A Strike, While the Iron is Hot Pt. 1

Do we really need to “modernize” the jeepney?

A key element of any protest is disruption – no protest that accomplished anything good did so without bothering the public. While Filipino commuters are thus inconvenienced by today’s nationwide jeepney strike in protest of PUJ modernization, many concede that PUJ workers would only give up a whole day’s wages in order to address legitimate grievances. Amid the calls for solidarity with PUJ workers, it is worth remembering that true solidarity demands critical engagement with the issues and understanding what is being fought for. In this series of posts, I will try to unpack what’s going on in Jeepney Modernization from a transport policy perspective. There are two sides to this story: first, I will discuss the more apparent aspect of fleet modernization, where I will talk about the technological and strategic motivations for transitioning to a different type of public transport vehicle. In an upcoming piece I will tackle the industry and economic modernization that can (and probably should) accompany modernizing the jeepney fleet.

Fleet Modernization 

This is the most common point of engagement – what is the strategic motivation for transitioning the current PUJ fleet to a different type of vehicle, and what should be considered? Why do we even want a replacement for the jeepney? Answers to these questions have to be articulated in order to ensure that the modernization produces as big of a win for as many stakeholders as possible.

Vehicle Roadworthiness and Emissions: The average jeepney is decades old. Many are held together by improvised, literally ‘panakip-butas’ repairs, and the technology dates to a time before emissions standards were even nominally considered. Consequentially, jeepney commuters travel in vehicles that are unsafe and highly polluting. Clarity is essential: arguing for continuing the use of the current fleet is arguing for maintaining current commuter conditions of health and safety. These are standards that our government would actually find unacceptable, were enforcement in full effect. I would be very surprised if any jeepney would pass Euro-IV emissions standards, which our government itself adopted ten years behind the EU.

Vehicle Design:
Apart from the mechanical qualities of the vehicles, some opponents of modernization also allege that the jeepney aesthetic is inextricably linked to Filipino identity, and that “something” is being “lost” by decommissioning these iconic vehicles. But even if we could theoretically produce perfectly roadworthy, low-emission vehicles in the ubiquitous jeepney shape, we have to again be clear about the commuter consequences of this vehicle design (the post image should be a good reference, if necessary):

Unsafe boarding and alighting:

In order to board a jeepney, a commuter (who is not riding shotgun) has to step behind the vehicle into traffic to board from the rear. Alighting requires stepping out of the same point into a lane of traffic. This increases risk of collisions with other vehicles especially at busier intersections, where many people have to clear the vehicle in order to facilitate passenger movements.

Ideally, vehicles should have doors for boarding at the curbside to ensure that passenger movements are safely separated from vehicular traffic. Multiple boarding doors will also allow for faster boarding and alighting, lower dwell times, and ultimately faster public transport service.

High entry and low seating position:

Boarding the jeepney is difficult, if not impossible, for commuters with less than fully abled movement. Once inside, passengers are placed into a crouched position that can also be uncomfortable, especially for those who are not fully abled. A design that allows for a mix of comfortable standing and seating can address this.

Low vehicle capacity:

The low capacity of a jeepney leads to the need to use many vehicles to serve high-demand routes. Lower capacity vehicles mean that more drivers have to work in order to serve the same demand that could be served with larger vehicles. Driver and crew wages are the largest driver of road transport operating costs, and this cost is larger when more drivers have to be deployed. Furthermore, jeepneys do not necessarily save you much in terms of other operating costs. A jeepney’s fuel economy is about 5.69 km/li while a PUB’s is rated at 2.67 km/li*, which means a jeepney can drive around 2.1 km for every 1 km a bus can drive for the same liter of diesel. However, PUB’s typically carry between 55-67 passengers during peak hours while jeepneys carry around 16-20. This means that if vehicles are loaded to capacity, diesel buses can carry more passengers per liter of fuel consumed (nearly twice) than diesel jeepneys can. This leads to higher fuel consumption for the same service, compounding the polluting effect of high-emission vehicles in addition to increasing unit costs. For some routes, it will make sense to combine a number of jeepney services into a smaller number of bus services, for instance, and I’ll touch more on that in Part 2 to this post.

Call me an optimist, but I think PUJ operators don’t disagree in principle with the idea that the riding public should be carried in a better-designed and better-built vehicle. The question posed by the strikers is whether the cost of fleet turnover can be reasonably fully borne by workers in a low-wage industry.  The government, for its part, has indicated that the cost of modernizing the fleet would be shared by the public, though precise details of the proposal are still being hammered out. Perhaps that is the ultimate purpose of a strike like this – a reminder that to some, it matters very much where those hammers fall.

Coming up: In Part 2 of this piece, we’ll step into the economic and industrial side of jeepney modernization – a less visible but arguably more important aspect of the wide-ranging reform. Replacing the fleet of vehicles is well and good, but simply buying new vehicles will not create a more useful service that is better positioned to address the Philippines’ urban mobility and congestion issues.

*Karl B. N. Vergel and Noriel Christopher C. Tiglao. ESTIMATION OF EMISSIONS AND FUEL CONSUMPTION OF SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORT MEASURES IN METRO MANILA. PHILIPPINE ENGINEERING JOURNAL PEJ 2013; Vol. 34, No. 1: 31-46 Philippine Engineering Journal Received: July 16, 2012 Accepted: February 22, 2013
Photo Credit: Rowhe Rodriguez