MANILA, May 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Manila's iconic jeepneys to Kuala Lumpur's motorbike taxis, Southeast Asian capitals are on a drive to clean their streets of vehicles that cause pollution and traffic jams, while experts defend the vital role they play in cities without adequate public transit.
The Philippines this year began rolling out electric vans, which officials say will replace jeepneys older than 15 years with safer, more environment-friendly vehicles by 2020.
But operators and drivers of the 270,000 jeepneys that ply the country's choked roads are resisting the plan, saying the strict conditions and high cost of the new vehicles will push them out of business and raise prices for commuters.
"It will definitely send transport workers and their families into poverty and dangerous desperation," said Daisy Arago, executive director of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights in Manila.
"Modernisation is acceptable only when rights and welfare are at the centre of the programme," she said, adding that privatising operations may increase fares and hurt poorer residents.
Jeepneys, known endearingly as "Kings of the Road", have for decades been the cheapest option in a country where millions struggle with inadequate public transport.
Cobbled together initially from surplus army jeeps left behind by the U.S. military after World War Two, jeepneys have evolved into cultural icons, brightly painted and decorated with religious symbols, pithy slogans and luxury logos.
At a cost of 8 pesos ($0.15) for 4 km (2.5 miles) in Manila, even the city's poorest residents can afford them.
Manila aims to phase out about two-thirds of jeepneys. But the government denies it is unfairly targeting drivers and operators.
"We assure Filipino jeepney drivers that this initiative of the government to improve our public transport sector will not put them out of business," presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.
"In fact, the programme aims to strengthen and guarantee the profitability of the jeepney business," he said.
In Metro Manila, one of the world's most densely populated urban areas with nearly 13 million people, jeepneys are the preferred transport option, ferrying millions of commuters everyday.
Each vehicle packs in 15 to 20 people, who sit knee-to-knee on twin benches without seat belts or air-conditioning.
Drivers are known to speed, stopping randomly to pick up and let off passengers. They make between 200 and 400 pesos a day, and pay a portion of their earnings to the owner.
Most vehicles run on heavily-polluting diesel, which is the main reason they must be replaced, according to officials.
The government also wants to set new routes with fixed drop-off and pick-up points, and consolidate vehicle ownership, which officials say will streamline operations and improve earnings.
But drivers say the new vehicles, priced at about 1.8 million pesos ($34,000), are too expensive, and that the government subsidy of 80,000 pesos is inadequate.
Anyone who wants to buy a franchise must have a market capitalisation of at least 7 million pesos and a fleet of 20 units, which would bar thousands of small and independent operators who now make a living from jeepneys, Arago said.
"Providing efficient and affordable public transportation services is a principal obligation of the state to its citizens," she said.
"Handing public transportation services over to private corporations would be disastrous to public interests, particularly commuters and wage earners," she added.
The government will offer subsidised loans to help buy new vehicles, according to Roque.
Elsewhere in the region, motorcycle taxis - the fastest way to get around grid-locked streets - face an uncertain future, as do all motorbikes in some cities, even as car sales boom.
Kuala Lumpur last year banned motorcycle taxi services due to safety concerns.
In Bangkok, drivers face increasing restrictions from the military government including on parking on sidewalks, said Chaloem Changtongmadun, president of the motorcycle taxi association, which has long sought designated parking zones.
City officials have said that motorbike taxis clutter sidewalks and cause accidents with their rash driving.
Thailand's road death rate is the highest in the world apart from war-ravaged Libya, according to a 2015 World Health Organization report.
Meanwhile, Indonesia's Supreme Court earlier this year lifted a ban on motorcycles on Jakarta's main thoroughfares, following a petition by a motorcycle taxi driver who argued that it was discriminatory.
Hanoi has vowed to ban all motorcycles by 2030 to unclog its streets and reduce emissions.
These moves are misguided when public transport systems in the region are still inadequate, said Rene Santiago, at the Transportation Science Society of the Philippines.
"Instead of posing hurdles, governments should work with operators and help them become more efficient to solve urban transit problems," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Manila, priority lanes for jeepneys, passenger shelters and digital booking systems similar to ride-hailing apps can help relieve congestion while also serving drivers and commuters, he said.
"They are seen as a traffic hazard, but really, we must acknowledge they play a very vital role in urban transit."
($1 = 52 Philippine pesos)
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie.
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