Jeepneys are a commuter's dream

Freedom can mean different and even opposite things. It can mean the freedom to emit muck into the air, for example, or the freedom to breathe clean air. In regard to transportation, it can mean the freedom to drive a car or the freedom that comes from not needing a car.

A beacon of that latter freedom is an unlikely place - the Philippines, a nation known mainly in the US these days for political melodrama and Muslim rebels. In the Philippines you can get virtually any place you need to go - from downtown Manila to the most remote rural barangay (village) - with little waiting and for very little money, without a car.

Not only that. The freedom of movement in the Philippines comes with a freedom of expression on the public roadways rarely experienced in the automobile-oriented US. This remarkable transportation system requires no high-tech gizmos, massive investment, or grandiose public or corporate schemes. To the contrary, it is based upon a home-grown vehicle that literally is made from spare parts. It is called a "Jeepney"; and with adaptation, it could be part of the answer to America's traffic congestion and bad air.

The story began with the military jeeps that US troops left behind in the Philippines after World War II. Some enterprising Filipino thought to extend the back and put in two rows of benches, as in troop transport vehicles. There were open slots for windows, and an open doorway in the rear so people could get in and out quickly. Other places had jitneys. The Philippines would have Jeepneys, a kind of stretch jeep that is omnipresent on the Philippine roads today.

Jeepneys run regular routes, like buses. They will take you just about anywhere for the equivalent of less than 50 cents. So pervasive and convenient is the Jeepney network that the Ford Foundation determined a while back that its grant officers in the Philippines didn't need cars. Jeepneys would do just fine - with the advantage that, unlike most American officials there, Ford Foundation employees actually would experience how ordinary Filipinos live.

The system has answers for many deficiencies of mass transit in the US. For one thing, there's little waiting. In and around cities, the flow of vehicles is continuous. It's rare to wait more than a few minutes. If comfort is an issue, you generally can find an upscale version - an air conditioned van - that will carry you for a higher price. The system is totally flexible. Need groceries after work? No problem. There's a supplementary fleet of motorbikes with enclosed sidecars - called "tricycles" - that will pick you up at the market and take you right to your door.

The versatility of the system is extraordinary. In rural areas, farmers toss sacks of rice on top of Jeepneys - or even inside - and take them to market. I saw tricycles loaded with rugs, cola, a heavy farm implement, and even, on a rural road, a couple of pigs (which I suspect were having their last tricycle experiences). Since Jeepneys and tricycles are made locally, they provide local jobs, and can be adapted to local conditions. They are built simply, so they are easy to repair.

Where American automobiles sit unused most of the day, the Jeepneys are in constant service. They carry 20 passengers or more instead of one or two. On top of all this, the Jeepneys are owned by individuals, so there is no question of government or corporate control. The benefits of Jeepneys and tricycles go beyond transportation, however. They also provide something else - creativity and free expression on the streets.

The US is supposed to be the world capital of free expression. Yet it is amazing how corporate and constricted our public roadways have become. Most of our cars are exactly as they came from the factory. Advertising covers trucks, buses, and billboards. Only an occasional bumper sticker gets a word in edgewise.

Jeepneys, by contrast, are exemplars of home-grown design. They range from sleek, streamlined models to "funkmobiles" with loud paint jobs and riotous hood ornamentation. Some appear to have been in service since General MacArthur left the island in 1945. Newer van-type models also are creeping in. But together they constitute a kind of folk art - and street poetry as well.

In place of corporate logos, they sport names the way boats do. Some honor wives and children. Some profess religious devotion ("God Is Good," "Walk with Christ"), while others attest the prowess of the driver ("Sensitive," "Romantic").

It is strange, as an American, to have to travel halfway around the world, to a nation usually dismissed as "underdeveloped," to find such a developed capacity for free expression. Jeepneys couldn't be transplanted whole to the US, of course. They'd need more headroom for passengers and better protection from weather, for example. The emissions would have to be reduced. To keep traffic flowing, we'd need to establish regular stops, at least in urban areas. (In the Philippines the Jeepneys stop anywhere.) But as a concept for mass transit and a feeder for rail lines, the Jeepneys system would be hard to beat. As for mobility, I rarely have felt so free.

• Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.

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