Jeepney Etiquette 101
People in metropolitan areas all over the world have love/hate relationships with their local public transportation systems. If it’s rickshaws in Shanghai, the tube in London, tuk tuks in Phnom Penh or the iconic Checker cabs in New York, over generations they have worked their way into the hearts and blood pressures of the local people, have become a part of the cities’ cultural identity and are therefore difficult to dislodge from their dominant or traditional position of moving people around town. The Jeepnies of Manila are no different. They are so much a part of Philippine contemporary culture and identity, the country even decided to display a Jeepney at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
Made originally from parts of American jeeps that were left behind in the Philippines after the Second World War, Jeepnies have long bodies with metal roofs, two benches for passenger seating and lots of colour and chrome hood ornaments. They roam the streets of Manila in a seemingly disorganized fashion, proudly displaying the religious and ornamental preferences of their owners while holding up traffic and polluting the air. A recent study shows that the average Jeepney uses as much fuel transporting 16 passengers as an air-conditioned bus with 54 passengers. Needless to say, the thousands of Jeepnies on Manila streets are very much under scrutiny.
As is the case all over the world, foreigners first have to learn the culture and etiquette of public transport to avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding – or simply to avoid ending up at the wrong destination. Are you ready for Jeepney 101? First you find the correct Jeepney by checking the destinations painted under the windshield. You enter and exit a Jeepney through the back door and pay your fare by asking your fellow passengers to pass your cash to the driver in the front. When you want to get off, shout “para” or just tap the ceiling with a coin or your knuckles. The driver will stop, even if it is in the middle of the road, holding up traffic in the process. Jeepnies are crowded most of the time. Show elders and women respect and offer them a seat first. You can always practice “sabit” (Tagalog for “to hang on with your fingertips”) by clinging to the back of the Jeepney. Kids sit on laps, loud flamboyant behaviour is frowned upon and your shopping bags should be left at home (there is no room for them). But most importantly, watch for pickpockets when they “accidentally” lean on you through corners. Jeepney drivers are notoriously undisciplined. Traffic rules, government regulations and the laws of the lands are frequently flaunted and mean little to them. For their owners, Jeepnies are their kingdom. With 12 million people in Manila, 600,000 new cars on the road this year and no end in sight for the city’s gridlock (the worst commuting times in the world – 15 km in two hours), I am not surprised that Jeepney drivers resort to desperate measures when making their way through traffic.
The future of the Philippine Jeepney culture is uncertain. Improvements such as the introduction of air conditioning, better seating, buzzers for stopping the vehicle and more fuel efficient engines have been made to some cars, but the vast majority of Jeepnies I saw on Manila streets were run down with bald tires and generally unfit for human transportation.
When you arrive at a new port and there is a police escort waiting for you, this can mean two things: the cops are needed for security or to usher you through traffic. After having spent a day in and around Manila, there was no doubt why we needed an escort.