A Push To Modernize Philippine Transport Threatens The Beloved Jeepney : Parallels The colorful, crowded vehicles are a cheap and popular form of public transport. But they also pollute the air. Jeepney drivers have been pushing back against government plans to phase them out.

A Push To Modernize Philippine Transport Threatens The Beloved Jeepney

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Earlier this week, jeepney drivers in the Philippine capital of Manila went on strike. Now, jeepneys are these big, colorful buslike vehicles that have become synonymous with daily life in the Philippines. They are the main mode of public transit in the country - for now. A government plan to clean up the roadways and the air is threatening to take this cultural icon off the road. NPR's Ashley Westerman was recently in Manila, and she filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: There's an art to riding a jeepney. First, you got to know where you're going. Jeepneys have their designated routes painted on their sides.

I'm going up to my friend Sunshine's house. It's little less than a mile.

Jeepneys aren't hard to spot. They're often painted with bright colors and adorned with flashy ornaments. Many have names painted in big, elaborate font. Once you flag one down...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

WESTERMAN: Hopping in.

Sometimes the driver stops. Sometimes they slow down just enough to let you hop into the back. Take a seat on either of the two benches running along the inside, and then pay by passing your money up the row of people to the driver.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS CLINKING)

WESTERMAN: Getting off can be a little tricky. You rap the roof of the jeepney with your fist or a coin so the driver knows to slow down and let you out. It's a process, but Filipinos have been doing it for decades. The first jeepneys were cobbled together from jeeps left behind by American troops after World War II. Today, they're all built in factories but continue to have poor emissions. That's why the government plans to take all jeepneys 15 years or older off the road and replace them with a more eco-friendly version.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS CLINKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Yelling in foreign language).

WESTERMAN: But critics of that plan say it doesn't consider almost everyone affected by it. In Metro Manila alone, there are some 75,000 franchised jeepneys on the road. And they're cheap. Rides are only 8 Filipino pesos - about 16 cents. So it's a popular option over the light rail or cabs across income levels, especially for the poor. And with millions still living below the poverty line, that's important.

What's your name?

RAFFY SOLONGON: Raffy.

WESTERMAN: How do you spell that?

Raffy Solongon is 47 years old. He's been driving a jeepney for 15 of those. His is called Good Luck. A rosary hangs from his rearview mirror, and a figurine of the Virgin Mary is glued on the dash. But Solongon only makes about 500 pesos a day - about $10. He says he can't afford the new jeepney model the government wants him to buy.

SOLONGON: It's very crazy. 1.6 million for one Jeep - I don't know.

WESTERMAN: You can't afford it?

SOLONGON: Yeah.

WESTERMAN: 1.6 million pesos - that's a little over 30,000 U.S. dollars. President Rodrigo Duterte's administration has rebuffed criticisms that the plan is anti-poor and claims the goal is not to phase out the jeepneys but make them more efficient and profitable. Riders seem split on the issue. Cath Volentino rides a jeepney to work every day.

CATH VOLENTINO: The government is quite right that people need to have a better ride. But how about those jeepney drivers that can't afford to have a new jeepney?

WESTERMAN: Jose Gamo says the government's plan could lead to chaos for commuters.

JOSE GAMO: Because if you phase out everything, there won't be enough new jeeps immediately. So it needs better planning for transition.

WESTERMAN: Gamo says he's been riding in jeepneys since he was very young.

You've been riding jeepneys your whole life.

GAMO: Yes.

WESTERMAN: Can you imagine a Manila without jeepneys?

GAMO: Not really. It's going to be incredibly hard to get around anywhere.

WESTERMAN: The government wants all old jeepneys off the road by 2020. Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "RULES")

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