And gears grind on…

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

YOU couldn’t think of a more iconic part of Philippine streets than the jeepney. Since the Second World War, it has become a testament of the Filipino’s resilience and resourcefulness.

We couldn’t possibly imagine our major thoroughfares empty of these smoke-belching, rusty, and utterly unsanitary machines. If anything, they have come to define the common tao – those who suffer long daily commutes inside metal cans where temperatures could exceed what’s humanly tolerable.

But we don’t mind enduring the smell of morning sweat and lethal smog, so long as we make the journey to the places where we grind for our daily pesos.

The jeepney is the very symbol of the Filipino struggling to put food on the table and trying to make sense of the situation he finds himself in. Having dominated the streets as the most accessible means of public transport, the jeepney is both praised and admonished for being a cultural icon and for being an outdated nuisance whose usefulness is lost in this generation where modern tools prevail.

But taking a step back, we see the jeepney as nothing more than a storybook highlighting the struggles of the person behind the wheel. So, if we were to talk about the jeepney, we should also talk about the driver and how he struggles to provide for his family and how he helps other people get home to theirs.

Jeepney drivers find themselves at the forefront in grinding the gears that push Philippine society forward. And yet, they have somehow been reduced into nothing more than extensions of the machines they operate.

To prove my point, the recent transport strike has raised the eyebrows of people who see this act of solidarity as an unnecessary moment. Protest achieves little to nothing and the striking drivers would have been better off not striking at all.

People didn’t take too kindly to the idea that jeepney drivers should be given enough say in the decisions that could affect their way of life. The Jeepney Modernization Program, for all the controversy it has culled, intends to replace outdated jeepneys with environmentally-friendly ones that have a larger seating capacity and offer better comfort for commuters.

Transport groups, however, panned the program. Despite a P1.2 billion government subsidy, operators will need to invest at least P1.2 million for each jeepney they replace. Older models only cost P800,000. If the program gets underway, drivers and small-scale operators will take much of the financial brunt. The cost for replacement jeepneys will also be carried over to commuters who will have to deal with higher transport fares, which is still not enough to cover the initial replacement costs.

The supporters of the program see this as a way forward for the transport sector which has long suffered the ordeals of heavy traffic and pollution. These problems will need to be resolved and upgrading of jeepneys has to be implemented right away.

The intentions are clear. Eventually, progress has to be prioritized and those who are against any form of drastic change is the enemy of progress. The drivers who participated in the strike were lambasted for being selfish and reactionary. Worse, they were branded for being left-wing, which is typical of people who connect the act of protesting with “red” movements.

The government, for its part, announced a transport holiday that was intended to offset the effects of the strike. It cancelled classes and work in government offices. The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board in Region 6 has also threatened to cancel the franchises of operators who took part in the strike. Then again, these actions only prove how the transport sector is able to paralyze society and show how it has become an essential part of daily life.

Despite all this, however, the struggle for a better future for the transport sector continues. The gears will continue to grind for better solutions to this essential feature of Filipino culture.