Transit: 30th Street Station District Should Be an Integral Part of the City

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The 30th Street Station District Plan Partners will hold an open house at 30th Street Station this evening from 4:00 to 7:00 where they will present concept diagrams for capping the rail yards between the Station, Drexel University, and the Schuylkill River.  Needless to say, this is an enormous opportunity to create a new walkable urban neighborhood in immediate proximity to Philadelphia’s biggest transportation hub.  The diagrams show, as best as a top-down view can, variations of gridded urban streetscapes with tall buildings.

While it is edifying to see the diagrams showcase the primacy of the grid in terms of street planning, what they do not (and in many ways, cannot) show, is the importance of the grid in transit planning.  While it is important to create a mixed-use neighborhood where jobs, services and recreation are all available in walking distance, even the most walkable neighborhood requires transit to situate it and connect it with its entire region for the prosperity of all.  

The centrality of 30th Street Station itself to this planning process is an indicator of how much that is true.  But transit service to Philadelphia’s next neighborhood cannot end at the Station’s portico.  The rail yard cap extends a mile north to Spring Garden Street, twice the standard walkshed of even the best transit station.  The entire area must be served in a more comprehensive manner than relying on the Station alone.  The very high density, required to make the expense of decking over the yards economical, necessitates it.  Without adequate transit, more precious land will have to be dedicated to above-ground parking, at grave opportunity cost in the economic productivity of the land.  Which is a fancy way of saying that we will lose out on the new residents, new jobs, new commerce, and new ratable real estate square footage that we would otherwise rely on to continue powering our fiscal recovery.

There are many ways to route surface transit through the proposed new neighborhood, which can have varying levels of respect for the gridlike nature of the SEPTA route network.  While transit consultant and philosopher Jarrett Walker has written often about the power of grid networks in transit planning, there is no grid to connect today because of the obstacle posed by the Schuylkill River and the adjacent infrastructure, including the yards themselves. 

While establishing a gridlike service pattern of surface transit may be constrained in the presence of the river, it's not terribly difficult.  Direct bus routes can connect the new neighborhood to existing ones, not only Powelton Village and Mantua, but also Parkside, Carroll Gardens, and Haddington.  By creating a street grid that directly connects 30th Street Station to the Spring Garden Bridge, new options for bus routing can not only connect Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion to the new District and University City beyond, but also allows for direct connections between Regional Rail and tourist destinations like the PMA and the Zoo. The Center City-PMA and Center City-Zoo connections are ones that have been previously tried as short tourist-only circulators, that hemorrhaged money because they provided insufficient value to full-time residents; there is very little danger of that here.

There is a temptation to leave surface transit as only a neighborhood circulator anchoring the Station District to 30th Street Station, much like the present LUCY service.  LUCY is an important neighborhood amenity, and it would not surprise me at all to see its domain expand north, but it is only one part (and a relatively minor part) of a transit ecosystem that includes the trolley tunnel, University City Regional Rail station, and bus routes that connect over the Market, Chestnut, Walnut and South Street Bridges.   Even with the best circulator possible, a neighborhood cannot live on a circulator alone.

The best solution will necessarily have more than one component, but they all need to be on the table now.  The wider community should see how they can potentially share in the prosperity to be created between the River and 32nd Street, even if it is not their neighborhood receiving direct investment.  For the project to even get off the drawing board, it needs to have as much density and productive floor space as possible, and that goal requires a higher ratio of buildings to parking.  We hold no firm position on specific engineering decisions or individual bus routings, save that the process should transparently favor those options that create the most abundant access for as many people as possible.

We're planning to be there tonight, to talk to the planners, and to listen to what people have to say.  We hope we'll see you there.

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