JR ESTRELLADO, TIM ISRAEL, ROBI KATE MIRANDA, CJ PALPAL-LATOC, and ANDREA ROBANG
Thirty-three-year-old Julius Napari used to be a jeepney driver plying the Baclaran-Sucat route from five in the morning until seven in the evening. But with transport authorities second-rating traditional jeepneys and closing his route, he was forced to stop operating and find other means to survive.
To combat air pollution and improve public transport, the government launched the modernization program, requiring jeepney units to have engines compliant with international standards. But the road to environmentally sustainable transport is not just a simple matter of clearing smoke—at stake are the lives of 2.4 million Filipinos, including Julius and his family.
Imbued with a colorful, iconic construction, the jeepney is the most affordable way to travel to and fro. But the jeepney’s own classic design, its claim to popularity, now threatens its very existence, as the government enforces a modern standard on the King of the Road.
Sadly, this initiative to improve air quality comes with a price, taxing jeepney drivers like Julius beyond their boundaries.
No commuter is foreign to the dusty highways of Metro Manila. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was already commonplace to wear masks in public especially when traveling, due to vehicular smoke. Despite that, however, the air quality in the metro is not as bad as we might think.
Talking about air pollution, Dr. Gerry Bagtasa—the Philippines’ go-to expert on air pollution in the National Capital Region—said that while there are many bad days, there are many good days as well. “Hindi naman sobrang sama, dahil marami namang araw na okay lang,” he pointed out.
[Translation: It’s not so bad, because there are actually many days that are okay.]
Bagtasa explained that one of the main factors that affect air quality is the weather. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually the rain that contributes to better air quality. “Dahil sa mainit dito, ‘yung karamihan, ang iniisip ng tao, it’s the rain that lessens or decreases the air pollution dito sa atin, but actually, it’s the heat,” he said.
[Translation: Because of the hot weather, for the most part, people think that it’s the rain that lessens or decreases the air pollution here, but it’s actually the heat.]
To understand this phenomenon, Bagtasa said that we can think of the air like a dome over the city. Heat expands this dome, allowing the pollutants in the air to spread across a greater volume. In effect, this reduces the concentration of pollution. Bagtasa gave an illustration: “Kumbaga, kung may taong naninigarilyo sa loob ng isang elevator compared sa taong naninigarilyo sa isang coliseum, obviously the larger volume [of] air [in the] coliseum will disperse the smoke [better].”
But heating the air is just one way to improve air quality. Heating the land can also induce such an effect. Bagtasa explained that water heats up slower than land. This means that a temperature difference can occur between a body of land and a body of water next to each other, like Metro Manila and the Manila Bay.
When this temperature difference occurs, air flows from the body of water to the landmass. As he explained, when you go to the Mall of Asia, you will feel the air coming from the Manila Bay. This air, called the sea breeze, blows towards the metro and disperses the pollutants. And the hotter the land gets, the greater the temperature difference can be, and more air can sweep the cities.
This explains how we can have many good days of air quality. “‘Yong init ‘yong nagke-create ng certain weather, ng condition so napapababa ‘yong concentration ng pollutants. So dahil sa maraming days na mainit, maraming days actually na nagiging clear ang skies,” Bagtasa said.
[Translation: Heat creates a certain weather, the condition, that lowers the concentration of the pollutants. So because there are many hot days, there are also many days with clear skies.]
Concern about air pollution only heightens when we start to look at the chemical composition of the pollutants instead of the concentration.
The current state of air quality in the Philippines and emission standards that have been implemented. Significant amount of jeepney units are still classified under Pre-Euro 2 standards. (Click here for a larger version of the infographic.)
Bagtasa said that a long-term study found that NCR has the highest amount of black carbon in the cities measured across the Asia-Pacific. These black carbon particles are the tiny pollutants that are byproducts of gas and diesel combustion. And what makes this black carbon a concern is that it’s a known carcinogen.
Around 60-80% of pollutants in NCR come from vehicular emission. But Bagtasa noted that this is normal for megacities. The main concern, he said, stems from the high amount of black carbon. In Metro Manila, the main sources of black carbon are the buses and jeepneys; Bagtasa mentioned that recent studies showed that black carbon concentration increases near these vehicles.
