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The Jeepney is Proof of Everything That's Wrong with Our Society

Once the inspiring symbol of the Filipino spirit, the jeepney is on its last ride out.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano
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Get rid of the jeepneys.

It’s a simple condition. If you want a corruption-free system, then stop handing out P500 to fixers for your driver’s license. If you want change, open your city up to the APEC leaders. And if you want a real public transportation system—a mostly reliable, high-occupancy, affordable-to-all system as effective as it could possibly be given the density of Manila—then get rid of the jeepneys.

Is it insensitive to say the jeepney is unnecessary? Sentimentality is always the argument: that the jeepneys are symbols of Filipino creativity and ingenuity, a manifestation of the fiesta that our communities are so proud of. But sentimentality has ruled us for so long—and this celebration of freedom and democracy has become a license for laziness.

It is not extremist to say this truth: the jeepney can’t fall in line because it doesn’t want to. While bus systems in Japan or Europe are monopolized by a single entity, individuals own their jeeps. The jeepney system is a free market—intense competition, standard prices, equal offering—but it only works best in theory. It takes its title as king of the road, clearly subscribing to its only set of rules. And obviously this entrepreneurship system of self-owned, self-manned vehicles has failed us.

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A bus obviously does not equate to a jeepney, and vice versa. But, more than anything else, the difference between these two is cultural. The pasabit habit, the abrupt stops at a passenger’s "para," the driver’s multiple roles including navigator and cashier, the routes inaccessible to those who aren’t local—all of which don’t contribute in the least to an already malignant public transportation system. 

Sentimentality has ruled us for so long—and this celebration of freedom and democracy has become a license to laziness.

Admittedly, there are many different solutions to everyone’s most pressing, daily problem of traffic, none of them involving the dismissal of a cultural icon. There are carpool lanes, new coding schemes, even the recentralization of agencies from the capital. But the jeepney is so symptomatic of what ails us. Barring a driver working hard to make a living, the jeepney is the Filipino at his worst.

We do not aim to Westernize our culture, our values, or even our transportation, but it is the exact image of a jeepney cutting through the roads of Manila that parallels the undisciplined mindset of every Filipino from top to bottom; if they can get away with it, they will. And the reason we can’t rise together is simple: we won’t let it happen.

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There is no overnight solution to transportation. Makati wasn’t built to be the central business district—the population of government agencies and high-density towers on Ayala Avenue was originally a short-term solution to pressing matters. Today it bears the brunt of 15 million people going in and out of it everyday, when the CBD was always supposed to be Quezon City.

But sustainable, well-executed urban design could right many wrongs. Bogotá, Colombia, for example, mirrored Manila in many ways—immobilizing traffic and congestion, lack of infrastructure, a powerful few holding the fate of a greater public. Its highly privatized bus system was in shambles, with the people feeling the consequences of extreme competition among companies. Not to mention that it came with a very specific connotation: the bus, for the longest time, was viewed as transportation for the poor.

The solution for Bogotá came in the form of its bus rapid transit (BRT) system, wherein each large bus traveled throughout the city holding up to 160 passengers. By design, it was highly efficient: buses had dedicated lanes that were level with its flooring, where they could pick up passengers—including the elderly or handicapped, all of whom had already paid at the station—with ease. But there is a dimension of social equality that comes in the details: small, feeder buses go where the large ones can’t, in order to reach outlying areas. The ticket price is the same, no matter how near or how far a passenger rides, making the system fair to everyone, no matter their property value. Bicycle paths and pedestrian zones were added to increase accessibility, each one connected to the BRT system for a seamless route. And Enrique Peñalosa did all this in the four years that he was mayor from 1998 to 2001.

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Urban planning is straightforward. The creation of an effective, logical plan for a city or a central district will vary mostly in the specifics of where to put what or what to put where, but there’s generally an ideal: Create a centralized area, break up into high-density buildings, then move into circumferential low-density buildings until you end up in the suburbs.

But we don’t get to hit refresh and see a grid of black and white where we can line up the perfect mix of trees and towers and toddlers to make the perfect city. The reality is, Manila has no chance for a blank slate.

We can keep riding the jeepney. We can do as we do, everyday, all day, for the rest of our lives. We can accept the society that we want to change but don’t.

Or we can say goodbye and give everyone the chance to start again.

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This article originally appeared in our December 2015-January 2016 issue.

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