You might think twice about boarding a bus named “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” with the phrase spray-painted in green above the windshield. I don’t, not when the alternative is loitering along the smog-shrouded shoulder of Commonwealth Avenue—the 18-lane highway looping through Metro Manila colloquially known as the “Avenue of Death.” And not when the ride in question is actually a jeepney, the garishly decorated offspring of U.S. Army jeeps abandoned in the Philippines following World War II. You might call it a death trap, but for millions of Filipinos it’s just part of the daily commute.
An app called Sakay.ph told me to switch jeepneys here, on the megacity’s deadliest stretch. Clambering into the back of what amounts to a stretched jeep with a tin roof, I slide down one of the vinyl seats to sit behind the driver, who flips his right palm backward to collect the fare of seven pesos, equivalent to 15 cents. The other passengers range in age from elderly couples to young mothers clutching their infants. Eighteen of us sit knee-to-knee. Everyone covers their faces with a handkerchief in one hand while bracing themselves with the other, and for good reason. Jeepneys have neither emissions standards nor seatbelts nor retirement ages—the eldest have been running since the 1970s. They are the most dangerous and decrepit two percent of traffic, and they generate 80 percent of vehicular pollution.
A speaker mounted on the floor blasts the 1986 hit “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Not necessarily what you want to hear while swerving across multiple lanes of traffic at top speeds. Worse is the tangle of wires spilling from the steering column and the plastic jerry can half-filled with gasoline sloshing at the driver’s feet. As we race along the Avenue of Death, weaving between cars, trucks, buses, and “trikes”—motorcycle taxis with improvised sidecars welded on—passengers tap the roof to signal their stop. Every few hundred yards a row of cinder blocks appears, sheltering a few lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs. We pull into one as if entering the pits at Daytona, idling only long enough for the next shift of passengers to hop in. Then we peel out again. Our driver is paid for how many fares he collects, creating the perverse incentive to race between stops when his cab is full or to interminably wait until it is. The only speed limits are those imposed by congestion.
This is what rush hour in Manila looks like: a Mad Max-style ride down Fury Road aboard vehicles with names like “Cold Fusion” and “Soldier of Fortune.” First hacked together more than 70 years ago and manufactured nowhere else outside the Philippines, the ageless, endlessly patched jeepney is both an icon of national ingenuity and testament to its utterly dysfunctional public transportation. Filipinos affectionately refer to them as the “Kings of the Road,” with a mixture of pride and eye-rolling resignation. Nearly half of the capital’s residents take one of its 45,000 jeepneys to work each day, more than double the number riding the city’s buses and trains. Yet it’s virtually impossible to cross the megacity riding just one; a typical commute involves some combination of the three.
But today, Metro Manila has a booming economy and a surging population—the supercity has added 6 million residents since 2000, for a total of more than 24 million. At the same time, middle-class Filipinos are fleeing jeepneys for a quiet, air-conditioned drive in their own vehicles. Cars presently account for less than a third of all passengers on Manila’s roads, but comprise nearly three-quarters of traffic. New car sales have nearly doubled in just the last three years.
The result is the world’s worst congestion, according to 50 million users of the driving app Waze. The average resident’s commute is 45 minutes each way—compared to 35 minutes for traffic-weary Los Angeles—stretching to several hours for those unlucky enough to be traveling from suburbs in the north to the city’s main business districts in the south. (Metro Manila is actually comprised of 17 separate cities; the modern city is squeezed between a lake and the sea, funneling nearly all traffic between the suburbs in the north and offices in the south.)
Solving Manila’s gridlock was a recurring theme in the debates leading up to the May 9 presidential election. Candidates’ plans ranged from building more roads to adding more trains to raising taxes on second or third cars, and a few proposed more extreme measures: One suggested building a new capital just to ease traffic for government employees. Lawmakers regularly call for “decongesting the city,” which in practical terms would mean expelling thousands or even millions of residents to the countryside. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to devolve power to the provinces from “imperial Manila,” likely fueling such talk.
The megacity is already threatening to come apart at the seams. What’s the alternative? Metro Manila has just broken ground on its fourth train, running along the Avenue of Death, but that won’t be up and running until 2020 at the earliest. Manila’s first high-speed bus route was approved in December. Both are too little, too late. Could a cleaner, safer, connected—and maybe even electric—jeepney be the answer instead?
