If you had to choose one thing to represent the Philippines there is a good chance it would be the jeepney. I set out to learn more about the tradition and history of this iconic vehicle, and this is what I found.
The streets of the Philippines are dominated by brazenly colored, heavily ornamented, black exhaust smoke belching, military jeep inspired vehicles. They are called jeepneys, which is either a portmanteau of the words “jeep” and “jitney” or “jeep” and “knee,” because when you ride in these things you are wedged in knee to knee with other passengers. But one thing that’s for sure is that they are the staple form of public transportation here.
The jeepney is an icon of the Philippines — in the same league as the red double decker bus in London, the yellow taxi in New York, the moto taxi in Peru, and the little beetle-like auto-rickshaw in India. A specimen of a jeepney was even exhibited in the Philippines pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair as the prime symbol to represent the country. When Pope John Paul II visited Manila in 1981 he apparently left his “pope mobile” at the Vatican and instead opted to ride in, yes, a jeepney.
This seemingly simple public transport vehicle is deeply intertwined with contemporary Filipino society and history, and in many ways can also be used as a lens to see the culture itself. It’s not only something that Filipinos can ride in, but something they can identify with as well.
Jeepneys first appeared on the streets of the Philippines in the 1950s, soon after the U.S. military began pulling out in droves. WWII had left the public transportation networks of the Philippines in shambles, and the U.S. military left behind hundreds of old Willys and Ford jeeps they no longer had any use for. It was a set of circumstances that match perfectly.
Industrious Filipinos took those old military jeeps, extended them two meters or so, slapped on metal roofs, threw a couple of benches into the backs, coated them in vibrant colors, ornaments, and an excess of chrome, and began transporting passengers. Almost instantaneously the jeepney culture was born, and these vehicles became the defacto way that Filipinos began getting around.
Eventually, as the form of transportation became more popular and the original jeeps began clunking out, a second wave of jeepneys emerged. These ones were distinctly ‘made in the Philippines.’ Backyard garages began appearing that manufactured these vehicles by hand. The main parts — engines, transmissions, etc . . .– were mostly imported from Japan, while the chassis and bodies where molded from scratch or retrieved from scrap yards. This multi-national, multi-method conglomeration of materials were then mashed together using an array of different designs to create something distinctly Filipino, which in a very direct way represented the culture itself.
“There is bit of Spanish, Mexican traits there; how they incorporate vivid colours, fiesta-like feelings. There is a little of the Americans because it evolved from the Jeep. There is a little Japan because of the Japanese engine. But it was built by Filipino hands . . .,” reported an article on BBC.
Eventually, one of these family-run, backyard jeepney manufacturing operations rose to the top and became the brand the vehicle has been associated with ever since. It was called Sarao, and they operated a factory to the south of Metro Manila. The company was started with ₱700 in 1953 by Leonardo Sarao, who at the time was a driver of a horse-drawn cart, and eventually became a multi-million dollar operation. At the company’s peak in the 70s and 80s, the plant had 400 workers who kicked out 18 to 20 jeepneys per day — all of which sported the brand’s metal horse statues on the roof. At one point, Sarao jeepneys outnumber all others in Manila by a margin of 7 to 1.
Today, there are over 50,000 jeepneys on the streets of Manila, and untold thousands more around the country.
The Jeepney Experience
I stood on the side of Magasaysay Road in Baguio and prepared to flag down a jeepney. I wanted to visit one of the garages that repaired and painted these ‘kings of the road.’
Jeepneys generally follow set routes. They gather together at designated starting points and line up one after another. A barker keeps track of them all and tells each driver when it’s his turn to go. The driver then does his route, collecting passengers, dropping them off, all the way to the end of the line, where he then turns around and does the same thing in the opposite direction.
This means that getting a ride in a jeepney is simply a matter of standing on the side of the road in the direction you want to go and flagging one down that has your destination painted on it. All jeepneys have their routes written below their windshields and on their sides.
I soon spotted a jeepney that was going my way, so I stuck out my arm and it quickly came to a stop. I climbed in through the open back and made my way to the front of the bench, right behind the driver.
The prices for rides were listed on a sheet of paper that was attached to the back of the front seats so all of the passengers could see it. The cost was based on how far along the route you wanted to go. Though with the highest price hardly breaching 40 cents U.S. it seemed a little moot. Traveling by jeepney is cheap, and this is one of the reasons why they are still so popular.
