Electric Jeepneys Challenge a Philippine Icon
By Sheila Oviedo | November 18, 2008
The Philippine passenger jeepney has started to shed its image as a smoke-belching, eardrum-busting public utility vehicle. Originally fashioned out of WWII American military jeeps, these colorful and iconic "kings of the road" are going green.
This past summer, electric-powered jeepneys made their first commercial run in Manila's financial district of Makati City. The new environment-friendly jeepneys rolled smoothly and quietly down Makati City's main avenue, painted in bright hues and tropical designs. Gone were the traditional exhaust pipes and rumbling diesel engines.
"We consider this a historic event. This will revolutionize the transport sector in the country," Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director Von Hernandez said during the commercial launch of the so-called e-jeepneys.
For years, jeepneys and other forms of road transport have been blamed for rising carbon emissions in the Philippines, particularly in sprawling metropolitan Manila. Public utility vehicles (jeepneys and buses) accounted for 32 percent of total vehicles in the Philippines in 2005, according to USAID, and the transport sector ranked second after electricity generation as a source of CO2 emissions.
A report from the United Nations Environment Program on air quality in Manila and other Asian cities suggests a link between air pollution and respiratory diseases. And the World Health Organization estimates that at least 530,000 people die prematurely each year due to urban air pollution in Asia.
The e-jeepney was conceived with the intention of reducing carbon emissions while maintaining the livelihoods of hundreds of drivers and operators. It was launched last year by Greenpeace, local governments, and other supporting NGOs under the Climate Friendly Cities initiative, a project of GRIPP (Green Renewable Independent Power Producer). The e-jeepneys underwent a year-long test drive before their commercial run this year.
The initiative has three main components: the e-jeepneys; a depot where the vehicles can be charged and maintained; and a power plant consisting of a generator, a gas engine, and a biodigester (a system that decomposes organic waste to produce biogas, which can be used to power electricity generators).
Manufactured in the Philippines by a consortium of 130 local companies, the 12-seater e-jeepneys are made of fiberglass instead of the usual metal, and they run on batteries that can be recharged at night for $3.30 per charge. At present, the batteries are recharged through wall sockets in temporary depots allocated by the host city governments, but plans are underway to use biodegradable wastes from food establishments and public markets.
The e-jeepneys can only cover short distances and are not recommended to run on unpaved roads, wrote GRIPP Coordinator Reina Garcia in an email to Policy Innovations. "There are already developments in technology that will enable these features in the future fleet," she added.
The Philippine e-jeepney project is one of a growing number of initiatives in developing countries to reduce air pollution by improving the quality of public transportation.
In India, the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Maharashtra state reengineered the pedal rickshaw to reduce the workload of rickshaw pullers, and introduced a battery-operated model.
This October, India's Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research launched the soleckshaw, a solar-powered rickshaw that will be used extensively in the capital during the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Some scientists at CSIR hope that with modifications to the vehicle body the soleckshaw will become an alternative to small cars for middle-class families.
On a larger scale, Mexico City's Bus Rapid Transit System is widely accepted as a successful model of using more efficient buses to attract commuters. According to the World Resources Institute, which helped conceive the system, the project has encouraged commuters to leave their cars and use public transport, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 47,000 tons per year. Similarly, Bogota's Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System reduced traffic in the Colombian capital and may have had a spillover effect on reduced crime rates.
Although the developing world has made significant steps in reducing carbon emissions through green public transport, the question remains whether some of these projects are economically sustainable.
The e-jeepney project in the Philippines is currently financed by a number of nonprofit donors with some subsidies from local governments, and India's soleckshaw project is likely to be government subsidized during its embryonic stage after commercial launch. But more often than not, government subsidies are difficult to sustain, especially during periods of financial constraint.
GRIPP plans to work with financial institutions to establish a microfinancing facility to allow jeepney operators to shift from traditional jeepneys to e-jeepneys, said Garcia. In addition, the recharging stations, now operated by local governments, "can be privatized in the future, and this will most likely occur so that there will be more stations that can be put up around the host cities," she added.
Bureaucratic red tape can also cause problems for project sustainability. Garcia noted that full roll-out of the Climate Friendly Cities initiative has been hampered by delays in the implementation of government policies. Of the three components that comprise the initiative, only the commercial launch of the e-jeepneys has been fulfilled.
Another impediment can be resistance to environment-friendly vehicles among transport operators. NARI Director Dr. Anil Rajvanshi discovered that rickshaw owners resisted the Institute's motor-assisted pedal rickshaws due to cost, regardless of the benefits to rickshaw pullers. "It is ironic that for rickshaw owners the difficult conditions faced by rickshaw pullers driving a poorly designed existing rickshaw are of no concern. They want a cheap vehicle and want to earn whatever they can from the daily hiring charges collected from the rickshaw puller," reported Rajvanshi.
E-jeepneys are facing a different kind of resistance in the Philippines. "People generally still see electric vehicles as toys—like golf carts—as opposed to a serious alternative to the current fossil-fueled vehicles. People are also unfamiliar with biogas and biogas technology," said Garcia. GRIPP and its NGO partners have launched an extensive information drive to promote the e-jeepneys and other components of the Climate Friendly Cities project.
The e-jeepney has the advantage of reduced start-up and operating costs. Priced at approximately $12,400, an e-jeepney costs at least 25 percent less than the traditional diesel-powered jeepneys that currently dominate the market. In addition, drivers who rent jeepneys from an operator no longer have to pay for gasoline, which allows them to save more of their daily earnings.
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