na higit
Makikita mo talagang marami pa rin ang mababaitI never got to meet my grandfather, but jeepneys likewise figured in my childhood memories. Growing up in UP Los Banos’ College of Forestry, there were only several jeepneys that plied the route to the main campus—and to go home, I often had to wait for half an hour to get a ride, punuan-style, so I got to know all of the jeepneys and their drivers, including two Mang Johnnys and one Mang George.
These memories—both personal and familial—come to mind as I think of the predicament of jeepney drivers today, amid the government’s plan to phase out their vehicles.
They also convince me that far from the simplistic narrative of jeepney as needful of “modernization,” the jeepney has always been modern.
In the first place, the jeepney was borne of ingenuity and entrepreneurship; throughout its several decades of existence in various forms, it has always involved converting used vehicles to something more cost-effective, and reusing those vehicles in ways that extend their lives. Today, we know the environmental harms of internal combustion engines, especially old ones, but such recognition should not invalidate the very environmentally sound premises—reusing and recycling—that brought them to being in the first place.
The jeepney was also modern in the sense that it allowed many families mobility, both literally and figuratively, in ways that traditional livelihoods could not. Lolo Polon was, aside from being a jeepney driver, a public school teacher, but having a jeepney gave them the extra income to support their large family. Long before today’s “gig economy,” jeepneys allowed our breadwinners to have some autonomy as far as their finances and time are concerned. Jeepneys also doubled as a family vehicle and something that could transport a large group of people cost-effectively.
Finally, the jeepney has design elements that make it ahead of its time—and I do not just refer to jeepney art. Naturally well-ventilated, jeepneys made more economic, environmental, and, as the pandemic taught us, medical sense than air-conditioned vehicles, especially in the provinces where an open air jeepney ride can actually be refreshing. Of course, pollution and heat can make jeepney rides insufferable, but the problem here are the various factors, from deforestation and lack of urban planning, that have led to pollution and heat, not the jeepneys themselves.
All of the above do not invalidate the plan to pursue newer, more environment-friendly technologies, and pursue innovations that will make public transport more comfortable for both the drivers and the passengers. Neither are they intended to gloss over the complex (and often vexing) relationships between and among drivers, operators, and the local and national associations that claim to represent their interests.
But as many have pointed out, the issue is not whether or not to modernize the jeepney—but how. The cost of the new vehicles. The terms of the loans and subsidies. Their organizational and logistical demands—and the loss of autonomy that these entail. Lest we forget, many drivers were devastated by the lockdowns and route cancellations, followed by oil price hikes that have left many of them still trying to recover.
Corollary to this, there are also very valid fears that the government’s plan will lead to “elite capture”; to further centralization of public transport, empowering (and enriching) big businesses and those with preexisting capital at the expense of independent jeepney drivers and small scale operators.
Vilifying jeepney drivers or Red-tagging them does not contribute to the debate. Neither does the insistence on a simplistic dichotomy for or against “modernization.” It is a welcome development that the government has agreed to review its program. But it will only be a meaningful step forward if accompanied with a respect for the history, ingenuity, and, yes, modernity behind the jeepney—and empathy for the people behind the wheel, acting on their legitimate concerns, and recognizing them not as roadblocks but as drivers of progress.
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