Aside from black carbon emission, jeepneys contribute to the pollution problem in other ways as well. According to a study conducted by the Manila Observatory in 2004, diesel-fed jeepneys like the one Julius drives were responsible for 15% of the particulate matter emissions in Metro Manila.
Still, although jeepneys have been on the receiving end of the issue with black carbon, they are not solely to blame for its dreadful effects.
In 2011, the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) estimated the pollutants emitted by different vehicle-fuel types. Unlike the 2004 study, the emission of jeepneys is not stated; however, jeepneys comprise the majority of utility vehicles that use diesel as fuel. EMB found that vehicles under this category contribute 48% of total particulate matter per year, 27% of sulfur oxide, and 21% of nitrogen oxide pollutants.
In part a response to the air pollution attributed to jeepneys and buses, the Department of Transportation launched the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program in 2017. Also known as the “Jeepney Modernization Program,” it has primarily garnered the attention of Julius and his fellow members of the jeepney community. The program’s provisions put the pedal to the metal not only in terms of replacing older models, but also in imposing overwhelming payments, thereby constricting the already constricted airways of drivers and operators alike.
Through the Jeepney Modernization Program, the government aims to phase out the outdated jeepneys and replace them with new and safer jeepneys on the road. In addition, it seeks to increase passenger safety and reduce pollution, as units that are more than 15 years old will not be allowed to operate.
Through this program, only jeepneys powered by Euro 4 engines (which release less emissions than most second-hand Japanese engines currently being used) or electrically powered engines will be allowed to operate. The Department of Transportation also proposed upgrades such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, a GPS navigation system, an Automatic Fare Collection System, speed limiters, dashboard cameras, and Wi-Fi.
Although the program aims to reduce air pollution and improve the quality of public transportation here in our country, the sudden rush to have older models replaced will almost certainly become a huge burden on the side of low-earning drivers and operators alike.
Julius earns Php 12,600 a month, which is exhausted to cover basic necessities and services for his livelihood. (Click here for a larger version of the infographic.)
“Tambak na kami ng bayarin sa kuryente, tubig, at iba-ibang bills kagaya ng home credit. Wala pa rin kaming trabaho. Paano kami makakabayad kung ayaw kami pabalikin sa pagmamaneho?” Julius lamented.
[Translation: We already have a pile of unpaid bills for electricity, water, and other bills like home credit. We still have no jobs. How can we pay if they are not allowing us to drive?]
With the implementation of modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in Metro Manila, thousands of jeepney drivers had to stop operating. Now, he has accumulated a total of P37,000 debt. Jeepney drivers like Julius struggled to find other ways to survive, as there was (and as of this writing, still are) a delay in the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program.
Before the pandemic, Julius earned around P1200 to P1300 a day just enough for his family’s necessities and other expenses such as jeepney maintenance, fuel, and utilities.
However, the jeepney drivers’ nightmare did not start there. For almost three years, they have been fighting and protesting something bigger—the Jeepney Modernization Program. Julius, just like many other jeepney drivers, is against this program.
“Hindi ako sang-ayon sa modernization. Una, napakamahal para sa mahihirap na tsuper at operator ang isang unit na umaabot ng Php 2.6 milyon. Pangalawa, hindi ka makakakuha ng isang unit. Kailangang sampung unit ng jeep ang kunin mo para maging kasapi ka ng kooperatiba. Then, minimum na lang ang [kita ng] driver at ang operator. The rest, kay koop na. Ang maintenance din po ay sa operator.”
[Translation: I am not in favor of modernization. First, it is too expensive for us, drivers and operators to purchase a unit worth Php 2.6 million. Second, we can’t acquire a single unit. You have to obtain ten units of jeep to become part of the cooperative. Then, the driver and operator only earns minimum. Maintenance will also be shouldered by the operator.]
But the modernization program does not stand to reason even for drivers who were able to procure new, compliant two-million-peso jeeps after establishing cooperatives.