I called out to the driver, telling him where I wanted to go — a far flung intersection way down the line — and asked how much it would cost. He shrugged, said 12 pesos, and I handed the coins up to him. He reached his hand back while still driving, grabbed the change, and tossed it into a metal dish that had been soldered onto the dash.
Some jeepneys have conductors who take care of things on the passenger end, but they must be paid and fed lunch, so many drivers don’t find it worth it to carry them along. The loss of a few passengers taking a free ride does not equate to the cost of a guy whose job it is to prevent this. While conductors were not necessarily rare in Baguio, most drivers seemed to do without them. The passengers just paid on their own at a convenient point along their way, passing money down the bench to the person sitting nearest the driver, who would hand it over when the opportunity allowed.
Jeepneys can carry around 18 passengers on their parallel benches — and many more hanging on outside or sitting on the roof if need be. This makes them rather crowded, though social places. Like so, there is an unwritten code of conduct for riding. Pushing and shoving, talking loudly, and making a scene is generally considered rude. Old people are offered seats if there are none available. Basically, the rule is don’t be a dick.
In such close social quarters most Filipinos tend to politely sit in silence. Though not necessarily an unfriendly place, the social protocol in a jeepney is similar to that of an elevator. To prevent bothering others, loquaciousness is generally not encouraged, and most ride without saying a word other than yelling out “para” when they want to be let off. Though banging the ceiling or rapping a coin against something metal also works.
Outside of high traffic areas in the center of cities, jeepneys don’t really have set stops. Instead, they travel in incredibly short spurts, seemingly stopping to pick up or drop off passengers every 50 to 100 meters or so, inch-worming their way down the road. I sometimes debated if I could walk faster.
Jeepneys are diesel fueled, rumbling beasts of vehicles. They emit incredible amounts of exhaust, which inevitably seeps into the cabin where the passengers are. After 20 minutes of huffing diesel fumes as I rode out of Baguio I was feeling a little queasy, by the time that I arrived I was outright nauseous. While it wasn’t a debilitating state of affairs, it wasn’t something I’d be exhilarated to experience daily. Jeepneys, though defended as a mainstay of Filipino culture, are also known for being notoriously unhealthy.
Garages and Backyard Factories
I hopped off the jeepney in front of a road that lead up to Mountainside Motors. Jeepneys were lined up end to end leading up a hill to the garage. The structure itself was a lopsided corrugated metal barn that was completely open in the front. Jeepneys packed almost every inch of the place, overflowing out of it and down the road. I hovered by the entrance for a few moments, looking at two men sleeping on the benches in the back of a jeepney that had some kind of warrior princess abutting against a screeching bald eagle streaming down its side.
Jeepney production, decorating, and repair are all very grassroots industries in the Philippines. While Sarao Motors dominated the country’s jeepney manufacturing front for an extended period of time, thousands of other vehicles were slapped together in local garages all around the country. Generally speaking, these backyard factories produce around 1 to 5 vehicles per month, getting their materials from an array of more sophisticated manufacturers, salvage yards, or they simply cast them themselves.
In 15 years of travel I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country where it was common for people to build their own large scale motor vehicles locally. In the Philippines, you can travel around the outskirts of cities and see men assembling jeepneys in small garages virtually from scratch. This localized application of knowledge and skill combined with an innovative, DIY mentality is one of the reasons why the jeepney has become such a national icon. These are cultural traits this country seems incredibly proud of.
The cost for a jeepney is around a million pesos (US$22,300) new, ₱300-₱700,000 (US$6,700 – US$15,600) used.
I met Mr.Carino as I was looking over his extremely old, grey jeepney. The little steel airplane he had mounted on the hood caught my attention. I asked him why he chose to put it there when so many other drivers had horses. “To be unique,” he replied.
It’s often said that no two jeepneys are alike, and this is probably true. Uniqueness is key here, and this diversity extends from the outer paint job and kitsch down into the inner-workings of the vehicle. Though it is the outer artwork that truly makes these vehicles something special.
Jeepneys are essentially art on wheels, their exteriors are usually plastered with wild paint jobs, decals, colored lights, horns, statues, and lots and lots of chrome. As the drivers generally decide on the designs, the art becomes an exposé of their interests, history, family, faith, worldviews, and, to put it simply, what they think look cools. Religious slogans are common, as are horoscope signs, the names and portraits of family members, cartoon characters, animals, scantly clad women, and iconography depicting places or natural scenes. You can read a jeepney to know the driver.
