by Daniel Wagner*
Arriving at the airport in Manila, my first choice of transportation to go to the hotel (which was carefully chosen in a central neighborhood close to the airport) was a public one. One of the greatest metropolis of the world with about 11.5 million people, Manila has two rail way systems, Metro Rail Transit (MTR) and Light Rail Transit (LTR). None of them reaches the international airport. Like the majority of the big cities in the so called “global south”, integration of the public transportation system is a problem. So, since there are no buses, I would have to take a jeepney (local private transports) to the first train station – a LTR, change to a MTR line, and after a few stations take another jeepney to the hotel. Conclusion, I took a taxi.
During the short trip to the hotel, the driver didn’t stop complaining about traffic jams, stating that this was the number one problem in Manila. Ok, it’s logic that traffic is a major concern for a cab driver, but he said that while telling me not to use my cell phone inside the car because people could break the window to try to get my phone, and that, this happens at least once every month. I wondered why this was not ranked as a bigger problem than the traffic jams.
Two days later I flew to Davao City in the south of Philippines. I’ve been assigned to stay a month and a half here learning from, and helping the Homeless People Federation of the Philippines Inc. – HPFPI, and it’s from Davao that I will be writing some impressions about the Philippines, in a weekly basis.
Davao is the third most populated urban area in the country with about 1,5 million inhabitants, and like in Manila, transportation is mainly, almost exclusively done by jeepneys.
Jeepneys are privately owned and operated. What began as an informal activity is now embraced by authorities as the regular and official transportation system in the country. Anyone with a driver’s license can have a jeepney and choose what route to make. “Back in the 90’s there were buses going to my neighborhood, now there are only jeepneys” says Andrea Montante, a dweller of a distant district in the 90’s, now a neighborhood swallowed by the city sprawl. Public buses now operate only to other provinces as intra-municipal transport. In fact, jeepneys are a very efficient way of transportation, and the ride is quite cheap, even for local standards. As it is also an employment strategy to many otherwise unemployed Filipinos, there is an abundant supply. Furthermore, as it is an activity extremely decentralized to an individual level, there are routes that meet every need, wherever there is a decent concentration of population there will be jeepneys.
Regulation is minimal, in the sense that you only have to pay an annual fee to be allowed to have a jeepney, and a fee to the route you choose to operate. There is no quality or security control. And of course there are many unlicensed cars and jeeps doing the same service. The important point here is that, like many other informal activities, having a jeepney is a pro-active way to generate income. Since formal employment is scarce in the Philippines, this solution became quickly very popular. So popular that it came a time when authorities gave up trying to prohibit or compete with the jeepneys using official public buses and are now just trying to regulate and tax. In the other hand, the impact of this system in the public space is still up for grabs. If there is no quality control of the cars, there are also no transit rules, speed limits, formalized stops, or anything at the kind.
Urbanization in the Philippines is still growing in a high rate. It is historically a rural country, but now about half of the population lives in urban areas. Cities are growing fast, only Davao increased its population by 7% in three years. As a consequence, distances became larger. The jeepney only operates in larger avenues and highways, so for shorter routes, the Filipino solution is the tricycle. People in Davao don’t walk much, even short distances, for several reasons. Walking is difficult by lacking of proper sidewalks, and the scalding sun makes it really uncomfortable. Even more affordable than the jeepneys, the tricycles are also everywhere providing transportation within the neighborhoods. People take tricycles to go as far as two blocks sometimes. Also as an important income generator possibility, there is also a great supply waiting in every corner.
It is not unusual in Davao that a daily commute gather three different steps of transports. The first tricycle from inside the neighborhood to the nearest jeepney route; the jeepney itself; and another tricycle to the final destination. And this whole system functions in a very efficient way since the abundance of supply reduces wanting time to a minimal and the decentralization of the operation provides a wide varieties of different routes.
Daniel Wanger is an architect spending six weeks in the Philippines. He is a participant of the International Masters Programme in Urban Management, at the Technical University in Berlin