Dave Garcia, an engineer and consultant for the National Jeepney Federation for Environmental Sustainable Transport (NJFEST), said that he can name three jeepney cooperatives who not only successfully modernized but were even able to save a huge sum of money just in time to help drivers during the pandemic.
However, Garcia pointed out an important detail. He explained that these cooperatives only became successful in that regard because the drivers’ routes were highly profitable. He said that the program is only economically feasible for routes with strong passenger demand. Meanwhile, other routes which are not as profitable will not be able to pay the loans for the new jeeps.
“Hindi naman lahat ng routes [malaki] ang kita. So halimbawa, ‘yong Cubao-Pasig, ang passenger demand survey niyan napakalaki, ang daming pasahero. You cannot compare that with UP Ikot na kokonti lang. So how can UP Ikot afford a new modern jeepney that’s worth 2.2 million?” he said.
[Translation: Not all routes have huge profits. So for example, the passenger demand survey of Cubao-Pasig reveals a sizable number of commuters plying the route. You cannot compare that with UP Ikot, which has a smaller passenger demand.]
While the transport group PISTON (Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide) supports the modernization program and its goals of improving the air quality in the country, they still deemed that its implementation is anti-poor, as this will burden the drivers with the million-peso cost of replacing old units with the brand new model.
“Base sa aming estimate, mahigit 2.4 milyong Pilipino ang maaapektuhan ng programang ito. Kasama na rito ang ibang mga tao na umaasa sa jeep kagaya ng mga nagtatrabaho sa karinderya at talyer.”
[Translation: Based on our estimate, around 2.4 million Filipinos will be affected by this program. This number includes people who rely on the jeep such as those who work in the carinderia and mechanic shop.]
In addition, PISTON’s National President Mody Floranda mentioned that this issue will not only affect drivers and operators, but also the common people, who rely on their services.
“Hindi lamang ito laban ng mga operator at driver, laban din daw ito ng mga pangkaraniwang mamamayan na maapektuhan ng pagtaas ng pamasahe kahit hindi naman tumataas ang kita o sahod,” Floranda said in a phone interview.
[Translation: This fight is not just one for operators and drivers, but also for ordinary citizens who’ll be affected by fare increases even though their base salaries won’t increase.]
Even Bagtasa, who has studied air pollution in the metro for over a decade, is not in favor of the program. Although he is concerned about the pollution that jeepneys cause, he said that the drivers’ lives matter more.
“Ako personally,…ayoko ‘yong pollution ng jeepney pero looking at the [lives of the] drivers…I think for me ‘yon ‘yong mas mabigat na dahilan for the jeepneys to stay,” he said.
[Translation: For me, personally, I don’t like the pollution coming from the jeepneys. But looking at the lives of the drivers, I see that’s all the more reason for the jeepneys to stay.]
He also agreed that the program is not financially feasible for the drivers. According to him, not even middle class families can afford brand new, million-peso jeeps. He instead thinks that it’s worth it for the government to shoulder the modernization costs.
“Sa tingin ko worth na i-shoulder siya ng government kasi eventually ‘yung burden sa health care, mababawasan. ‘Yon ang argument doon. Plus, ‘yong another argument is hindi talaga siya affordable for the common jeepney driver,” he said.
[Translation: I think that it’s worth it for the government to shoulder the costs (of modernization) because it will reduce the burden on our health care system. That’s the argument. In addition, the modernization cost is simply not affordable for the common jeepney driver.]
Bagtasa said that there are other ways to mitigate emissions. One example is improving traffic. Bagtasa said that one of the things that he saw from a past study is that slower cars, jeepneys or otherwise, will have higher emissions. If traffic is improved, car emissions could be reduced.
“If a car is running say for example 60 km per hour, [then] compared to a car running at 5 km per hour, mas mataas actually ‘yong emission [dahil] mas mataas ‘yong gasolinang ginagamit nung sasakyan na 5 km per hour lang,” he explained.
[Translation: A car running at 5 km per hour will have higher emissions due to higher fuel consumption compared with a car running at 60 km per hour.]
