Duterte Threatens to Dethrone the Jeepney as King of Filipino Roads

MANILA — In Alvin Ocampo’s 18-year-old jeepney, the dashboard is held together with yards of peeling electrical tape. The only concession to Manila’s stifling heat is a fan screwed to the ceiling. And unless you count the padlocked metal grate in place of the driver’s-side door that Mr. Ocampo installed after a gang of glue-sniffing teenagers robbed him of a fistful of pesos, the vehicle has no safety features to speak of.

Nevertheless, on a recent Friday afternoon in December, scores of passengers climbed aboard Mr. Ocampo’s jeepney, one of thousands of locally produced passenger trucks that are icons of Manila’s traffic-clogged and pollution-choked streets.

Sitting knee-to-knee, 20 passengers squeezed along the vinyl benches that run the length of the vehicle. Women clutched purses on their laps, and a few riders held handkerchiefs over their noses to keep from breathing the acrid air streaming through the open windows.

For decades, the jeepney, patterned after World War II-era American jeeps and painted in brash designs, has been the most widely used mode of transportation in the country, earning the nickname “king of the road.”

But the jeepney’s place on Filipino roads and in the culture is under attack, said Mr. Ocampo, 38, “because of what Duterte is doing.”

President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to phase out traditional jeepneys, a move that would pit the populist president against the working poor, who ride and drive them every day.

Mr. Duterte, who has made infrastructure development one of the primary goals of his administration, cited the capital’s poor air quality and horrendous traffic as the impetus for the policy.

According to a survey by the traffic app Waze, Manila has the “worst traffic on earth,” and commuting just a few miles can take hours.

Some critics also contend that jeepneys, which typically lack seatbelts, are not safe. Twenty people, including three children, were killed on Monday in the northern Philippines when the jeepney in which they were riding to a Christmas Mass collided head-on with a larger bus.

Mr. Duterte’s proposal was met in October with two days of strikes by jeepney drivers that resulted in schools’ canceling classes and government offices’ suspending work.

The drivers say removing jeepneys from the road would deprive them of their livelihoods, and shut down small businesses.

“You’re poor?” Mr. Duterte asked in a speech mocking the drivers during the protests. “Son of a bitch, suffer hardship and hunger. I don’t care.”

The Department of Transportation has ordered modern replacements for the jeepney, fitted with padded seats, side opening doors, air-conditioning and electric engines.

The new vehicles, which look more like traditional buses than jeepneys, are intended to reduce pollution, improve comfort and safety, and make public transportation more accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities.

At a busy intersection in Manila, Yana Padilla, 24, an administrative assistant who commutes to her office two hours each way by jeepney, said she would miss the classic vehicle because it’s “the mark of the Philippines.” Nevertheless, she said, she is ready for a better ride.

Updating the jeepney alone will not improve traffic, but the government’s program also aims to organize routes better as part of a larger effort to improve public transportation in Manila.

Not everyone is persuaded. “We don’t believe it is really a modernization plan,” George San Mateo, president of the jeepney drivers advocacy group Piston, said of Mr. Duterte’s proposal. “It’s a marketing program for the vehicles they are forcing the small operators to buy.”

Originally Mr. Duterte threatened to remove the jeepneys as early as Jan. 1, but the Transportation Department has backed off from that deadline. Recently, it offered a slower phaseout of older jeepneys and financing plans for drivers and owners who are likely to lose their vehicles.

Critics argue that the financing the government plans to provide will fall short of what drivers will need to buy new jeepneys.

A jeepney currently costs about 500,000 pesos, or $9,900, but the prototype vehicles are expected to range in cost from 1.2 million to 1.6 million pesos (about $24,000 to $31,000).

According to a study by Senator Grace Poe, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Services, the new vehicles could cost as much as 2.1 million pesos each with interest, an amount that far exceeds the 80,000 pesos the government plans to allocate for financial aid. The proposed budget, Ms. Poe warned, will be enough to modernize only 25,000 of the country’s 234,000 jeepneys.

Mr. San Mateo said the costs would force small business owners and drivers into debt or drive them out, and open the door for large corporations to take over the industry.

Rather than requiring small business owners to buy new vehicles, Mr. San Mateo said owners want money to be directed toward updating existing jeepneys, and the government to support a national industry for making the autos.

Edison Lao, manager of Armak Motors, a jeepney manufacturer founded by his father 39 years ago, said the jeepney “symbolizes the ingenuity of the Filipino.”

Over the years, Mr. Lao has improved little on the jeepney’s classic design. Aside from the engine, which is acquired secondhand from Japanese trucks, the Armak jeepney, like most jeepneys in the Philippines, is produced locally, by hand. In Mr. Lao’s workshop there are welders, steel polishers, fender specialists and tailors sewing vinyl seats and roof padding.

“The people who build jeepneys are really experienced craftsmen,” Mr. Lao said.

Victorino Capuno, 52, has worked at Armak Motors as a painter for 30 years. In the 1980s, he said, the autos were hand-painted with religious scenes in the style of the Sistine Chapel. Nowadays, airbrushed paintings of Italian sports cars are popular.

Mr. Capuno said he had painted more than a thousand depictions of the Virgin Mary, as well as cargo ships, teams of horses, neon eagles, cartoon characters and mottos like “A Dream Fulfilled” and “Basta Sexy Libre” — free rides for the sexy.

“The government doesn’t appreciate these kinds of stories,” Mr. Lao said, adding that without support from the government, the jeepney would not survive for another generation.

While working-class jeepney drivers are seen as a bloc that largely supported Mr. Duterte, his approach to addressing problems within the industry is breeding resentment.

Susan Gordo, 50, an owner of two jeepneys, said Mr. Duterte “has shown that he’s not genuinely for the poor.”

Alvin Barnachea, 40, who works as a “barker,” ushering passengers onto jeepneys, said that he supported the modernization program because it would decrease pollution, but that the government should help the drivers and owners.

“Duterte doesn’t care,” Mr. Barnachea said. “He wants to make things better, never mind the people who will take a hit. That’s how Duterte’s mind works.”

One day in December, Mr. Ocampo, the driver, steered his jeepney through markets, busy avenues and residential neighborhoods. He reached behind his seat to collect passenger fares as he blasted “My Valentine,” a country-pop song, played from his cellphone’s speaker.

“It’s so soothing every time I hear a love song,” Mr. Ocampo yelled, barely audible over the rumble of his diesel engine.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/25/world/asia/philippines-jeepney-duterte.html by AURORA ALMENDRAL