Jeep! Jeep!

It has inspired songwriters to compose songs about it; balikbayans almost always ask for it as a souvenir to take back home and even hardcourt deities take time to pose with it. The ubiquitous jeepneys, or jeep,  a common and daily sight in the streets of Manila and the major mode of transportation in the country, is faced with the grim reality of being shunted aside and maybe even phased out because of the pandemic, despite the clamor for it as the main mode of public transport affordable to the mass riding public.

This is not the first time that the jeepneys’ existence has been threatened. Just last year, in a move to clear the roads of dilapidated jeepneys, the Land Transportation Regulatory Franchising Board (LTFRB) declared that old vehicles shall be replaced under its Public Utility Mobilization Program by end of June 2020. This directive initially, did not sit well with the operators and drivers, and were met with several protests around the country. This time, however, the jeepney’s fate once again faces another tough challenge as public transportation resumes with the country emerging from its almost three months of COVID 19 lockdown. Actually, the pandemic illustrated graphically the critical role of jeepneys to Pinoys as this major mode of transport took a hiatus from our streets. The resulting anguish and suffering of many citizens forced to walk distances in harsh and extremely hot weather underscore how our policy makers failed to provide vital transportation in our citizens’ hour of need.

Under the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) guidelines, proper social distancing among jeepney passengers shall be observed resulting in only 50 percent of the total riding capacity that can be utilized which cuts drastically the drivers’ earnings. Also, under the Department of Transportation’s guidelines for the resumption of public transportation under the GCQ, public utility vehicle (PUVs) should also secure a special permit to be able to ply the road again plus the mandatory use of face masks by drivers and passengers. Roberto “Ka Obet” Martin, president of the transport group, Pasang Masda, says that its 100,000 members nationwide are willing to comply with the new guidelines but would like to appeal for the government to subsidize their fuel costs to make it sustainable for the drivers. This appeal is now more acute given the announcement only last week by oil firms that they are raising a price hike whopper at P2.30 per liter for diesel.

With regard to Pasang Masda’s response to the pandemic for its displaced members, Ka Obet said that he had directed all their local chapters to distribute whatever savings each group had to its members. “Most of our members have also not received the promised amelioration from DSWD and I hope this will be given to them soon as they badly need the financial assistance,” he said. I asked Ka Obet what he thought of the group of jeepney drivers who were featured in news reports asking for money in the streets, and he said that he cannot really blame them for resorting to this as “they were really desperate.”  

According to Ka Obet, they have already started complying with the LTFRB’s directive on jeepney modernization and has already around 60 modern jeepneys in his group alone, and in his estimate, around 5,000, more or less, in Metro Manila. These modern jeepneys can be really helpful in terms of contact-tracing and curbing the transfer of infection as these are equipped with CCTV and automatic fare collection, or the top-on, top-off feature. The challenge will be for the more traditional jeepneys but Ka Obet mentioned that the LTRFB has extended its deadline till end of December 2020 provided these jeepneys pass the motor vehicle inspection service. But trust the ingenuity and faith of the Pinoys as one such driver from Cagayan de Oro city, in order to comply with the social-distancing and no-contact policy, has decided to mount “collection boxes” onto the seats to address both issues. The driver calls it his “honesty jeep” and trusts that people will pay the exact fare. I hope we can also trust the national government to do much better for this sector which has been the mainstay of most Filipinos in going to and from the tasks that make up our daily lives. Author may be reached at [email protected]

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