Jeepneys parade down a Manila street. Erik De Castro/Reuters

The Philippines wants its “jeepney” buses to go from diesel to electric. Critics say business practices must change, too.

There’s a type of vehicle so quintessentially Filipino that it’s even referenced in a chart-topping 1970s pop song about an expat feeling homesick for Manila. These flamboyantly decorated “jeepneys”—which are only found in the Philippinesemerged after World War II, when Filipinos transformed the jeeps the U.S. Army left behind into a means of public transport. By extending a jeep’s frame and adding a tin roof and steps leading to seats, it became more like a bus.

Today, 80 percent of people in Manila use public transport, and at least half of their daily rides are in jeepneys, says the transportation and urban planning expert Benjamin de la Peña.

The jeepney is a cultural icon, but it’s often criticized for being a heavy polluter. The vehicles run on diesel; given their popularity as a mode of transport, government officials have cited them as major contributors to Manila’s air pollution.

As a result, the government, non-profits, and entrepreneurs have been creating models that run on electric engines, dubbed e-jeepneys. Earlier this month, a Filipino transport group announced that 10,000 e-jeepneys will be on the country’s roads over the next three years, with 1,000 in Manila and the rest elsewhere.

This all sounds well and good. However, says de la Peña, changing the jeepneys’ engines doesn’t touch the larger problem of disorganized public transportation and horrific traffic. This is especially true for Manila, which was voted the worst city to drive in by Waze users last year.

Rene Santiago, a transportation specialist in Manila, echoes de le Peña. “Mere replacement of a high-carbon vehicle with a low-carbon one will not change the traffic dynamic,” he says. “We also have to replace the business operating model of jeepneys.”

Inaugural models of e-jeepneys drive through Manila. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

Drivers pay to operate a jeepney under a “boundary system,” in which they give a certain amount of their earnings to the vehicle’s owner every day. They get to keep anything over that sum. To make a living, “the driver drives as fast as possible, picks up as many passengers as possible, and cuts through lanes and intersections to get ahead of everyone else,” says de la Peña.

Caring for the vehicles also takes a backseat to profits in such a model. “Forget about testing for emissions,” says de la Peña. The only time the driver or owner stops business is if there’s a major breakdown.

While electric engines can help solve the pollution problem, the larger public transport and traffic issues remain. De la Peña advocates for a new arrangement in which the government would pay drivers to run a jeepney so that income is not dependent on fares. Under this scheme, the government would implement fare collection through a cashless and electronic system. “Drivers would then behave very differently,” he says.

Though it will be extremely difficult to change the entrenched jeepney system, de la Peña believes it’s possible. “But we have to think of public transportation and jeepneys systematically to really address their effect on traffic and to improve mobility and access,” he says. “What we have now is analysis that’s too narrow in scope.”

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