technology transport

Solar jeepneys for sustainable paratransit

In Kenya there are matatus, and dala dalas in Tanzania. Columbia has Chivas, Haiti has Tap Taps, and in the Philippines it’s the Jeepney – all variants of semi-formal bus transport. Often called paratransit, these are buses that are unscheduled and fill the gaps between other forms of public transport. They’re found in cities around the world, and mainly serve those on lower incomes. They are remarkably self-organising, and often far more responsive to demand than centralised bus services. In some places they are colourful, eye-catching, and a vibrant part of local culture.

Unfortunately, they can also be badly driven and poorly maintained, and a danger on the roads. Most of them are diesel powered and cause major air pollution. They are frequently overcrowded and uncomfortable, and good luck getting everyone to wear a seatbelt.  Sometimes it gets political as well. A lot of people work on and around paratransit, and they are not afraid to make themselves heard when cities try to modernise and streamline their bus routes. Mayors and councils are often conflicted on what to do with them. They may promise reform or regulation, or even threaten to ban them, and then find they can’t live without them.

Paratransit works as a kind of anarchist free market for public transport, and some of the places that have handled it best are those that taken a hybrid system. Bogota, for example, kept the dynamism of paratransit, but streamlined it around the core services offered by its Bus Rapid Transit system so that they worked together.

Manila is a city trying to reform its Jeepney fleet at the moment, with mixed results. One of the more straightforward regulations is to get the oldest and most polluting vehicles off the road, with the long term aim of phasing out diesel vehicles in favour of electric buses. The number of e-Jeepneys is growing slowly, but electricity is expensive in the Philippines. Operators of electric buses have to charge higher fares, which make them uncompetitive. It’s doubtful whether there is the infrastructure to charge thousands of electric buses anyway.

That’s where the solar Jeepney may provide part of the solution. It’s a lightweight bus that can be charged overnight, but then tops up its battery throughout the day from its solar roof. It’s nowhere near self-sufficient, but it has extended range and lowers charging costs for operators. 45 of them are running in Tacloban City at the moment.

We might need to wait and see how they perform before declaring the solar Jeepney to be the future, but it’s certainly an idea to watch. Other companies sell solar buses already, and solar tuk-tuks. They make a lot of sense in cities with lots of sunshine, and as costs fall, they could help to provide cleaner public transport without higher prices.


  1. I’m not so updated with the PH at the moment, but I think there’s resistance back home towards these fleet of imported jeepneys. One of them being of flimsy material, another on requirements that are difficult for ordinary jeepney drivers to satisfy–resulting to losing their self-employment, replaced by jeepney concessions with more affluent [and favoured?] business operators who’d be contracting with the government instead–I’m not sure.

    Also, have you seen Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans”? It’s interesting–the not so “environmental” solar industry; a downfall as well for Bill McKibben, although I think he did something to redeem himself after that.

    1. That’s the true test of these sorts of technologies – do they work for the people that have to use them every day? It may be that solar jeepneys are a nice idea in theory, but that this version isn’t actually practical. I notice that three-wheeler drivers in India love their electric versions, so that’s a good example of it working well. These haven’t proved themselves in the same way yet, but hopefully companies are learning and future models will address any concerns.

      I have seen Planet of the Humans. It’s really very bad! The film-maker visits the worst solar farm you could possibly imagine and then dismisses all solar as the same. And the bit on electric cars is years out of date – it shows the launch of the Chevy Volt, which was in 2008. The market is completely different today. I wrote about it in more detail here:

      1. Thanks for the link, Jeremy. I will go through it.

        I thought what Jeff Gibbs was saying about the e-cars was–if they were being charged with electricity generated by power plants still using fossil fuel, then it doesn’t make a difference. Anyway, I’ll read your article on it soon.

        True, technology should be for the purpose of advancing everyone’s welfare. Cheers!

          1. Thanks again for the link, JM. I’ll read it in a while. I also read the links you shared yesterday–including the comments, which are interesting. If I were to add mine, I’d say a “green” gadget is nice (car, laptop, phone, etc.), but I’d still wish that land clearing and mineral extractive industries would not be part of the production line. But we try our best (I hope!), and it’s not impossible for any of us to refine our way of doing things as we go along. Cheers!

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