Transportation in the Philippines

Jeepneys in Baguio
Jeepneys in Baguio
Perhaps the most unique thing about the Philippines is the transportation system. With the exception of a short light rail line in Manila, there is zero public transportation in the Philippines. Well, they call it public transportation, but the ‘public’ refers to who the service is aimed at not ownership like in the US.

The thing which makes Filipino transportation unique, and the hardest thing to figure out, are the jeepneys. Jeeneys are small, privately owned buses. They got their name because they were originally made out of Jeeps left by the Americans after WWII. Filipinos took the jeeps, extended the back ends and used them to ferry people around.

I wont claim to be an expert in the art of taking a Jeepney. Most of the jeepneys appear to run particular routes between preset locations which are written on the side of the vehicle. My problem was I didn’t know what or where the places listed were, so it was sort of hard to know what jeepney to get on or when it would be leaving.

Jeepneys fill the role that intercity buses or subways would fit in the US. The difference is that there are a LOT more jeepneys than buses and they are used by a larger percentage of the population. Unlike the American taxis, jeepneys do not appear to be artificially limited by regulation. For example, in New York City, to own a taxi you have to have a taxi medallion which is purchased via auction. The number of medallions is set by the city and is artificially kept low. It is basic supply and demand. If you artificially reduce the supply, the price will increase. The number of taxi medallions in New York today is actually lower than what it was in 1937 (by 1,200 or about 10%). The cost of a medallion today is over $200,000 in an auction. The cost gets passed on to New Yorkers in the form of higher transportation fares.

Jeepneys are the most popular and distinctive form of transportation in the Philippines
Jeepneys are the most popular and distinctive form of transportation in the Philippines
The cost of a trip on a jeepney is 7 pesos. (less than $0.25) and there is no real barrier to entry if you want to drive a jeepney. There are some rules. You have to register and drive a regular route and have a special drivers license. However the supply of jeepneys are not restricted. Hence, there are a lot of them and they provide low cost transportation. (I should also note that jeepneys are very dirty. Almost all the ones I saw belched black smoke. I don’t think there are any regulations regarding emissions in the Philippines.)

While jeepneys aren’t luxury vehicles, their owners take a great deal of pride. Because of my lack of knowledge about Manila, I didn’t take any jeepneys there, but I did manage to take a look inside of several and talk to a few drivers while walking around the city. Some have small televisions installed in the back for riders. Almost all are decked out with some sort of elaborate painting and are named. Most names tend to have a religious theme or are named after women.

The customization can get really elaborate. REALLY elaborate. The closest thing I can think of are lowriders. You will see all sorts of lights, hood ornaments, paint jobs, chrome finishes and other doodads on jeepneys.

Between cities, you usually have to take a bus. It took me a while to figure out the bus system, but eventually I did and it wasn’t that hard. The buses, like the jeepneys are privately owned. Unlike the jeepneys, they tend to be owned by companies who run a fleet rather than owner operated buses.  All the buses I road on (and I probably spent close to 24 hours on Filipino buses) were older and I noticed that none had a working spedometer. That really didn’t matter because it would be next to impossible to go very fast on Filipino roads.

Please note the monster truck 4x4 morphing into a flaming cheetah on the side
Please note the monster truck 4x4 morphing into a flaming cheetah on the side
The buses were also cheap. I could take an 8 hour bus trip for about $6-7. An equivalent trip in the US would probably cost 5-10x that amount depending on the route.

Taking a Filipino bus is different in several ways from taking a Greyhound. For starters, there is a conductor who rides on the bus in addition to the driver. The bus will stop and pick up passengers at any point on the road. People get on and then pay the conductor who issues the ticket as the bus is moving. Also, the bus will sometimes stop and pick up mail. People will give a package to the conductor or driver with about 20 pesos. Someone will have to be waiting for the bus, pull it over and show ID to get the package.

Every so often you would see private bus stations along the side of the road. They would often have restrooms you had to pay for. (One restroom I saw charged you on the basis of what you did. 1 peso for number 1, 2 pesos for going number 2). The bus stops seemed to have cut deals with certain bus lines as you would only see certain companies at certain bus stops. They would sell actual cooked meals in addition to a limited selection of snacks.

What was really unique were the bus vendors. Every so often, in cities or at intersections, the bus would open the doors and let food vendors in the bus. They would walk up and down the isle for few minutes and get dropped off a few miles down the road, where they would get on another bus going the other way. The most popular thing to sell were chicharon, or pork rinds. The vendors would have a giant plasitic bag of smaller bags of pork rinds. I also saw vendors selling a wide variety of foods, including hamburgers, fried chicken, sandwiches, peanuts, and some things I had no clue what it was because I didn’t speak tagalog and I couldn’t see inside the package.

The political sytem is the Philippines is pretty much a disaster (more on that later). Rather than suffer a lack of publicly funded transportation, the people of the Philippines have created a system which is affordable, works, and is run by themselves. I developed an odd sort of affinty for it, which is one of the reasons I bothered to write this.

…that and I wanted an excuse to post photos of tricked out jeepneys.