The family connections shown in jeepney art often extends into the process by which the designs are selected. When asking jeepney drivers how they chose the images they adorn their vehicles with, it was common for them to reply with things like “My brother chose it” or “My sister drew it.” Jeepney art seems to be a way of not only demonstrating familial bonds but strengthening them as well.
The imagery of jeepney art is not dissimilar to that of tattooing. The arts’ symbologies, social functions, and, sometimes, even aesthetics come from a similar place. Like tattoos, jeepney art shows what’s meaningful to the driver — they tell the story of his life, shows the things he likes, displays his family connections, and how he views the world. Also like tattooing, jeepney art enters him into the fraternity of other drivers who decorate their vehicles. The artwork gives them something to talk about, something to do together, and something through which to classify insiders from outsiders. The jeepney is the driver’s social face — an external body of sorts — and adorning it is a way of expressing and defining themselves.
Though this ornamentation does not come cheap.
“Why did you pay so much money to paint your jeepney?” I asked a driver who claimed to have paid ₱80,000 (US$1,800) for his paint job and decorations. He just shrugged and smiled shyly. He didn’t really have an answer, but his silent response perhaps said it all.
I was told by drivers that spending ₱50-₱60,000 for decoration is common, while others have claimed to have paid over ₱90,000 (US$2,000). Jeepney decorating is also a continuous process — it doesn’t really seem to be something you pay for once and get done and over with.
Though I had to wonder if there were any financial benefits to these relatively large investments. I asked if passengers have a preference for nicer looking, brighter colored, more decorated jeepneys over ones that are older, clunkier, and less adorned.
“The more beautiful, the more passengers want to ride,” one driver with a bright orange, heavily adorned jeepney told me.
Though this was contested by another driver. “We all have a set route, so decoration doesn’t matter.”
Perhaps needless to say, he drove an old, plain green clunker.
The Jeepney Lifestyle
I was walking around in a jeepney depot taking photos when a voice called out.
“You want some lunch? Come into our restaurant.”
It came from a man half hanging out of the back of a jeepney. He was laughing and waving me over.
Inside, five or six drivers and a woman were eating lunch — fried chicken and strips of miscellaneous fish out of goopy, dripping plastic bags.
I asked them why they chose to become drivers.
“Driving is our life. Without driving our families can’t eat,” one of them answered with a laugh.
He had a wispy beard and told me that he had been driving for four years. His brother was the driver of the jeepney we were sitting in. They told me that they worked for a small company, meaning they did not own the vehicles they drove.
I asked them what they do in their free time, and they just laughed at me.
“We don’t do anything for fun, we work seven days per week!”
Another driver told me that he’d been driving for 20 years. “For three years I drove a truck in UAE, then I came back here to the jeepney.”
“Did you miss your family when you were away?”
“Yes, the first year was very hard.”
He was laid off during the global economic slump and returned to the Philippines, fired up his old jeepney, and began picking up passengers again. I asked if he would go abroad again for work if the chance arose.
“Why not?” he replied without hesitation.
He told me that he was an independent operator. He owned his own jeepney, worked for himself.
Just beyond the garage I saw a guy standing on the front bumper of a sharp looking, bright red jeepney with his face buried deep in the engine. His name was Danny, and he told me that he learned to drive from his uncle, who was the owner of the jeepney he was repairing. He told me that it was purchased new three years ago for a price of 1.5 million.
He said that he makes around ₱1,000 (US$22.30) per day, after putting 500 to 1,000 into the gas tank.
Danny said that he didn’t like driving. He smiled shyly as he shook his head. “In Philippines, drivers drive very bad,” he said, adding that all the hills of Baguio made driving such huge vehicles with standard transmissions challenging. He then told me a story about how he once crashed into the car of a local bigwig and had to drive fast to get away. He laughed shyly as he pointed out the dent on the steel bars that crossed in front of the jeepney’s front bumper.
Mr. Carino told me that he was a security guard before he became a jeepney driver. That was a long time ago.
In the early 80s his wife did a three year stint working in Hong Kong, sending the remittances to her husband back at home. Eventually, they were able to save up enough money to buy a house and a jeepney, and the couple reunited for their new start.
