• Chemotherapy for a national cancer

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    Ben D. Kritz

    AS such actions usually do, the “transport strike” staged by jeepney drivers this past Monday to protest the government’s jeepney “modernization program” failed to make much of an impression on the general public. The activists who wish to keep the dirty, dangerous “national symbol” untouched by 21st century sensibilities ought to take the lesson from that outcome that their days are numbered, or at least should be for the good of the nation.

    Commuters in some areas were inconvenienced, but far fewer jeepneys joined the “nationwide strike” than organizers hoped. The obvious reason for this is that as jobs go, operating a jeepney means constantly living on the edge of famine for most; a voluntary day off is a luxury not many can afford. Undoubtedly, some operators were also discouraged by the potential trouble participating in such an action could bring; participating in an unsanctioned “transport strike” is a specific violation of the franchise granted by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) that could result in a fine, suspension, or revocation of the franchise.

    Under the “modernization program,” the LTFRB has ordered that all jeepneys 15 years or older be removed from service as public utility vehicles. The decision was handed down at the end of 2015, with the jeepney operators given a year to do something about it before the vehicle phaseout became mandatory this year.
    Although no details have been disclosed yet, the LTFRB has said that jeepney owners would be eligible for some financial assistance, such as low-cost loans, to purchase replacement electric jeepneys (e-jeepneys) or upgraded units fitted with engines meeting Euro 4 fuel standards.

    The jeepney activists and their few supporters among the public are violently opposed to the program, pointing out that it will cause several hundred thousand people to lose their jobs, and cause chaos for the commuting public.

    One problem with both the modernization program and the counter-arguments against it is that no one knows how many jeepneys actually exist. The best guess—generated by combining all available estimates from the government, the transport groups, and outside analyses from the likes of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the University of the Philippines—is that there are more or less 600,000 jeepneys in the Philippines, about 250,000 owner/operators, and about 650,000 drivers and helpers; the latter figure includes a majority of the owner/operators, perhaps 180,000 to 200,000, as many jeepneys are driven by their owners.

    In the “Greater Capital Region” (the NCR and the adjacent provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, and Bulacan), estimates of the number of jeepneys vary wildly between 34,500 and 70,000—a consensus estimate falls closer to the higher end of that range, suggesting the number is likely between 55,000 and 60,000. About 45,000 owner/operators and 162,500 drivers and helpers handle these vehicles. Keep in mind, however, that all the above figures are only estimates; neither the government trying to impose the program nor the transport groups and others trying to resist it have a reliably clear understanding of its scope.

    The process of removing old jeepneys (anything built earlier than the year 2001) would take from one to three years to complete, and, according to various transport groups, affect about 90 percent of the existing fleet. It is unlikely that all of the half a million or so vehicles scrapped under the program would be replaced, so the “modernized” jeepney fleet would not only be more environmentally friendly and a bit safer, but also significantly smaller, and as an unavoidable consequence, more efficiently used.

    That is precisely the outcome the country should strive to achieve because jeepneys, as the fundamental model underlying the entire public transportation system in the Philippines, are a national cancer, and a strong, comprehensive “modernization program” is the chemotherapy needed to cure it.

    This subject is too rich in detail to tackle in the space of a single column, but for now, to summarize exactly what a legitimately sustainable “modernization” program would have to deal with, there are three broad areas of concern:

    First, as the “jeepney system,” as it were, is currently designed, it is a completely unsustainable business model. Characterizing it as being “designed” is actually too generous; it developed as a stopgap measure to provide badly needed transportation in a country ruined by World War II, and became institutionalized largely due to lack of attention. The justification for the jeepney’s existence is fundamentally a circular argument—jeepneys must exist because they exist—and that is a rationale that ultimately fails as an argument, economically or otherwise.

    Second, the jeepney is a technical anachronism, dangerous and inefficient by design. The concept of the jeepney has some positive aspects, but the particular way Philippine jeepneys are constructed is the stuff of nightmares, and the result has no business being on any public road.

    Finally, the jeepney exposes some glaring deficiencies in transportation infrastructure planning, design, and regulation. The flaws cover the entire spectrum of everything the Department of Transportation, the LTFRB, the Land Transportation Office and even government planning and policy bodies like NEDA are supposed to be doing, but failing miserably at: everything from driver training, certification, and performance oversight, to rationalizing jeepney routes and fleet distribution, to setting an effective fare matrix. I’ll discuss all three broad topics in greater detail in subsequent columns.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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