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The price of modernization

Whether we like it or not it looks like change has indeed come to the Philippines in terms of public transportation. We have all bemoaned our traffic woes for a long time so any change in terms of the status quo should be looked at as a good thing. However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some questions that need to be asked when it comes to the current proposed jeepney modernization program the government has in store for 2018.

We all know by now that President Duterte has required all jeepneys to modernize their vehicles by next year or face arrest and impounding of their vehicles. It seems like a fast turnover considering the monetary output required for the new modern jeepney units the government wants to roll out in the coming year, but this jeepney phase out has actually been a government plan for quite a while now. It just kept getting pushed to the back burner.

I understand the basic concept. After all, anyone who has been on the road sees that the jeepneys in the country, while iconic, are also sometimes a menace on the road. Drivers tend to weave in and out of lanes recklessly while several units waste gas and belch huge amounts of smoke in the air polluting the environment and the people who are unfortunate enough to be riding in the jeep or directly behind the vehicle. Passengers in jeepneys are usually also the unfortunate victims of petty crimes like robbery with robbers either posing as passengers or passing by on the road and victimizing riders from the street.

There is no doubt the jeepney problem needs to be addressed and has needed to be addressed for quite some time. Hopefully this phase out and modernization program is the answer – or at the very least a step in the right direction. But, of course, there are some questions that remain and for jeepney drivers who make their living from their vehicles the modernization program is, understandably, very alarming.

Under the new modernization program jeeps older than 15 years will be phased out and must be replaced by newer units. The new units are a modern take on jeepneys and come equipped with automated fare collection systems, digital security, dashboard cameras, speed limiters, internet connectivity, and GPS tracking systems. What’s more, these new vehicles will also be environmentally friendly running on either Euro 4 compliant diesel engines that discharge 68 percent less particulate matter, 57 percent less nitrogen oxides, and 50 percent less carbon monoxide, or on electric batteries that have zero exhaust gas emissions.

Coupled with the jeepney upgrade, drivers will be mandated to undergo driver safety workshops and routes will be plotted out carefully per franchise by the government instead of as per the solo operators who can create their routes at will.

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Overall, the program seems like a great idea and I think it’s high time we try to modernize and regulate the safety of the vehicles on our roads. This is another important step in curbing the traffic problem in the years ahead and changing the way Filipinos view public transportation. But, of course, there are downsides for the people as well. With the modernization plan in place, Filipinos will have to make some sacrifices as they get used to the new normal.

As the transportation strike a few weeks ago reminded us, the first to suffer under this plan are the jeepney drivers themselves. While modernization sounds like a great idea, it is a very pricey one and many drivers simply don’t have the money to upgrade. The new units – with all the modern features – are costly at roughly P1.6 million to be paid over 7 years. Despite good terms and low cost loans that’s still a high price to pay and monthly amortization can easily go over monthly income. Even with the proposed government subsidy planned by the Department of Transportation there is still a hefty sum left on the drivers’ shoulders and many of them are asking why the subsidy can’t be used to upgrade and update existing vehicles instead.

They say drivers won’t feel the brunt of this heavy price tag immediately but franchise owners will because theoretically under the new modernization program, solo jeepney drivers will no longer be allowed. Instead franchises of at least 10 units are required to operate. These franchises will either be owned by companies that can afford the high cost of 10 or more units or jeepney drivers will have to combine forces to create franchises for themselves. Something they are also against as it goes against their norm. Not to mention the high costs can easily open this up to a monopoly with the rich controlling the system (something that doesn’t guarantee good processes as proved by local bus franchises).

This means that the lone jeepney driver trying to earn a living will be on the losing end of this upgrade. Granted he/she can seek a job under one of the newly formed franchises and enjoy a regular salary (mandated as opposed to daily income earned from passengers) and other benefits. However, there is no guarantee he/she will be able to find a job right away and of course this will cost them the flexibility of running their own routes and schedules.

Plus, realistically, the passengers will feel this upgrade strain their pockets too. In order to supplement the costs of modernization, fares will undoubtedly go up too by as much as P5 at least. This can be a heavy burden on commuters who need to pay it every day but the trade off would result to better vehicles, modern features, and supposed increase in security.

At the end of the day, I understand the plight of the every day jeepney driver. In a nostalgic way I also understand the sadness that comes with saying goodbye to the jeepney – an iconic Philippine transportation vehicle. But, I think it’s time we move forward with the times too. Growing pains are part and parcel of change and if we want things to improve we will have to suffer a little to make it happen. Still I hope that the government can find a way to make the change in a way that will least negatively affect the every day drivers who are trying to earn a living like everybody else.

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