He told me he paid ₱70,000 for the jeepney in 1986. “They now cost ₱300,000,” he told me proudly. It was manufactured in 1980, one year before I was born. It was 34 years old and looked it. Though, for it’s age, the fact that it was running was impressive. He seemed to speak of the vehicle with fatherly pride. He may as well have — it was older than his children.
Though I had to wonder how much of it was original. The hodge podge nature of jeepney manufacturing means that these vehicles can be continuously be repaired into virtual eternity — one one component breaks it can just be replaced, on and on and on.
Everyday over the past 28 years Mr. Carino said with a laugh that he was either driving this jeepney or repairing it. “I drive five days per week and do repairs on the other days.”
The story of driving jeepneys is also a story of repairing jeepneys. Almost every driver jested about the amount of repair work these vehicles need regularly. Many others besides Mr. Carino attested that their days off are spent under a jeepney or face down in its engine block. This seems to be a running joke of sorts among the drivers, but it’s nothing to laugh about when you see them lining the sides of streets or blockading the middle of a road broken down — which is perhaps another iconic scene of the Philippines.
Jeepneys are still being manufactured in the Philippines, and the country’s streets are still clogged with these smoke spewing, diesel chuggers. This is a unique tradition that is still very much alive in a world where monotony is fast becoming a pan-cultural rule. Though how much longer this will last is very much in question.
The once powerful and iconic Sarao Motors, the brand that is as familiar to Filipinos as Volkswagen is to Germans, dropped from producing 12 to 18 vehicles per day to 40 per year before petering out and going out of business in 2001. Many of the other larger scale manufacturers have followed suit — either given up on jeepney production or going under altogether.
In a world full of cheap, mass produced, lower fuel consuming competitors, the traditional jeepney is starting to lose its footing as the king of the road. Due to its custom design and lack of standardization, the old style jeepney is more costly to repair, and the cost to fuel them tends to be much greater than their assembly line foes. On top of that, taxis, buses, mini-vans, and rapid transit systems are starting to appear more and more in the cities of the Philippines. Passenger desires also changing, preferring vehicles with air conditioning to the dizzying miasma of exhaust smoke inhalation that comes from riding in a jeepney.
There are also movements calling for jeepneys to be phased out for environmental reasons. The excessive amount of pollution they produce and resources they consume are growing unacceptable in a world where an awareness of environmental degradation and its effects on health are become increasingly vital concerns.
As I looked out over Manila and Baguio it was apparent that the jeepney was something from an era that many countries have sought to conclude. These vehicles turn the streets into corridors of black noxious fumes, clog the roads, and make the cities they service far more inhospitable. The exhaust is the real the killer. You not only get gassed out while riding in a jeepney but when walking down the sidewalk or even while sitting inside buildings that open onto busy streets. The traditional jeepney seems to be a third world hang up in a time when no country is willing to accept such a distinction.
From Manila Concierge Online:
They represent a battle between traditional and progress and up to now the traditional is still winning. As much as they have charm, history and being a part of the culture, it could also be said that they are totally unsuitable in almost every imaginable way as a modern public transport vehicle.
Like so many other once ubiquitous traditions in so many other countries, those colorful, loud, diesel sucking, exhaust spewing, aesthetically pleasing, unique vehicles that cover the streets of the Philippines will soon be devoured by the onward role of modernity. The traditional style jeepney will no longer be put on display as an icon of Filipino culture, but that of Filipino history.
Though the industry is fighting back, and is doing so in the way it always has: from the depths of local run garages scattered around the country.
Knowing that the traditional style jeepney has entered into its twilight years, the vehicle is starting to transgress its “jeep-like” roots. To these ends, Suzuki minivans and Isuzu Elf trucks are now being adapted, decorated, and called jeepneys. While some local manufacturers are producing jeepneys that look like Hummers, Toyota vans, and Honda CR-Vs. A producer in Makati is even producing an electric jeepney. These new “jeepneys” are often equipped with air conditioning and modern amenities, they pollute less, consume less fuel, and ultimately cost less to operate.
The Filipino jeepney, a vehicle whose hallmark has always been innovation, is continuing its evolution. The look of the new versions may be very different but the essence of the tradition remains the same. The jeepney is adapting and staying alive — though, thankfully, they are still being decked out in bright colors, airbrushing, kitsch, and chrome.