Modernizing the jeepney: A question of political will

In light of the third jeepney strike under the Duterte Administration, two things are clear.

One, the strikes never really paralyze public transport, as wished for by their militant proponents. After lunch, many jeepneys start motoring back on the road, causing roughly the same rush hour traffic. And two, not all jeepney operators join the strike, and only about half of the total joins these politicised transport groups. 

An outgrowth of the damage to our tram system at the end of World War 2, jeepneys were seen as a stop gap to provide affordable public transport to what were then growing cities. 

Routes were then organized. Franchises for such conveyances were born, awarded to many with clout, and access to surplus American jeep parts. With a little ingenuity to build a vehicle that could seat a small group, the iconic King of the Road was born. 

Fifty years hence, an entire culture evolved around that vehicle. It may have grown longer and wider, but the jeepney as we know it hardly improved from the end of World War 2. As the units got older, improvements were mandated but never followed, and franchises were illegally traded, surplus engines became the norm, guzzling fuel and spewing black smoke.

People today hardly know that selling franchises is illegal; perhaps they do not  understand that 70% of urban air pollution is caused by motor vehicles, with jeepneys as one of the major contributors. Likewise, people have gotten used to crowded jeepneys with few, if any, safety features. The "normal operation" of jeepneys reveals many safety and regulatory violations that have long been overlooked.

That jeepney organizations call the shots over other jeepney operators and drivers only bring to light the fact that public transport in this country is an example of regulatory capture, the economic concept where private interests are able to influence the way a public service like a jeepney franchise is managed. Their incessant lobbying against improvements have created the jeepney we have all endured to this day.

The imperative to modernize public transport was broached in the early days of the first Aquino administration. Fear a backlash from the transport groups that have captured this enterprise, successive governments failed to implement such measures. Until now.

Compared with our ASEAN neighbors Malaysia and Thailand, our jeepneys are shameful. These two countries have progressed in their public transport systems far ahead of ours. 

No less than political will is needed to modernize the jeepney as part of the agenda to upgrade our public transport system. And such decisiveness is demonstrated here and now, like never before.