But bad traffic is not only bad because it increases the fuel consumption of cars. Bad traffic also means longer exposure to pollution. “If you’re in a jeep or in a bus, tapos 5 km per hour lang ‘yong galaw ng lahat ng sasakyan, that means mataas na ‘yong emission, mas matagal ka pang exposed, right?” Bagtasa reasoned.
[Translation: If you’re in a jeep or in a bus and the vehicles are only moving at 5 km per hour, then not only will the emissions be higher but you’ll also be exposed to pollution for a longer time, right?]
Maintenance of engines can also reduce emissions. Dr. Mylene Cayetano, another air quality expert from UP Diliman, said that “the percentage of contribution of jeepneys to pollutants can be lowered (not necessarily at an acceptable level) if their engines are well-maintained and emissions reinforced.” But she added that “the same must be performed with the rest of the diesel-fed vehicles (SUVs, armored vehicles, buses, AUVs, trucks, etc.).”
For Garcia, the modernization program might have been feasible for all drivers, if only the government were better organized.
“May mga ruta na kaya niyang mag-amortize ng even double as if dalawa ‘yong binabayaran niya. Meron namang mga ruta na [kahit] isa, hindi naman niya kaya [magbayad],” he said.
[Translation: There are routes that can double their amortization as if paying for two routes. But there are also routes that cannot pay their own loans at all.]
So he suggested that the modernization program shouldn’t be implemented in a one-size-fits-all scheme. Instead, the program should have been focused on economically viable routes first, while the government could have studied the less profitable routes, noting the passenger demand and how much jeepney drivers can afford, and then provided more generous subsidies there.
“Halimbawa, UP Ikot, ang gagawin ko diyan, bababaan ko nang husto ‘yong interes, tapos longer term ang loan niya maski 15 years instead of 7 years. Pagkatapos noon, mas lalakihan ko ‘yong subsidy niya,” he said.
[Translation: Take UP Ikot for example. What I’d do there is I’ll lower the interest significantly and I’ll lengthen the amortization period even up to 15 years instead of just 7 years. After that, I’ll increase the subsidy.]
“Ayon nga po ang problema, sa ayuda nalang kami umaasa. Tapos tinigil pa ang pamimigay kaya gutom na. Sa ngayon, “limos online” ang ginagawa ko through GCash. Mayroon namang naawa pero kadalasan, wala na,” Julius said.
[Translation: That’s the real problem: We rely solely on the help coming from the government. And then distribution was also stopped, so right now we are going hungry. As of now, I am begging for help online through GCash. There are some people who pity us, but usually, no one does.]
The implementation of community quarantine guidelines in Metro Manila shows how the struggles of Julius and his fellow jeepney drivers are far from over. Whenever public transportation grinds to a halt due to such mandates, jeepney drivers have no alternative but to rely on government subsidies and donation drives to support their families. But these sources of income are far from sustainable.
The government continues to push for jeepney modernization today, emboldened by the convenient shutdown of all jeepney routes. While strikes and protests over the years have been met with affirmations that the jeepney drivers will be given a voice in the implementation, we have yet to see these promises come to fruition in the form of policy.
The harms of air pollution are legitimate, and jeepney modernization is just one of many initiatives that can lead to clearer skies and better health for our people. However, the economic stability of families relying on jeepneys for transportation and livelihood must be protected as well.
Groups like PISTON and the regional jeepney unions will continue to advocate for the right of their constituents to be valued in the government’s vision for progress. Compromises must be made that balance the necessary jeepney modernization and the inclusion of vulnerable stakeholders. Current plans should also be reevaluated for their financial feasibility in light of the pandemic lockdown with jeepney drivers, experts, and legislators in a productive dialogue. Variability in income between jeepney routes should also be addressed in future policy revisions.
Now, we must grapple with the idea that economic prosperity cannot be forsaken for environmental protection and vice versa. The preparation begins for a successful balancing act.
While most of us are not qualified to modify policies, we can still support our jeepney drivers by understanding their advocacies and donating through legitimate fundraisers. The following is a list of donation drives that send funds and care packages to jeepney drivers like Kuya Julius in their time of need.
Cover photo: Øyvind Holmstad/CC-BY-SA-4.0