Out of Time
From the top floors of the Columbia Tower, you can watch metro Manila’s traffic nightmare unfold. The otherwise nondescript building overlooks Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the twelve-lane ring road better known as EDSA. Thirty years ago, millions of Filipinos camped here to peacefully demand the resignation of Ferdinand Marcos; today, they sit for hours in their cars. Running alongside EDSA is Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT3), the busiest of Manila’s three trains, with lines that spill out of the stations and down the stairs at rush hour.
This is the view from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), the much-maligned cabinet-level office charged with tackling Manila’s intractable congestion. Given the department’s failures to get a grip on the crisis, coupled with the last few DOTC secretaries’ tendencies to hire more lawyers than planners, voters have rightfully held this against President Benigno Aquino.
Current assistant secretary for planning and finance Sherielysse Reyes “Booey” Bonifacio arrives for our meeting in a burst of exhausted energy, wearing the sleeves of her jacket rolled over a hot pink t-shirt, as if Crockett and Tubbs were her chiefs of staff. She is funnier and more frank than any bureaucrat I’ve met, which isn’t surprising given she has nothing left to lose. Bonifacio assumed her post two years ago with the mandate to straighten out the capital’s jeepneys, trains, and buses before the end of Aquino’s term—which even she’d described as an all-out sprint. She’d failed on all counts; this is effectively her exit interview. “I’m a political appointee,” she says cheerfully. “I’m gone.”
The clock has run out on her four-part plan to transform Manila’s mess into a functioning network. She’d only managed the first step: nation-wide regulations on Uber and its local archrival, Grab, to reform the country’s taxis.
The next step, she says, was to use data from the World Bank—which receives a snapshot every six minutes from Grab’s 300,000 drivers across Asia—to identify the most promising routes for bus rapid transit (BRT). Launched 40 years ago in Brazil, BRT combines dedicated lanes and timed traffic signals with special platforms for high-capacity boarding. It’s basically a train on wheels. Less costly than excavating tunnels, BRT has been hailed as the starter kit for modern mass transit. In equally dysfunctional Jakarta, for example, the government crashed construction of the city’s first line in only nine months in 2004. Today, Indonesia’s capital has the world’s longest network, carrying 370,000 passengers daily over 129 miles of dedicated lanes along a dozen lines. In Manila, the DOTC studied 17 seventeen suitable corridors. President Aquino approved only one before leaving office.
Step three in Bonifacio’s plan was to reinvent the jeepney. No more jalopies held together with duct tape and scavenged parts. No more tasting exhaust. Yes to windows, seatbelts, air conditioning, and doors. Maybe even electric engines, or, at the very least, low-sulfur, less-polluting diesel ones. Bonifacio’s team hopes the next administration will pass on this idea to interested manufacturers such as Kia, Tata, and Isuzu in the hope they’ll design and build one. This assumes what’s left of the domestic jeepney industry doesn’t beat them to it.
The last step—and Bonifacio readily admits this borders on fantasy—is to replace the existing transportation system wholesale.
Jeepneys traditionally operate on a franchise system, with owners applying to the DOTC for the right to run on a particular route. The problem, she explains, is that the government never bothered to create a coherent network—it just handed out franchises to anyone who asked. The result was an incomprehensible tangle of redundant routes, plied not only by tens of thousands of jeepneys, but also more than a thousand bus companies and an untold number of illegal operators. According to the World Bank’s data, decades of adding routes without thinking has resulted in vehicles driving six times as many miles as bus systems in Beijing or New York.
Bonifacio’s plan would slash the number of routes by 90 percent and reduce jeepneys’ annual greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent—equivalent to taking 105,000 cars off Manila’s roads. All it would take is 20 billion pesos ($43 million), she estimated, to buy out every owner. For less than half the cost of starting up bus rapid transit, the government could start over—this time drawing the network map first, then assigning new routes to ferry passengers to express buses, and finally deploying Jeepneys 2.0. How the government would foreclose on 90 percent of jeepney drivers—a poor but vocal voting bloc—is unclear, but that’s a problem for the next administration. “And anyway, I’m not a transportation planner, I’m a lawyer,” she says, running her hands through her hair.
The Jeepney Mystery
No one is certain how the Philippines came to be infested with jeeps. We know they arrived with General Douglas McArthur on October 20, 1944, the day he fulfilled his famous vow to return. The mystery begins after the war, when the vehicles started appearing in civilian hands. One theory posits an abandoned Ford factory in the jungle. Most stories have the U.S. Army handing over the keys as a sort of peace dividend before leaving in 1945. Another, likelier theory has U.S. troops burying everything they couldn’t carry, including jeeps, only for the locals to dig them up again.
Inspection at Front Lines on Leyte. Leyte, P.I.: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who personally led his troops in the invasion of Leyte, waves a greeting to his men, moving forward on Leyte, as the General makes an inspection of his troops a few hours after the landings.
For many Filipinos in the ‘40s, jeeps were the first motorized vehicles they had ever seen. It didn’t take long for Manila’s more resourceful welding shops to cut open the rear, add cushions and steps, and start charging passengers the princely sum of a peso. Jeepney hacking quickly evolved from extending the jeep’s frame to adding a tin roof for shade to bolting on chrome ornaments.
The name derives either from a portmanteau of jeep and jitney, or from the practice of sitting knee-to-knee. Once again, no one knows for sure. What is known is that thousands of surplus jeeps were gradually siphoned from depots in Okinawa and Amsterdam to the Philippines, until backyard jeepneys had become the backbone of post-war transport on the archipelago.
By the 1950s, local manufacturers like Sarao Motors and Francisco Motors began building new models from scratch, combining truck bodies from Japanese automakers with reconditioned diesel engines. At their peak in the 1970s and ‘80s, production reached 5,000 per year. Then the bottom fell out. Francisco filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Sarao and others limp along, barely surviving. Jeepneys once again belong to the backyard mechanics keeping the last generation running on cannibalized parts.
One such jeepney belongs to a husband-and-wife team who give only their first names, José and Cherry. I climb aboard “Angel” at a stop in Quezon City, a city within Metro Manila that is more populous than Chicago and four times as dense. While José navigates the Avenue of Death, Cherry rides with me in back, collecting fares. She’s wearing a black t-shirt with “Captain” emblazoned in silver sequins, in case passengers are unclear. The pair ply this route daily from 7 to 7, ferrying commuters to the train in the mornings and back home at night.
Like millions of Filipinos, Cherry worked abroad for years—in her case as a caregiver in Hong Kong—before returning home a decade ago to buy this jeepney with her husband. As sole proprietors, they’re the exception, she says. The average operator owns somewhere between 20 and 50 vehicles. Only once, after a brush with engine trouble, did they consider selling. “But business has only gotten worse and worse,” she says. Competition from other jeepneys, buses, and even Uber has stolen riders, while increasing congestion limits the number of trips.
This is who Booey Bonifacio wants to replace. As one of the tiniest nodes in Metro Manila’s network, Cherry and her husband don’t seem to care how they connect to the whole. When I ask whether more frequent trains or the start of BRT might help—more train riders would need their help to get to the BRT—she just laughs. “No, it would be bad!” she says. Any more transportation competition is just that: more competition.
Can the Avenue Go Electric?
To see the lifecycle of the jeepney under one roof, you must drive past the end of the Avenue of Death, continuing on narrow two-lane streets choked with taxis, jeepneys, motorcycles, and trikes until you reach the factory gates of MD Juan. The name should be instantly familiar to vintage jeep aficionados. Founder Maximino D. “Doc” Juan was one of the most voracious post-war scavengers of surplus military vehicles, which he parlayed into painstakingly accurate reproductions. Eventually, he began exporting DIY kits for entire jeeps to overseas restorers, carving out a lucrative niche his local competitors couldn’t match.
Tucked away in one corner of the hangar-like factory, dominated by towering 1,200-ton hydraulic presses and the rhythmic clanging of sheet metal, is the eJeepney assembly line. Here, half-a-dozen workers wearing t-shirts and jeans apply coats of paint to snub-nosed minibuses that bear about as much resemblance to a diesel jeepney as a Jeep Cherokee does to a WWII jeep. And that’s probably a good thing.
Jeepneys are the brainchild of Doc’s middle-aged, baby-faced grandson Rommel T. Juan, who leads me on a tour of the factory. In addition to running the family business with his brother, Rommel is also president of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines and vice president of Philippine Utility Vehicle, Inc., “the business arm of the Motor Vehicle Parts Manufacturers Association of the Philippines.” All of which is to say that he is the smiling, polo-and-chino-clad point person of an industry desperately trying to reinvent itself as clean, quiet, progressive, and profitable. His first electric jeepneys debuted to great fanfare in 2008 in Makati, Metro Manila’s lush central business district. That test involved 30 vehicles, of which only ten are still running. It is still the largest fleet ever deployed in the Philippines.
Peering into the back of one of his larger models—eJeepneys come in three sizes, seating fourteen, sixteen, and twenty passengers—I can see the empty bays beneath the seats where the batteries will go. Juan had bet on lead-acid technology, the tried-and-true kind most commonly found under the hood of your car. This choice had obvious advantages: They’re cheap, safe, easily sourced, and easily disposed of. They also had an obvious disadvantage familiar to anyone with range anxiety about electric cars. They don’t last very long between charges.
That’s the reason electric car makers like Tesla use lithium-ion batteries, and that’s the reason you won’t find eJeepneys or their smaller cousins, electric trikes, on EDSA or the Avenue of Death, but only on a handful of university and corporate campuses. Juan publicly set a goal of seeing a million eJeepneys on the Philippines’ roads by 2020, although “if we can get ten percent of that, we’ll be happy,” he says. At his current sales rate, he’ll be lucky to get a tenth of a percent. Jeepney owners just weren’t interested in replacing their indestructible diesel engines with batteries that needed to be swapped every few hours.
They might not have a choice. If all goes according to Booey Bonifacio’s plans, jeepneys 15 years or older would face mandatory retirement as early as next year. By her estimates, that would force nearly a third of the Philippines’ fleet off the road. “They can’t do it because it’s a very strong political bloc,” Juan tells me. “But if they do, everyone’s going to be better off.” Sensing that opportunity, he and his group lobbied to include eJeepneys in Bonifacio’s modernization plan. Perhaps a government-backed trade-in program is just what he needs move units out the door.
“Financing is the key right now, because drivers can’t afford to buy new vehicles,” he tells me back in his office, flipping through a well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation. “Right now, jeepney drivers are the owners. Nobody controls them, nobody is teaching them.”
That’s the problem he hasn’t cracked. It’s one thing to manufacture a homegrown, electric version of the jeepney. It’s quite another to replace the crazy quilt of driver/operators, as both Juan and Bonifacio have discovered. Which is why Juan’s competitors are pushing a third way. Call it “jeepneys-as-a-service.”
Their main competition, GET Philippines, is fronted by Sigfrido “Freddie” Tiñga, a former Metro Manila mayor and current Congressman who plans not only to sell an American-made electric version to current jeepney owners, but also to pay them to run it on their behalf. Tinga’s interest isn’t in overthrowing the current regulatory regime; he just wants to sell eJeepneys to existing owner/operators—and then take a cut of their profits. For an upfront cost of $35,000 to $40,000, GET will hire the drivers, collect fares and sell ads. In exchange, GET will realize all of the advantages Juan and Bonifacio can only dream of: a centrally managed fleet, lower maintenance costs, and routes that make sense. (GET suffered a major setback when one of its vehicles’ lithium-ion batteries caught fire and publicly self-immolated on a highway last summer. Luckily, no one was hurt.)
If Juan sees himself following in his grandfather’s footsteps, then Tinga is taking his cues from Silicon Valley, where no less a disruptor than Elon Musk recently disclosed Tesla Motors’ top-secret plans to build autonomous buses roughly the size of jeepneys. A startup named Bridj has already begun offering a similar service in Kansas City (albeit with human drivers), while another named Via is doing the same in Orange County in partnership with Mercedes-Benz. And then, of course, there are Lyft Line and Uber Pool, which let anyone run a jeepney out of the backseat of their Prius.
Echoing the revolutionary rhetoric of these services, Tinga believes jeepneys are not just the bridge to better buses, but their replacement. “The world will best be served by these twenty-seat electric vehicles in a fleet-managed system,” he tells me. But how to manage those fleets will be left to someone else. Unlike Bridj or Via or Uber, GET has no plans to collect its own data, write its own algorithms, and develop its own apps. (Tickets will be printed with QR codes, a digital/analogue hybrid acknowledging the technological and economic realities of most riders.)
