March 6 isn't like any another manic Monday. The streets may still be bustling, but there's a missing unmistakable sight on the road: the jeepneys.
There's little to none of the ubiquitous vehicle bursting with much color and design, vroom and music on the roads of Metro Manila and other parts of the country on March 6 and in the days to come, as tens of thousands of drivers and operators are staging a week-long transport strike in protest of the planned phaseout of traditional jeepneys this year.
The jeepney that everybody knows today can be traced back to World War II. When American soldiers left the country, excess jeeps during the war were sold or given to Filipinos, who then customized the vehicle for local use. The customization included putting up metal roofs, ornaments, and long benches, and has been the same design in the coming years. The engines, which run on diesel, are discards that have been reassembled.
For the government, these raise not only safety concerns due to obsolescence but also environmental concerns as the jeepneys emit a lot of smoke.
And so in 2017, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) under the Rodrigo Duterte administration launched the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program, which aims to make the country's public transportation system more comfortable and environment-friendly.
Under the program, jeepneys, buses, and other public utility vehicles that are at least 15 years old must be replaced.
The replacement—an electronic jeepney or e-jeepney—operates on an electric engine, has closed circuit television cameras, an air-conditioned unit, and an automated fare collection system, among other features that keep up with the times.
The transport strike all boils down to one major concern: money.
The Land Bank of the Philippines in 2017 estimated that the new jeepneys will cost around P1.4 million to P1.6 million. But since it's the drivers and operators who should procure the units themselves through loans, the actual cost would amount to P2.1 million, under a seven-year payment period with 6% interest per annum.
Aside from financial concerns, several groups believe that the traditional jeepney is part of the Filipino identity, thus, it must be preserved.
Through a memo, the Land Transport Franchising Regulatory Board ordered drivers and operators to form a cooperative with at least 15 vehicles to be able to secure loans for the new jeepneys, or else lose their franchise.
The first deadline was in June 2020, but was extended to December 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was again moved to March 2021, and then to June 30, 2023. President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2023, following an appeal from operators.
The government also offered to give P200,000 per jeepney that will be phased out.
Nonetheless, drivers and operators aren't comfortable with the wiggle room they've been given. Aside from their relatively low income of about P700 daily, they are worried that they can't pay off their loans in seven years' time, especially since they also have to attend to other expenses such as maintenance of the units—not to mention, bills at home.
On the side of commuters, meanwhile, riding modernized vehicles would also mean paying higher fares.
Piston, the group leading the week-long transport strike, is appealing to increase the P200,000 subsidy the government is offering per unit.
Piston also urged other transport groups to join the strike, though others aren't reportedly joining, according to the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). These include the Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide or Piston, Federation of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association of the Philippines, and UV Express Group.
Government response to the strike
Mayors in Metro Manila offered "libreng sakay" to commuters, while the Department of Interior and Local Government deployed service patrols to accommodate the lack of transportation.
The Palace also sent vehicles to cater to passengers.
The MMDA, meanwhile, lifted the number coding scheme for March 6.
Educational institutions in the metro already holding in-person classes have returned to an online medium for the time being. Vice President Sara Duterte, who is also the Department of Education secretary, also urged schools to conduct asynchronous classes.
Ahead of the week-long strike, senators in a hearing urged transport officials to review the planned jeepney phaseout.
Sen. Grace Poe, who heads the senate committee on public services, urged the DOTr to “find a realistic and viable solution to the concerns raised by operators and drivers on the modernization program.”
“We expect that (DOTr Sec. Jaime Bautista) himself will participate and personally meet with the various transport groups ASAP and hear their concerns,” Poe said in a statement.
Sen. Chiz Escudero said the jeepney phaseout was "hastily planned, haphazardly implemented, and offered no safety nets" for drivers and operators.
Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel, meanwhile, noted the government shouldn't push through with the jeepney phaseout, especially if the drivers and operators can't afford the new units. Pimentel said the government should've thought of every detail regarding the plan first before implementing it.