THE main objective of the government’s jeepney “modernization program,” which will, if it is carried out correctly, result in the removal or replacement of about 90 percent of all the jeepneys in the Philippines, is not the persecution the jeepney transport groups and their backers would have us believe. It is instead an effort to impose the same, or at least comparable, standards on the country’s main form of public transportation as are applied to every other road vehicle, and by demanding an exemption from these standards, the jeepney lobby is demanding permission to continue to pose a significant health and safety risk to the Philippine public.
Most of this risk is associated with the vehicles themselves, with the remainder attributable to their drivers and the inefficient system in which they operate. The basic flaws of the system were pointed out in my previous column; the skill and behavior of jeepney drivers is a topic for another time. This time, we’ll dissect the rolling disaster and dubious “national symbol” that is the Philippine jeepney.
The typical jeepney is a metal cabin carried by a twin rail steel frame; the boxy “jeep” style – that is, it vaguely resembles the old US Army jeep from which the design was originally derived – is the most common type, although there are some parts of the country, such as Laguna, where jeepneys with a more “car-like” appearance are popular. Jeepneys are built in varying lengths, and seat from 18 to 26 passengers, depending on the size of the vehicle: up to two beside the driver in the front seat, and the rest on benches running the length of both sides of the cabin.
The bodies are usually made of galvanized steel, stainless steel (which is more expensive), or a combination of both. Jeepneys in elevated areas where the weather is cooler sometimes have windows installed in the cabin; most, however, are open, with only plastic covers that can be unrolled in case of rain. Entry is through a door in the rear.
The only “new” or scratch-built parts in almost every jeepney are the frame, the main cabin, the engine enclosure, front fenders and hood in the front, and the bench seats in the main cabin, which are usually upholstered vinyl stuffed with coconut fiber. Every other part of the jeepney, including the main mechanical parts, is likely second-hand.
In terms of passenger safety, the jeepney is frankly terrifying, even by the looser standards that have to be applied to public transport vehicles. The stiff construction means that any impact energy is transmitted almost unabated to the passenger cabin; open side window spaces and open doors also increase the risk of passenger ejection or cabin penetration. Because there is a single exit, escaping the vehicle in case of fire or submersion is more difficult as well, even more so if it is fully loaded with passengers and their baggage.
The most common engine used in jeepneys is the Isuzu 4BC2 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated diesel; the 4JB1 and 4HF1 variants are also frequently used. The majority of these engines, those that are not reused from vehicles scrapped here in the Philippines, are known as “pier engines”: They are imported as scrap from Japan or elsewhere in Asia, and redirected to engine rebuilders after clearing customs (there are brokers operating around the port for this purpose, hence, the name “pier engine”). The reconditioned ones cannot meet even minimal emissions standards, and come nowhere close to achieving the Euro 4 standard for reduced emissions. Compounding the problem is the fact that to prevent power loss from the already weakened engine, a straight exhaust system consisting of only plain piping with no muffler or catalytic converter is usually used.
Although it is not as “dirty” in terms of emissions as it sounds, this type of system is definitely not clean. A 2005 study by the Manila Observatory estimated that 11 percent of the CO2 emissions and 15 percent of the particulate matter (PM) emissions in Metro Manila were attributable to jeepneys, but these estimates were also based on a much larger estimate of the number of jeepneys than is probably realistic, 300,000 versus 60,000-65,000. Adjusting the emissions figures for the lower vehicle population estimate suggests jeepneys contribute about 2.2 percent of CO2 emissions and 3 percent of PM emissions. With an estimated 2.5 million vehicles on Metro Manila’s roads, that means that jeepneys – which make up about 2.4 percent of the vehicle population – emit slightly more than their proportional share of the city’s air pollution, which is reason enough to target them for emissions reductions.
Since very few new jeepneys have entered the fleet since that 12-year-old Manila Observatory estimate was made, and given the poor maintenance applied to most jeepneys – repairs cost money, after all – the emissions impact may actually be somewhat worse than the available data suggests.
Jeepneys in their current form are terrible vehicles being used in an inefficient system that causes more problems than it solves, and yet this is considered – not just considered, but is, in fact – the backbone of the Philippines’ public transportation infrastructure. In the next installment, I’ll suggest some ways in which it can be fixed to make it safe, economical, and productive.