Time for a new King of the Road

Time for a new King of the Road

- in Opinion
@Jon Joaquin

When I was growing up in Tugatog, Malabon, a common means of transport was the karetela, horse-drawn carriages that ferried residents from the market in Sangandaan to their homes in what used to be the nearby suburbs (these communities are now too crowded and busy to still be called suburbs). It was fun riding these vehicles as they moved relatively quietly through the streets, the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves punctuated by the clicking sounds made by the kutseros to speed them up.

The karetelas in our place never really moved fast, but it’s worth noting that the word kaskasero (a driver who likes to drive fast) comes from kaskas, which literally means “gallop.” You see, there was time when the karetelas (or kalesas as they were know elsewhere in Manila) were the King of the Road, and the kutseros would drive through the roads in speeds that probably felt like the wind. But by the time I was born they were a mere shadow of their old selves since the title “King of the Road” had already been seized by the bigger and faster jeepney (Most jeepneys, however, still tip their hats to the karetela by featuring metal horses on their hoods).

That is the way things always go. Something better always comes along to replace the old, and those who refuse to change are fools. And now, just as the karetela gave way to the jeepney, so must the jeepney give way to whatever is better than it. That is the purpose of the government’s public utility vehicle (PUV) modernization program, which aims to replace the current crop of jeepneys with safer and more environment-friendly vehicles.

I think most Filipinos agree that the jeepneys need to be upgraded. Many of these vehicles are old and fuel-inefficient, giving off black smoke and making loud noises as they ply their routes. Even the newer ones need to be replaced because they are still based on a design that is unsafe for passengers: the entrance/exit is placed at the rear of the vehicle, forcing passengers to step on the road and be exposed to the danger of being hit by oncoming vehicles each time they board or disembark.

Under the modernization program, jeepneys would be replaced by units that are powered with Euro 4 engines (those that filter out more pollutants) or with electrically-powered engines with solar panels for roofs. They would also be equipped with safety features such as a speed limiter, closed-circuit television camera (CCTV), GPS, and dashboard camera. Automated fare collection systems will also be installed, making them compatible with the current payment system being implemented in the Metro and Light Rail Transit (MRT and LRT) train lines.

Another feature of the modernization program is the standardization of the salaries of the drivers. Currently, drivers take home only what’s left of the money they earn after paying boundary (or rent for the use of the jeepney which typically belongs to the operator), fuel, and other expenses. This has resulted in drivers scrambling and fighting for passengers, stopping even in the middle of the road to load passengers. This is one of the main causes of the traffic jams that plague Metro Manila’s roads, and government aims to solve it by giving a standard rate to drivers so they are always sure of their income and so would not need to fight for passengers.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Most people believe so, but one can also understand the apprehensions felt by the jeepney drivers and operators. The new jeepneys cost more than a million pesos each, and many of them fear they cannot afford to buy them. They also accuse government of favoring big business since only those with a lot of money can afford the upgrade. Last month members of a large association of jeepney drivers and operators staged a two-day nationwide transport strike to air their protest, but unfortunately all they accomplished was to show how nice our roads would be without the outdated jeepneys.

I think this calls for all of us to be utilitarian and observe the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is true that thousands of drivers will be affected by the upgrade, but millions more will benefit by having a modern fleet of vehicles that address their needs safely, efficiently, and without damaging the environment. The karetela was the King of the Road before it was replaced by the jeepney. Imagine if people then had refused to upgrade.

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