Ridership on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) fell 7.1% in 2016, driven by a sharp decline in bus ridership, according to data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database (NTD). SEPTA bus ridership is at its lowest level in five years, falling 13 million trips last year, roughly 14 fewer trips per bus rider. The city’s rail and trolley lines also fell by 8 million trips.
5th Square is calling on SEPTA and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems to take action now to reverse falling transit ridership, beginning with the city’s network of buses, using strategies well within their disposal.
“While elected officials have been busy patting themselves on the backs for their official commitment to making Philadelphia a more accessible and multi-modal city, transit ridership has been falling back to 2011 levels,” said 5th Square co-chair Jake Liefer, “We lost all the ground we gained since the Great Recession.”
Two of the most important factors driving satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. SEPTA offers frequent service on numerous north-south bus routes during peak commuting times, like on Routes 33, 45, and 47. Yet many Philadelphia neighborhoods lack east-west bus routes that deliver buses in under 15 minutes, cutting them off from high-speed transit like the Broad Street Line and Market-Frankford Line.
Service levels on many “good” bus routes also drop off sharply after 6:00 or 6:30 PM—just outside peak commuting hours—and weekend service on subways and buses is abysmal, pushing potential SEPTA riders to services like Lyft or personal vehicles for their weekend activities.
To win back riders, SEPTA, the Kenney administration, and Philadelphia City Council should work together to ensure Philadelphia is served by frequent, convenient bus service on both weekdays and weekends, with more frequent crosstown bus service connecting to the high-speed transit BSL, MFL, and regional rail, and no transfer penalties for transferring between buses, trolleys, and subways.
“Riders want service that's frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Tabitha Decker, Director of Research at TransitCenter, a national foundation dedicated to improving public transit. Widely-cited research from TransitCenter, identifies bus enhancements that have been used in cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago to boost ridership, like all-door bus boarding, exclusive bus-only lanes, extended bus platforms, and priority for buses approaching traffic lights.
SEPTA and OTIS, working alongside Philadelphia City Council, should deploy these enhancements to boost service frequency both systemwide, and on east-west routes with good connections to high-speed transit. A few good candidates include Route 54 on Lehigh Ave, Route 15 on Girard Ave, Route 26 on Chelten Ave, and Route 64 on Washington Ave. The Route 60 bus on Allegheny Ave is a good example of the type of crosstown service frequency that officials should strive for, which (not coincidentally) is the route with the best farebox recovery in the system.
As Thomson Kao’s unofficial SEPTA bus frequency map shows, most east-west routes connecting to the Broad Street Line just aren’t cutting it, with service frequencies worse than every 12 minutes even during peak commuting hours.
Off-peak and weekend service is our true weakness as an aspiring 24-hour city. Many SEPTA services ramp up in frequency around 7 AM, dip slightly during the day, return to peak during evening commutes, and then tank as early as 6 or 6:30 PM. Even the Market-Frankford Line, SEPTA’s most popular route, drops to a 10-minute headway at 6:30 PM.
As long as our transit network only works for weekday commuters, SEPTA will continue to lose customers to personal vehicles and ride-hailing services.
“Cities around the country and world have been able to revitalize their bus networks and attract and keep riders by simplifying where buses go, and prioritizing them on their streets. These changes can be implemented quickly, speeding up bus riders lives in months, not years,” said Decker.
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