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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - MANILA: Eddie Carido has been navigating the streets of Manila in his jeepney for the past 40 years, fetching passengers on their daily commutes across the Philippine capital. Driving the colorful vehicle is all that he knows — a livelihood that he may soon lose as jeepneys are set to disappear.
Colorful and loud, jeepneys have for decades been the most popular and affordable form of transport both in the urban and rural areas of the Philippines.
The vehicles evolved from the US Army Willys used during World War II. When US forces left the Philippines shortly after the war ended in 1945, they abandoned hundreds of Willys jeeps, which the resourceful Filipinos customized into public service vehicles.
Featuring colorful images ranging from religious figures, pop culture themes to sports stars and the drivers’ family members, some 300,000 jeepneys have been rattling through Philippine neighborhoods every day. For many, they are an iconic part not only of the country’s landscapes but also soundscapes with the rumbling noise of their engines and loud music played to entertain the passengers.
“It’s an icon. It has been there since before we were even born,” Carido told Arab News, after a series of protest rallies staged by drivers in Manila this week to save the “king of the road” from extinction, as the Philippine government plans to stop the vehicles from operating by the end of January.
“We just want to ensure that we will not lose our livelihood. I hope the government doesn’t turn a deaf ear ... I have three grandchildren that I am helping send to school. If I lose my job, they will be forced to stop their studies.”
As the government has been for years looking to modernize the country’s land transportation system and tackle notorious traffic jams, it says it wants to replace jeepneys with bigger, “safer, more efficient and eco-friendly vehicles” — criteria that many jeepney drivers can fulfill.
The phaseout plan was launched in 2017 but has been repeatedly delayed due to protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are 300,000 registered jeepneys in the Philippines. Usually, there are two drivers alternating plus the operator. So that’s around 900,000 people who are affected,” said Mar Valbuena, leader of the Manibela transport group in Manila.
He said that drivers were willing to improve their vehicles to be roadworthy but needed help.
“Instead of buying minibuses that are made in China, why not provide assistance to drivers? We don’t understand why the government is insisting on importing from abroad, from China. That’s what we are protesting aside from the phaseout. They should not burden us with debt,” Valbuena told Arab News.
“The deadline for us is Jan. 31, but we are not losing hope that the government would listen to us and heed our call.”
Jeepneys, which for foreigners are one of the cultural attractions of the Philippines and feature on travelers’ bucket lists, have ingrained themselves as part of Filipino culture and a symbol of resilience.
“Many people who came from hardship and are now successful have taken the jeepney at some point in their life. It has been with us, Filipinos, at all times, even during calamities,” Valbuena said.
“Removing it is like erasing a part of our identity.”
Those who have been used to jeepneys since their childhood, do not want to see them go and see no harm in giving the old four-wheelers a new lease on life.
“I want the jeepneys to stay for sentimental reasons because I have been using it since I was a child. I feel more secure riding a jeepney, especially at night because you know there will be many other people with you instead of sitting alone in a taxi,” Detchie Tamayo, a Manila resident, told Arab News.
“If one of the issues is the smoke-belching of jeepneys, that’s easy. We have laws against smoke-belching. Enforce it. Arrest the violators.”
Marissa Roblesa, a store owner in the Philippine capital, was also unhappy to imagine Manila without the cheap and colorful rides.
“It’s a waste of money to take a cab every time you’re going out, especially if your destination is just near,” she said.
“I enjoy riding the jeepney, especially when the driver plays loud disco music ... I hope the phaseout will not materialize.”
But not all Filipinos share these hopes. Some, like Sidney Navales, would like to see the modernization of the country’s chaotic public transport system.
“Many of the drivers out there are undisciplined. And they are even a source of smoke and noise pollution,” he said.
“I’m open to phasing out the old and dilapidated jeepneys. I think modernization is good because they will be getting new units with bigger capacity and that would mean bigger income for them. I’m good with the phaseout.”
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