What the Heck is a Jeepney?

That’s easy. A jeepney is a portmanteau. Not clear enough? Okay then, a portmanteau is a word combining the meaning and sound of two words like, for instance, smog is smoke and fog joined together. Jeepney is a joinder of the U.S. Army Jeep and the jitney, a slang term for a taxicab. Some people have suggested the “ney” part of the term was created to recognize the knee to knee jamming of passengers together in the restricted space of the unique Jeepney. But no one knows for sure.

The jeepney was first created out of the wreckage of World War II. There was a need for cheap transportation as the Philippines recovered from the conflict. Some creative genius came up with the idea of lengthening the chassis of a jeep in order to accommodate and eradicate the bus shortage in the country.

Besides the lengthening of the vehicles, metal roofs were added to protect the 15 to 20 passengers from the great heat of the islands, and long parallel benches with passengers facing each other across the narrow aisle. Often, access to the vehicle as well as departure were from the rear of the passenger compartment.

The Philippine government adopted regulations for routes, special drivers licenses and rates. The law also allowed for privately owned and operated jeepneys identified by their license. Now, so many years after World War II, the jeepneys are mostly adaptations of Japanese built vehicles, the war surplus vehicles having pretty much disappeared. The Philippine government, after considerable controversy, has adopted a computerized payment system for use of each jeepney. The card system, created by Panta transportation, has been called “the future of transportation in the Philippines.”

However, the vehicles are very inefficient and many jeepney companies have gone out of business. A 16-passenger jeepney has been shown to consume as much fuel as a 54-passenger bus and is threatened by pollution controls.

You’ll know a jeepney when you see it. They’re generally open, and the entire visible surface of the vehicle is covered with spectacularly colorful painting and decorations, some of which describe the routes and stops it will make. The people generally regard the drivers as goodhearted and considerate. If a passenger pounds on the ceiling and calls out “stop,” the driver will come to a halt right where he is, even if it’s the middle of traffic and not specifically authorized by government regulation. The driver will follow the government designated route and stop at designated points, but there’s still obedience to the individual passenger’s demand. Thus, there can be no schedule other than the one set by each passenger for themself, allowing for the disruption caused by the other passengers as well.

If a passenger wants to go from the start of a route to some intermediate point before the end, he’d better check that his intended destination is on the route of the jeepney he’s on. One Jeepney might go to this destination while another from the same starting and ending place might not include his planned destination.

Some of the jeepney drivers are assisted by “barkers” who call out the vehicle’s routes and destinations for passengers and let the driver know to take off when his vehicle is full. The barkers are funded by tips. It’s common for passengers in a fully jammed vehicle to assist the transfer of funds from person to person and on to the driver. As a result, the driver finds himself often having to multitask, keeping track of required payments while also keeping his eyes on traffic. A passenger can make payment any time during the ride since he may be departing at any point on the route.

The oddities in the unique jeepney culture have led to some classic Philippine humor. For example, the jeepney driver is stopped in a no-stopping zone. The City Traffic Operations Management representative asks him: “Did you see the sign that said no stops?”

“Yes sir, I did see the sign.”

“Then, why didn’t you stop?”

“I saw the sign. I just didn’t see you.”

The jeepney, besides being a portmanteau, is also a fundamental feature of the Philippine society, and no one could be expected to understand it unless they visit the Philippines.

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