WHO would have thought that what were originally leftover military jeeps from World War II would not only transform public transportation, but also become a cultural symbol in the Philippines?
When American troops left the country after the war some 73 years ago, hundreds of surplus jeeps were either sold or given to Filipinos.
At that time, there was no concrete plan yet for transportation development since the country was still starting to recover from the destruction brought about by the war.
The army green vehicles were altered and repainted with much more vibrant colors to give them a more local vibe.
Metal roofs were also installed for shade, and the seats were replaced with parallel benches to accommodate more passengers.
Like many provinces, Cebu was not exempted from the damage caused by the war. It, too, needed an accessible means of public mass transportation.
In the late ‘40s, altered jeepneys from Manila were brought to Cebu to expand the reach of the new mode of public transportation.
Because they were still new, the tartanilla (small horse-drawn carriage) business continued to prosper until the late ‘50s.
But since the 16-seater jeepneys can carry more passengers than the five-seater tartanillas, more units started to arrive in Cebu.
As an offshoot, the jeepneys became one of the major public transportation modes in Cebu. The number of operating tartanillas, on the other hand, was reduced to avoid traffic congestion.
With the widespread use of these jeepneys, the National Government began to regulate their use by requiring drivers to apply for a license, identifying routes and imposing fare rates.
From American military jeeps, the bulk of the jeepneys in Cebu are now built from second-hand Japanese trucks that were originally intended for cargo.
Public utility jeepney (PUJ) operators also started to add more quirks to their vehicles, ranging from sound systems, and television screens for movies and quick karaoke sessions.
“Music is part of every Filipino’s life. I always get drowsy or bored when I drive without music. I also don’t want my passengers to get bored,” Mario, a PUJ driver plying the Bulacao-Colon route, told SunStar Cebu in Cebuano.
The PUJs have dominated thoroughfares without “threat” for nearly 70 years until recently.
In 2017, the Department of Transportation launched the Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) Modernization Program to make the country’s public transportation system “efficient and environmentally friendly” by 2020.
The program aims to replace jeepneys, buses and other PUVs that are at least 15 years old with other alternatives over the next three years.
At present, around 180,000 PUJ units are operating throughout the country.
Today, some 40 modern PUVs called “Beeps” will start ferrying passengers along two routes in Cebu City: from Cebu City Hall to Cebu IT Park and vice versa and from R. Duterte St. in Banawa in Barangay Guadalupe to Panagdait in Barangay Mabolo and back.
The blue air-conditioned vehicles, which are mini coasters, have a seating capacity of 24 and can also accommodate 10 standing passengers.
It is also equipped with a 72-hour functional dash camera, speed limiter device, global positioning system, and grants free WiFi access to passengers aboard. It also uses the same engine-type of PUVs in Europe.
The fare collection is automated and passengers will just have to swipe their fare cards to the point of sale terminals inside the vehicles.
The cards are re-loadable and will be made available soon in established retail stores.
Greg Perez, Pagkakaisa ng Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) Cebu coordinator, fears that modern PUVs like this will displace existing PUJ drivers.
“Because of the PUV modernization, drivers might lose their livelihood. Slowly, PUJs will be gone and this will greatly affect small-time operators and drivers,” he said.
Established in the ‘80s, Piston currently has over 100,000 members under its belt nationwide.
National Confederation of Transport Union (NCTU) vice president for the Visayas Romeo Armamento, on the other hand, said he supports the modernization program.
He said, though, that the government should intensify its education campaign on the matter.
“I can personally see where the government is coming from, since the affected vehicles are already old and will continue to get older. However, there should be proper education for everyone to clearly see the goals of the modernization program,” he said in Cebuano.
A PUJ operator himself for 23 years, Armamento said a second-hand unit needs at least P20,000 to maintain, and it’s the flooding in Metro Cebu that causes the greatest damage to their jeepneys.
Because of this, the NCTU has filed a petition for an additional P2.50 on top of the present P6.50 minimum fare rate.
If approved, commuters will have to pay P9 for the first five kilometers, and an additional P1 for every succeeding kilometer.
The modernization of PUVs, though, is not the only challenge Piston and NCTU are facing.
Armamento said that dishonest and troublemaking passengers are among their top concerns.
For Perez, the increase in prices of commodities, especially gasoline, adds burden to their members.
“On average, an operator spends around P300,000 for a surplus PUJ unit, excluding maintenance. That is already costly. That’s why oil price hike is making it heavier for us,” he said.