Dispatch from Manila 2: Jeepneys

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April 6, 2006
OnTheCommons.org

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One thing I agree with Cato-style libertarians on — up to a point — is jitneys. Public transit that uses small vans, individually owned, really can be flexible and do things centralized urban systems can’t. A case in point is the Philippines, where a jitney offshoot called the jeepney (I’ll explain in a minute) is the main means of transportation. The things go everywhere, from downtown Manila to remote farm areas. And at all hours. This morning at 3:00 AM, my wife, son and I, temporally disoriented and tossing in the heat, took a walk out to the road. Jeepneys were going by, along with big trucks, the drivers of which apparently have the sense not to try to make it into the city during the day.

Where jeepneys don’t go, a mosquito fleet of motorbikes with sidecars — called “tricycles” here — does. Tricycles literally swarm at food markets and just about anywhere people might need a ride. They solve two problems that bedevil mass transit in the U.S. One, they are an answer for people who need to stop for groceries etc. on the way home. Two, they can carry people who live too far from the jeepney routes to walk, or else just don’t want to walk in the heat. (Did I mention that it is hot here?)

About the jeepneys. When the American forces departed from the Philippines at the end of WWII, they left behind a large number of MacArthur jeeps. This is a nation that survives on scrap; and someone had the idea of extending the rear and covering it, and using the resulting vehicle to carry people around. Thus was born the jeepney, a stretch jeep that is not just a transport staple, but an art form as well. Jeepneys are constructed here from used vehicle chassis from Japan. It is a truly local vehicle, adapted to local conditions. They are built like tanks for example, which if you have ever seen the traffic here will not be surprising.

The creativity does not stop at the factory or shop. Individual owners add their own touches. Some paint bold designs that call to mind the best graffitti artists. Most jeepneys have names, hand painted where in the US the route name would be. Before I came to this internet shop I stood for a minute and wrote down the names on jeepneys that went by. U.S.S Lexington, Mermaids, Guam, BG Express, Neries, Gift of God. That was about one minute. Life stories are suggested there. Religiosity and lady friends are frequent themes. On my last trip I saw one called 3 Brothers and then, a few minutes later 3 Sisters.

The latter made me think of the lox mecca on East Houston Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side called Russ and Daughters, and its gentle blow for gender equity. The most improbable from the last visit were two — two — named Journalist.

The effect is to give the clogged and sweltering roads a touch of folk art festival. It made me realize how up tight we Americans are, and trapped in the aesthetics that corporations give us. Most of us wouldn’t think of tampering with the work of the stylists in Tokyo, or wherever. Why not? And need I add that this folk art has flourished precisely because no one owns the design for a jeepney, or the idea for a jeepney, or the idea of painting the name up above the windshield? In America we can’t take such freedoms for granted any more.

Jeepney culture has evolved its own rituals of cooperation among riders. The rear consists of two rows of benches. The back is open, as are the openings on the side where glass normally would be. (Did I mention that it is hot?) As riders get on people slide towards the front unbidden. This is unlike American subways and buses where people cluster near the door and often ignore pleas to make space. The Japanese have nothing on Filipinos when it comes to squeezing into tight spaces.

Payment of fare is somewhat on the honor system. As people get on they pass their money forward. It goes hand to hand as in a bucket brigade. The driver makes change with one hand and sends any change back the same way. His eyes are on the road. He doesn’t really know who’s paid. The eyes of fellow passengers seem to take care of that. In rural areas, the driver stops if a passenger needs to chat with someone who is by the dirt road as we pass. I’ve seen jeepneys serve as a kind of impromptu rural UPS, for no payment that I could see.

This is what can happen when people are not entirely in the thrall of market thinking. It is an unintended consequence for some Cato libertarians, I suspect, and a wonderful one.

But then, the jeepney system is not a total libertarian fantasy to begin with. Routes are assigned by a government authority, as are fares. It really couldn’t be any other way, not if the goal is to enable people can get to where they need to go. And much as I love jeepneys, they cannot do the job alone, at least not in a major city such as Manila. When you have millions of people packed together as they are here, even jeepneys can cause horrendous traffic. That’s especially so when most of the roads have two-lanes to begin with, with people darting across and tricycles weaving in and out. The jeepneys stop wherever riders want, and the effect is like being stuck behind a legion of New York City cabs that keep stopping to pick up passengers and let them off again.

Yes, you could use eminent domain to bulldoze all the businesses that line the roads, and create more lanes. But where would the money come from? Where would those businesses go? Given the rate at which the population here is growing — it’s going to double in I think the next fifty years or less — those four lanes soon wouldn’t be enough, and you’d have to do it all over again. What I’m saying is, the ideology of the individual will get you only so far. Sometimes you need central institutions to do what individuals can’t, such as build a real transit system (which jeepneys and tricylces could supplement.)

Look at it this way, Filipinos have a legendary ability to conjure civility out of poverty and dust. In the squatter colonies that sprawl in seeming endless profusion around Manila, you see the laundry hanging out in the morning, white tee shirts gleaming in the sun. That individual cleanliness is heroic. But it cannot clean the rancid air, nor gather the trash that is an inevitable outgrowth of an urban society and that people often now burn, making the rancid air worse. Individual virtue is necessary. It is not always sufficient.

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