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Reimagining the jeepney

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 10, 2021 5:00 am

The jeepney, icon of Philippine transport, has been with us in one form or the other since the 1920s. Originally known as Auto Calesas, they started as an alternative to the prewar tranvias. The term changed after the Second World War as enterprising Filipinos converted surplus American army jeeps into auto calesas.

The term “jeepney” is a portmanteau of jeep and jitney. Jitneys started as informal shuttle services in the United States in the 1910s. Drivers of Model T Fords ferried people from one point to the other, charging a single fare of a nickel, which was known in slang as a “jitney,” hence the name.

Juan Antonio Francisco’s “Electric Type Jeep” presents a boxy package full of space for commuters.

Philippine jeepneys are both beloved and hated. They provide a necessary service, are colorful and ubiquitous, but they are also notorious for their dirty, often under-maintained diesel engines, and drivers who consider themselves kings of the road.

Jeepneys are also acknowledged as dangerous to ride in and lacking in passenger comfort. The rear entry of jeepneys has never been safe or PWD-friendly from the start.

The interiors of Manuel’s new jeepney are as modern as first-world trains.

There have been many attempts to transform the jeepney for the 21st century. The latest and most exciting exercise in reimagining the jeepney was a competition organized during the popular annual Anthology Festival last March 19-21.

The festival is usually held at Fort Santiago, but this year it was a virtual festival. Participation from Filipino and international architects and allied professionals was not diminished. The festival drew an average of 2,000 engagements each on its three-day run.

Jeepneys, in whatever form, will always be a part of our urban scene. It is as quintessentially Filipino as adobo and pan de sal.

The organizers, recognizing the relevance of innovative designs required for the new normal, opened a competition asking how the jeepney could be remade for safety and convenience without diminishing its iconic status.

The competition, called “Revamp: Our Jeep,” received 33 entries. The panels of judges — Arvin Pangilinan, Julia Nebrija, Mathieu Begoghina, and Audrey Lopez — had a difficult time trimming down the fantastic entries and choosing the winner.

El Alden Sorongon’s “Neo-traditional Jeepney” keeps the familiar exterior but holds a spacious bus interior.

The shortlist of six entries looked at sustainability and safety as key aspects of the jeepney makeover. The preferred mode of power was electric or hybrids. All in the shortlist provided heightened (literally with more headroom) comfort inside the new jeepneys, as well as improved access from the side instead of the rear. “Beep” card systems offered contactless payment. All entries acknowledged and kept the cultural aspects of polychromic décor that make our jeepneys distinctive.

The winning entry was by Cefelo Saint Simbulan Manuel. His was a minimalist, modern boxy design in silver and dark gray. References to the original Willys jeep origins of the jeepney were made in the geometry, while multi-color decorative bands on the sides and multiple light fixtures link this 21st-century take to the 20th-century icon. The interiors are as modern as the latest commuter trains found overseas.

The jeepney is here to stay.

Simbulan Manuel calls his entry “Wylli,” stating, “As we innovate the public transportation system in the Philippines, we answer to the environmental, economic, and social issues evident in our society… The Jeepney culture, from the production — how it was birthed by Filipino ingenuity from the US forces’ Willys jeeps to its distinct physical features — its familiar form, a canvas of expression for the Filipino people, became the foundation of the Wylli prototype (which is) designed to be multifunctional, serving the growing Filipino community — not only the public sector but the private as well.”

The five honorable mentions are well worth a look. All of them, like the winner, expanded the jeepney in size to the scale of a mini-bus, or longer, for better passenger capacity and comfort. One entry even suggests a double decker configuration.

The prewar auto calesa gave way to the postwar jeepney.

The “Hinkayat” entry of Andrea Ysabel H. Ayalde is the most traditional in outward appearance and features adjustable seating, which can either take the original jeepney bench form or more efficient rows of seats. She provides PWD ramps for entry and a jeepney motor with a snorkel (to navigate in floods).

Juan Antonio C. Francisco’s “Electric Type Jeep” is my favorite from a design point of view. The electric vehicle is the shape of a breadbox with a low center of gravity for safety and lots of space inside for a flexible layout of seats. It has a simple body meant to be constructed quickly and offers a robust frame for solidity. It looks the most urban and honest of the bunch, although the large windows may cause a lot of heat gain.

The jeepney was celebrated in movies and restaurants.

El Alden G. Sorongon’s “Neo-traditional Jeepney” is a hybrid bus-jeep with enhanced safety features.

Mario O. Secillano Jr.’s entry is called “PATOK,” short for Philippine Automated Transport Oriented Kart (points for the catchy acronym). It takes inspiration from San Francisco’s cable cars, except that it’s actually a hybrid jeepney and multi-cab tram.

“Hinkayat” by Andrea Ysabel Ayalde updates the traditional jeepney with 21st-century features.

Finally, Francheska Marquit M. Obrero’s entry, the “SynerJeep,” is a double-deck affair that uses seats made from recycled plastic wrapping. It is powered by a hybrid electric/combustion engine for maximum efficiency.

Francheska Marquit Obrero’s entry, the “SynerJeep,” is actually a double decker bus!

Jeepneys, in whatever form, will always be a part of our urban scene. It is as quintessentially Filipino as adobo and pan de sal. Okay, so these are actually cultural adaptations from overseas. Nevertheless, our culture is one of adaptation, and the jeepney, like the Filipino, has to evolve to survive. The tagline for the winning entry rings true: “For as long as there are Filipinos, our jeepneys are here to stay.”

Banner photo: The winning entry by Cefelo Saint Simbulan Manuel is a slick, stainless-steel creation that will turn heads.