At the end of WWII, with public transport virtually nonexistent, the U.S. Army released surplus jeeps, and enterprising Filipinos converted them into passenger vehicles called Jeepney by lengthening the bodies. Garishly colored jeepneys are as essential and ubiquitous in the Philippines as double-decker buses are in London. The jeepney gets you everywhere you want to go. Etymologically speaking, jeepney combines jeep with jitney to offer low-cost, high-pollution public transit.
What began as the sensible recycling of U.S. Army surplus jeeps, the Jeepneys have grown into a form of traveling pop art. No self-respecting jeepney driver would allow his beloved vehicle to crawl naked through the streets of Manila. A full dressing up is of utmost importance. The chrome bodies, either buffed to a shine or painted in vibrant colors, exhibit a wealth of brazen embellishments: from small silver horses (thick horsepower) on their hoods to non-functional antennae festooned with plastic streamers, myriad mirrors, hand-painted side panels, and humorous or pious sayings. Inside, there’s usually a picture of Jesus, or a statue of the Virgin Mary above the dashboard occupying a place of importance, next to the sign imploring “God Bless our Trip.” Depending on the driver, a strand of sweet-smelling sampaguita flowers or rosary beads may hang from the rear-view mirror. Religious slogans and graffiti decorate the exterior, but, almost surprisingly, jeepneys have yet to become popular as billboards for anything beyond their owners’ whimsy.
Each one, without fail, lists its destination (and sometimes the route) on the vehicle’s front and side. Cities are divided into zones, with set fares according to how many zones are passed through. For all intents and purposes, there are no rules dictating where the driver can and cannot stop. Tying up traffic in the middle of the road to pick up passengers is a simple fact of life.
Jeepneys stop anywhere to pick up and discharge passengers. Hail a jeepney by flagging one as it passes. Often, they merely slow down, so you must be nimble. Payment is made at any time before you get off and is on the honor system: passengers pay directly or pass money forward to the driver, who simultaneously steers and sorts change. Knock on the roof or say “para” when you want to get off.
The back of the jeepney – almost invariably open-air – extends longer than a normal jeep, with a row of padded seats on each side. Passengers crowd into the tight space, knees knocking, hanging their bags on special hooks and readying handkerchiefs to shield nose and mouth from the ever-present diesel fumes. Outside, the jeepney’s sleek rear end offers a glistening series of handrails and supports for those who prefer to take their chances standing up. Such accoutrements are also necessary when the driver decides not to stop while picking up a passenger, and he must literally jump aboard.
Today, these decorated vehicles are scattered throughout the country, about half of them in Metro Manila. Jeepneys are used for both urban transport and medium distances on some of the rougher country roads. In provincial towns, they load near the marketplace, leaving when full. Within cities, jeepneys follow established routes along major thoroughfares.
Ever since the supply of surplus army jeeps ran out, the ingenious Filipinos began making their own jeepneys from scratch. Sarao in Cavite has become the most common manufacturer. The metal body is hammered into shape as a labor of love, so no two vehicles ever look the same. Workers carefully pad seats with coconut husks, while others prepare motors. Willis Jeep in Detroit initially supplied the engines, but after costs rocketed in the 1970s, Sarao had to look elsewhere. Today, secondhand, reconditioned Japanese motors keep jeepneys plying the streets.
New vehicles in the provinces are now often the plain, functional Tamaraw, also manufactured domestically. Jeepneys have two passenger seats next to the drivers and two rows of inward-facing seats behind. These officially hold ten passengers, but in practice are crammed in full, especially on rural routes. The rear section is not built for sightseeing, so try to get a front seat.
For anyone considering a ride, note that jeepneys depart not when full, but when completely overloaded. Ride one if you dare.
Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes
Insight Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel