Spacing correspondent Ian Malczewski is spending the summer interning with the Canadian Urban Institute in Iloilo City, the Philippines. Over the next few weeks he will share his observations of its public spaces.
Iloilo City, Philippines – During World War II, the Philippines was a battleground between Allied Forces and the Japanese, and many of the country’s cities still bear visible scars from this time. The capital city was essentially annihilated during the fierce Battle of Manila, and the devastation was such that the city lost nearly its entire stock of cultural and heritage landmarks, earning it the dubious title of the “Warsaw of Asia.” The ensuing redevelopment resulted in a sprawling placelessness that most urban thinkers would associate with suburbia, but positive legacies also emerged. Few of these legacies contribute more to the urban fabric of the Philippines than the jeepney.
At the end of the war, the Americans abandoned and sold their jeeps to the local population, who, desperate for public transportation, quickly adapted them to fit their needs. They gutted the jeeps to hold more passengers, outfitted them with flashy designs, and set them loose on the recovering cities. Now called jeepneys, they are a staple on Filipino streets, with new ones manufactured locally.
Jeepneys are formidable creatures. The ones in Manila are mean metal mothers with blinding chrome finishes, charging through the streets with a presence unmatched on North American roads. The jeepneys in Iloilo are no less impressive. You often hear them before you see them; recycled and refurbished diesel engines give jeepneys a roar that drowns out just about every other sound. Better still, some drivers crank their stereos, which can be either very good or very bad depending his taste. It’s a surreal experience to barrel along bumpy roads while listening to Guns ‘n Roses, watching passengers sing along word-for-word.
The design of the jeeps is probably their most endearing feature. Most have a name painted above their windshield that never fails to elicit a smile; I’ve ridden in the “Sweet Express,” the “Grace of God,” the “Rebel Active,” “Jojo,” and dozens of other creatively named vehicles. Some are mysteriously plastered with Canadian flags, and I’ve seen at least one “Vancouver Express,” though none referencing Toronto. As opposed to transit in Toronto, most jeeps here are free from private advertising, instead expressing individual flare while forming part of larger collective identity.
Though they have many features of public transit, jeepneys also bear similarities to taxis. You can flag a jeep down just about anywhere on its route, and you can ask to be let off anywhere convenient, too. Fares are paid by passing cash up to the driver, who counts it, distributes change, steers the jeep, shifts gears, and maintains text message conversations in what can only be described as an act of multi-tasking mastery. Sometimes drivers stop the vehicle in the middle of the road to buy smokes, or, as I witnessed during my first week, to get out of the jeep and pee on the closest available fence.
Despite their charm, jeepneys can be very frustrating for someone accustomed to the meticulously managed system in Toronto. Signs painted on the side of the jeep and taped to the inside of its front window give a general idea of its route, but this is sometimes little more than a guideline. The complete lack of any kind of route map or regularly spaced stops means that a ride on an unfamiliar route results in an unscripted adventure. Fortunately, the people are friendly enough to help out wandering visitors, so staying lost is usually not a problem. Given that the culture is much more laid back in Iloilo than it is in Toronto, this “inefficiency” is something I’ve come to enjoy: it’s hard to imagine an passionate debate emerging from a temporarily delayed ride.
Like most transit systems in the world, demand exceeds supply during peak hours. In the evening I’ve waited upwards of 45 minutes for a jeep with an available seat, only managing to get aboard by jumping on the back when driver slowed down. Holding on to the back of a moving vehicle is something we just don’t get to experience in Toronto — and for good reason — but despite the obvious safety risk, it’s incredible fun. Sometimes whole groups of high school kids will pile on to the back — even if the jeep has available seats — in a harmless public expression of teenage rebellion.
While they might not be the most efficient or environmentally friendly form of public transit, jeepneys are one of my favourite features of the cityscape in the Philippines. Despite the fact that I recently bought a bicycle to try and reduce the time of my evening commute, I still find myself wanting to grab on to the back of the Sweet Express and ride its hulking mass back home.