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Philippines begins “jeepney” transformation

In yet another display of President Rodrigo Duterte’s strong political will, his government is overhauling the Philippines’ public transport system in a way that could transform the design of the country’s most popular mode of transportation — the iconic “jeepney.”

Because of new specifications set by the government, these colorfully decorated, jeep-like buses that have dominated local roads for decades, are due to undergo a major design makeover over the next few years.

Jeepneys, originally made by modifying U.S. military jeeps left behind after World War II, have become practically synonymous with the Philippines, much like double-decker buses are with Britain, bullet trains are with Japan and three-wheeled “tuk-tuk” auto-rickshaws are with Thailand.

Their popularity is evident from the fact that close to 180,000 of them ply the country’s roads (tens of thousands more if illegally operating ones are included), making them the most numerous four-wheeled public transport vehicles.

“It can’t be that we love them just because these are iconic and symbols of being a Filipino. We’re in modern times now, so there are necessary changes that are appropriate to the demands of the present time,” Danilo Lim, chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, said at a public transport expo last month.

The authority deals with traffic congestion in the Philippine capital, where nearly 45,000 jeepneys operate.

Under the Transportation Department’s Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program launched last year, all jeepneys must be brought into compliance with new design standards within three years.

(Bus-like jeepney vehicles jam a road in Metoropolitan Manila.)

Duterte, complaining that dilapidated, smoke-belching jeepneys are poisoning the air and threatening people’s health, has vowed to implement the program despite the opposition of some small transport operators, who say it will drive them into debt due to the new jeepney models’ higher costs.

He has even warned that the security forces would use rubber bullets and truncheons against them, and confiscate their vehicles, if they resist.

Traditional jeepneys mostly use second-hand diesel engines. They have low ceilings and their main doors are in the back. The new standards include a low carbon-emitting engine or an engine running on alternative fuel, such as electricity and solar power, increased room height and a door on the curbside.

Also required are a closed-circuit television camera, a dashboard camera, Wi-Fi, a GPS signal receiver, a speed limiter, as well as air-conditioning, ramp and space for persons with disabilities, and an automatic fare collection system. All these are lacking in a traditional jeepney.

“The jeepney…will not be phased out under the modernization program. We are just fixing what type of jeepney will be introduced,” Aileen Lizada of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board, said in a TV interview, trying to allay fears that jeepneys will become a thing of the past once modernization is implemented.

Aside from the design upgrade, the program mandates also that jeepney operators form a consortium or corporation to obtain a franchise. Each must set up a garage for its fleet, hire safety officers and strictly follow government-set routes.

Jeepney drivers will become salary-paid employees.

The modernization program, which also covers buses and taxis, adopts systems for checking the roadworthiness of vehicles and a scrappage program for so-called end-of-life vehicles.

The government is offering operators financial assistance through subsidies and loans.

“We’re talking about the large-scale transformation of the public transport sector, we’re not talking about repairs and Band-Aid solutions. We’re overhauling the fleets, the system and the industry,” Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said in his message at last month’s Public Transport Modernization Expo.

(A prototype of a modern jeepney that can accomodate passengers with physically disabilities.)

The regulatory changes seem to have left the owner of Sarao Motors Inc., the country’s pioneer in jeepney manufacturing, with little choice.

Asked in an interview at his production facility in the Manila suburb of Las Pinas City if he welcomes the modernization program, Edgardo Sarao, 57, simply said, “We have to.”

“Everybody in the jeepney industry is having a hard time following the government’s program because of a lot of restriction, and the scarcity of the materials needed, like the Euro 4-compliant engine, which is hard to find,” Sarao said, referring to engines compliant with European exhaust emission standards.

But he was quick to hail the environmental aspects of the program, saying, “It’s about time to introduce newer models to cope with the global standards.”

Down from the company’s heydays from the 1960s through the 1990s when they were “selling jeepneys like pancakes,” Sarao Motors has taken up the challenge of developing its own “modern jeepney” design, compliant with the new specifications.

But critics fault it and most other prototypes that were on display at the expo, manufactured by various companies, for transforming the jeepney into a minibus.

An exception is one made by Sta. Rosa Motor Works Inc. that retains the traditional design, save for its height and main door location.

Despite being priced between 1.6 and 1.8 million pesos ($ 30,800 and $ 34,600), or much higher than existing models, the company already has potential clients, according to sales manager James Tiu.

Another one that retains a traditional look is an electric jeepney made by Francisco Motor Corp., one of the pioneers of the industry in the Philippines. It can run 100 kilometers in a single charge with fast-charging lithium ion batteries.

In addition to a few modernized jeepneys already plying parts of Metro Manila, around 300 new ones will be rolled out in June, according to the Transportation Department.

All – Kyodo News+

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