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The jeepney phaseout – or modernization, or whatever you want to call it – is not solely a transport issue. It intersects with others, such as livelihood, the environment, safety, culture, and social justice. The position one takes is largely shaped by who one is or where one is in life. As such, people have different positions on the issue. But one that ought to provide us with common ground is the cultural aspect of the jeepney.
The jeepney phaseout as a cultural issue gets rarely discussed. I suppose it is because most Filipinos have a narrow understanding of culture as something that belongs in the past as part of tradition, rather than features of a community that constantly get renegotiated by its constituents in the present. Culture is not static; it changes but ever so imperceptibly. Filipinos’ view of the jeepney as a cultural icon is solely based on a romanticized remembrance of it in its gaudy glory in the ’70s. That is a material or external manifestation of culture. That feature of the jeepney has ceased to be, as drivers’ and operators’ subsistence has grown increasingly dire over the years.
Unchanged, however, are the essential features of the jeepney as a cultural text. For one, it is the only mode of transport that operates via honor system. There are no turnstiles to ensure payment before boarding nor are there conductors to collect fares. You hand over the fare to fellow passengers till it reaches the driver, you tell the driver where you are going, and he takes your word for it. Honor system. Community. Bayanihan. Despite the jeepney’s design not being PWD-friendly, we have all seen how fellow passengers help others board, whether they are PWDs, seniors, or commuters with young children or bearing heavy loads. It is who we are. We are a welcoming people, ever ready to lend a hand. The jeepney reminds us of that. It also hints at Filipinos’ penchant for socialization and conversation, given how the two rows of seats are configured to face each other.
The jeepney is also the opposite of public transport in other countries, which, by design, look generic. But even as each jeepney is personalized, they all bear a distinct sensibility that brings Filipino-ness to life. These come in the form of artwork and/or texts that communicate the range and depth of our sensibilities, encompassing bawdy humor and witticisms, expressions of hope and aspirations, acknowledgment of and gratitude for blessings, and an abiding faith in God – even if it may be just a belief that God knows Hudas not pay.
Yet, I had experienced a number of occasions when I took the wrong jeep that was not passing where I thought it would. The driver offered to drop me off where I could take the right jeepney and refused to accept the fare I was offering. Of course, I insisted. These are features of our living culture that ought to make us proud. By phasing out the jeepney, we are also banishing these features of identity. Could it be that powerful people like many of our leaders and politicians – who hardly evoke honor – are rubbed up the wrong way by the humble jeepney, which is why they want it banished?
The jeepney issue is also a PR war. The government’s strategy to promote it on grounds of modernization, safety, and environmental concerns is a potent one likely to draw support from many Filipinos. However, not all of it is completely accurate. The common charge that jeepneys are unsafe stems from perception rather than fact. In terms of road accidents in Metro Manila, cars rank 1st (48.11% of the total); jeepneys rank 7th (2.42%). While it is common knowledge that jeepneys are major contributors to air pollution because of their old engines, one would think that the simpler, more sensible, and more just solution would be for the government to help traditional jeepneys to be compliant with DOTR specifications, rather than to impose requirements that necessitate huge investments when it knows they are beyond the means of jeepney drivers and operators.
Why is the government not doing that?
Given the evidence, it becomes hard to ignore that it probably has to do with the jeepney sector representing a P300B industry. If jeepney drivers and operators do not have the capacity to meet the requirements, then it gives the government reason to hand over the lucrative market to capitalists, who will then ask for fare hikes to get their return on investment. In the end, it is still ordinary Filipinos who get a raw deal – all because of wealth, power, and profit, trampling over cultural significance, values, and social justice. Sure, one cannot eat values. But are we not reminded that man does not live on bread alone? What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? Such wisdoms are part of our culture, and the jeepney’s significance ought to awaken us to them.
Indeed, the jeepney as a cultural issue is essential, urgent, but sadly, not readily appreciated. This is where our educational and cultural institutions ought to enlighten our people, especially that the jeepney phaseout is also an issue of social justice. Sadly, the only statements to have come from some schools are about classes moving online. As for cultural institutions, the NCCA – the stewards of Philippine culture – has been silent on the jeepney phaseout even at the PUVMP’s inception during the time of former President Duterte; it is hard not to notice because it is seldom silent when heritage houses of the old rich are being torn down. Only the jeepney takes us places no other mode of transport can reach – ourselves, our soul. Yet, it is what our government wants to phase out. An old adage calls on us to reflect, “Saan ang ating paroroonan?” – Rappler.com
Bennet Dychangco is an independent marketing communications consultant and a part-time faculty member at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde.