Life was difficult even before Covid-19, mused Francisco Kalagayan, 39.
Yet, he said, it was bearable. Driving a jeepney provided a certain stability: It put three meals on the table daily and got his five kids through school.
Then the coronavirus struck, prompting the government to ban all public transport to mitigate the contagion.
Kalagayan’s life was upended. His family was “lucky to eat once a day,” he said. Even mundane things like soap and toothpaste became luxuries shared among neighbors at Barangay UP Campus in Quezon City.
And when travel restrictions were lifted after a three-month lockdown, “everyone else got back to work except us drivers,” he said.
While the rest of the metropolis is adjusting to what life has become, Kalagayan worries that jeepney drivers like himself will “continue to be left behind” as they grapple with a new deadline they can’t meet.
The Department of Transportation (DOTr) said that by December 31, bus, taxi, UV Express and jeepney operators and drivers must have consolidated their fleets under the public utility vehicle modernization program (PUVMP).
If not, their franchises--or licenses to operate--will expire, said Martin Delgra III, chair of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB).
The deadline marks the end of the supposed three-year transition period for all PUVs under the program, which seeks to replace all old, dilapidated units with modern, Euro-4 vehicles.
The transition period was to have lapsed in July. But “in due consideration of the pandemic, we decided to extend the deadline,” Delgra said.
Shrugging off criticism that a hard deadline for the program was “insensitive” in view of the ongoing crisis, Delgra said: “This is not an imposition of government. The imposition is on the deadline. If they want to support the program, they can do so because it is their choice to continue running the route.”
No other group is more adamantly against the program than the jeepney sector, which has fiercely resisted its implementation since its launch in 2017.
‘Kings of the Road’
Jeepney drivers and operators argue that the program would phase out the “Kings of the Road,” which evolved from leftover US military jeeps after World War II and were later modified and reproduced to meet Manila’s postwar transport needs.
But the Covid-19 pandemic served to highlight the long-overdue overhaul of Philippine road transport, which has literally pushed commuters into cars.
Now motor vehicles comprise 60-70 percent of the country’s total emissions. While private cars outnumber jeepneys in Manila 6:1, the diesel-powered vehicles emit a lot more black carbon, the sooty material comprising particulate matter—an air pollutant, said Dr. Gerry Bagtasa, associate meteorology professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“While jeepneys and buses may not be the biggest emitters ... since they are fewer than private vehicles, the relationship is much clearer between jeepneys and buses in terms of black carbon, which is harmful [and] recently identified to be a type of carcinogen,” Bagtasa said.
Meanwhile, the modern jeepneys—which look more like minibuses—are powered by Euro-4 fuel and catalytic engines that filter air pollutants by as much as 90 percent, he added.
In pushing for the program, officials say they wish to keep the gains from the four-month lockdown, during which air pollution, seen as a leading cause of respiratory diseases like Covid-19, dropped drastically across Manila.
Transport officials say the drop was due to the absence of vehicles on the road. But Bagtasa said it was also due in part to the hot weather.
“We actually did not do anything to reduce pollution,” he said. “It’s just an unintended consequence of solving a totally different problem. Our pollution level was really low during the first months of the lockdown and, of course, removing the sources of emission was key here, [but] historically pollution is really the lowest during the summer.”
Challenges with consolidation
Regardless, fleet consolidation and modernization alone can potentially reduce yearly transmission.
But even if only 70 percent of jeepneys shift to cleaner units, fleet consolidation and modernization alone can potentially reduce yearly transport emissions by 3.6 percent, said Maria Golda Hilario, associate program director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.
However, she warned, this must be “carefully balanced, because if the fleet is not enough to service the number of commuters, we would have a situation wherein any potential reduction can be diminished by emission increases from private vehicles, as commuters, for lack of transport options, will resort to buying cars.”
But consolidating into fleets alone is already a major challenge to the program.
Part of it is rooted in culture, Delgra said. Jeepneys, often seen as heritage to be passed from generation to generation, are often owned by the drivers or their operators.
Unlike buses or utility vehicles, jeeps are very rarely organized in fleets. A 2016 Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) joint study with the DOTr found that over 70 percent of all jeepneys operators own only one unit.
As such, most jeepneys do not follow regular deployment schedules and often compete on the road for passengers, Delgra said.
The same study found that over 43,000 jeepney franchises and over 830 bus franchises have been issued on more than 900 routes, “making the public transport market practically unmanageable for the government.”
A fast-approaching deadline
So what will happen on Dec. 31? First, operators and drivers who have yet to consolidate into cooperatives or corporations, or express their intent to do so, will find their franchises expired, Delgra said.
By then they will be eligible to operate only under a provisional authority effective until December 2021 “if there are still no groups running consistent with the PUVMP running their routes,” he said.
They will then have to file petitions to drop and then replace their old units with the new modern jeepneys.
This is where operators and transport officials start to clash. The burden of purchasing the units--now priced between P1.6 million and P2.2 million--is on the cooperative or the corporation.
By consolidating, Delgra says, they should be more readily able to take on the cost of transitioning. “Banks don’t usually recognize you when you apply for loans if you’re just an individual operator. They are, however, more appreciative if you apply as a group.”
Still, the DOTr doubled the equity subsidy for each unit from P80,000 to P160,000, or around 10 percent of the lowest estimate for the modern jeeps, Delgra said.
Need to earn a living
But the cost is still steep for Kalagayan and some 60 other drivers living in Barangay UP Campus, who were among those displaced by the ongoing partial ban on jeepneys.
Like the others, Kalagayan inherited his Sarao jeepney from his father. For generations their work sustained their community.
When Manila relaxed its lockdown measures, the DOTr allowed the highest-capacity vehicles to operate first: trains, then buses, modern jeepneys, and then traditional jeepneys.
Even though the steel-bodied vehicle takes up a third of all trips taken in Metro Manila, the DOTr initially argued that jeepneys--with their face-to-face interior configuration--are inherently incapable of physical distancing.
But “there is no foolproof mode of transport (against the coronavirus),” said University of the Philippines Manila-College of Public Health dean Vicente Belizario. “It’s a combination of pluses and minuses. You want more of the minuses to reduce the risk of transmission.”
In the case of jeepneys, placing plastic barriers between the drivers and the passengers and requiring them to wear masks at all times “could greatly reduce the risk of transmission,” he said.
In July--or a full month since the capital region was reopened--transport officials finally allowed some 6,002 jeepneys back. But the DOTr’s transport strategy had already disenfranchised Kalagayan and the others.
They had received aid from the national and local governments, but most of them were forced to beg on the streets when it became clear that their jeepneys would not be among those allowed to return to the roads, Kalagayan said.
While officials try to fashion a more sustainable “new normal” for future generations, Kalagayan’s kids will have to stop school this year. His eldest had been due to attend college in June.
“I told my wife and kids that they can’t attend school because we can’t afford their laptops or cell phones. At first they were in denial, but when they saw us begging on the streets, that’s when they understood that we simply cannot afford their school needs,” Kalagayan said.
He added: “It’s been decades since we first started in this line of work. We’ve transported so many people on the roads, and we’ve contributed to their successes. We’re not against modernization. We just want to be able to earn a living so we can meet [the government’s] demands, and feed our families.”
This story was written with the support of an environmental journalism grant from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: A number of jeepney drivers out of work due to the Covid-19 quarantine in Caloocan City are forced to beg for money, as shown in this photo taken on July 14 / Credit: Grig C. Montegrande