“Transportation planning in Manila is so far behind everything else,” he says. “We have to show the world the model works first. We haven’t. Nobody has.” After last summer’s fire, GET upgraded the batteries before resuming service on its only pair of routes. “It’s not a question of will this happen, but who, and when, and where,” alluding to competitors outside the Philippines. “We could fall flat on our face, and somebody else somewhere else could succeed.”
For less than $100, a Filipino could purchase one of Samsung’s Android phones with GPS, download the Uber or Grab apps along with Waze, and practically start driving for one of these services tomorrow. But jeepneys, still the backbone of Manila transportation, are absent from both maps and apps. Perhaps, then, the most immediate solution to Manila’s mess is not electrified jeepneys or revolutionizing the route system, but cold hard data. If the government can’t fix the system and entrepreneurs can’t layer a new one on top of it, could riders at least use their phones to chart a better path through the morass?
In 2012 the World Bank and the DOTC traced nearly a thousand jeepney routes winding through the city—almost twice the number they’d expected. The results were compiled, maps drawn up, and the database made available for download (it has been downloaded 40,000 times). The story would have ended there, boxed up with the rest of Bonifacio’s office, had the Bank not suggested they host a hackathon. By now, hackathons have become a brogrammer cliché, but in this case it produced something singular: Sakay.ph, the first and still the best app for navigating the city by jeepney.
Originally written by a pair of collegiate videogamers named Thomas Dy and Philip Cheang, it has since become the signature offering of their game- and software-development company, By Implication. Their studio occupies a small house on a residential street only a few blocks from EDSA, small enough that I missed the building completely on my first pass. Like the proprietors themselves, it’s decorated according to generally accepted programmer rules: Iron Man masks and videogame posters on the walls, hoodies on the men.
“When I go somewhere abroad, I pull out my phone, and I know how to use it to get around a city,” Cheang tells me. “And here, I don’t know how to get around my own hometown. We can’t fix the infrastructure problem, and we can’t fix the population problem. The best thing we can do in terms of software is solve the information problem: making Manila more accessible.”
Sakay.ph has done exactly that, albeit in baby steps. Although Cheang claims 500,000 users, he also admits the app has run just 1.5 million searches to date—only three searches per person, a sign more users would still rather use Google Maps to trace their route. He and his colleague hope to break though once they begin adding features like incident reporting to make Sakay.ph the jeepney equivalent to Waze.
I had test-driven the app the previous morning, charting a course from the University of the Philippines’ campus to, on a whim, President Aquino’s office in Manila. Standing on a leafy campus street where the app predicted my stop—there was nothing but curb—I waited for a jeepney to appear. Placing my faith in their code and the data underneath, I hailed the first one I saw, and climbed once again into the back.
After a few minutes of following my progress on the map on I realized we were once again going north on the Avenue of Death—this time cutting quickly across nine lanes of traffic to do a U-turn at the first available opening through the median. Swinging into the southbound lanes, we cut across another seven lanes to the pits on the far side, where the app instructed me to change vehicles. I’d come full circle, loitering at a roadside market outside a gas station on one of the most dangerous roads in Manila, where I waited for my ride, whose name turned out to be “In God We Trust.”
This time, we wended our way to the southeast, down a maze of side streets until we reached Aurora Boulevard, one of Metro Manila’s main east-west thoroughfares. For nearly an hour, we grinded our way through traffic, deafened by the noise. Finally, I hit my limits and hopped off not far from my goal, in a zone filled with universities, where uniformed schoolgirls sip iced Starbucks coffees inside the gates. Later, when one of Manila’s wealthiest property developers heard how far I’d gone, he let out a low whistle. “You were really in the belly of it,” he says.
There’s no question the Kings of the Road must reinvent themselves. They have the technology—cleaner fuels, GPS, inexpensive phones, and the apps to navigate the maze that is Manila. But none of that matters without a government willing to take decrepit jeepneys off the roads, owners willing to see the bigger picture, and someone willing to draw that picture. With the election now in the rearview mirror, that’s the challenge facing the next president before Manila chokes on its own exhaust.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.
He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.
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