Transit Issues: An Improved Network

Photo by Chris Henry

Transform Regional Rail into High Frequency Rapid Transit

We call on SEPTA to expand its rapid transit service by simply running its commuter rail lines more frequently and integrating its fares with subways and buses. The current commuter rail line structure caters largely to professional-class suburban commuters, while ignoring those who rely on transit within the city.

Riders who live within SEPTA’s Regional Rail Zone 1 are faced with fares that are double and triple what base fare would be on SEPTA transit (buses, trolleys, and subways). In many instances transit service can take much longer than riding the rail line and might necessitate transfers to get to the same destination.

Additionally, boosting rail frequency to every 15 minutes all day on most branches, people in the inner suburbs, and the city neighborhoods only served by Regional Rail like Germantown, Manayunk, and Fox Chase, could use the trains the way people use the subway and the El.

In addition, SEPTA can make capital investments towards this goal by providing more stations in our city with level boarding platforms.

Further Reading:


Prioritize Trolley Modernization

SEPTA’s trolley lines desperately need an overhaul to improve and modernize the service, while increasing freedom of mobility for people with disabilities. We support SEPTA’s trolley modernization efforts and urge the agency to prioritize this initiative in its capital program.

The modernization project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide equitable, sustainable, and efficient transportation. Riders deserve a modern system that is:

  • Accessible to people of all ages and abilities with near-level boarding
  • Integrated with the streetscape and surrounding neighborhoods with pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly facilities
  • Fast and reliable with all-door boarding, wider stop spacing, off-board fare payment, dedicated lanes, and signal priority.

Some of the goals are achievable by SEPTA alone and others will require collaboration with the City, PennDOT, community groups, and other stakeholders. While the project should not be rushed, it is critical to have the modernized system in place before the aging fleet causes a cascade of breakdowns, delays, and lost ridership that may never return. The West Philadelphia and Girard Avenue trolley lines serve neighborhoods that are primarily black and brown and have high rates of poverty. Trolley riders rely on the system to access jobs, schooling, medical care and more, and they deserve a modern, accessible, reliable system. We thank SEPTA for its commitments thus far and call on SEPTA to further prioritize this “project of regional significance” in its capital planning process.


Redesign the Bus Network

In Philadelphia, it's clear that residents in outer neighborhoods living far from the subway and who can't afford Regional Rail often take the bus to get to where they need. These underserved residents see longer-than-average commute times and are also low-income residents and residents of color. Considering the bus accounts for the majority of SEPTA ridership, the Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign is central to advancing transit equity in ensuring all neighborhoods in the city have a fast, reliable option to get around.

As a coalition partner, we support Transit Forward Philadelphia’s Better Buses campaign which has the following benchmarks for SEPTA’s Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign:

  • Engage at least 20,000 riders and residents during the public participation process of the redesign.
  • Provide 85% of bus riders with service every 10-minutes or better throughout the entire day.
  • Ensure buses travel on average a minimum of 13-14mph during a typical weekday by expanding bus lanes and bus priority treatments.
  • Make every bus stop and its sidewalks ADA accessible.
  • Provide shelters and real-time information at bus stops serving more than 500 riders after the redesign is complete. 
  • Plan routes for future electrification of buses where possible.

To achieve these goals, 5th Square supports a stronger grid of bus routes with frequent service, wider stop spacing, all-door boarding, off-board fare payment, improved off-peak service, transit-priority streets, and better links with Subway and Regional Rail.


Implement Transit-Priority Streets

Frequent and reliable public transportation reduces traffic, but traffic hurts transit riders the most. Additionally, SEPTA is faced with enormous losses to its bus ridership numbers in recent years. 

One of the most effective ways to improve transit service is to dedicate road space for the exclusive use of transit. These lanes need to be clearly marked, given traffic signal priority, and monitored to ensure they are being used properly. 

We applaud the expansion of the Roosevelt Blvd Direct Enhanced Bus Service, the fact that Philadelphia has yet to implement a true bus-only lane is mind-boggling given the amount of congestion we saw before the pandemic -- and inevitably will see again. 

“Automated transit lane enforcement” with cameras mounted on transit vehicles and on roadsides is a cheap and effective method of ensuring these lanes are clear.  New York and San Francisco have implemented bus-only lanes with enforcement mechanisms and Philly needs to follow suit. 

Further Reading


Retain & Expand Electrified Service

Our region is fortunate enough to have retained multiple lines of electrified transit service in the form of trolleys and trolleybuses. We believe in the retention, expansion, and improvement of these modes as much as possible.

We call for the rapid expansion of the trolleybus network and the adoption of the newly-mature technology of in-motion charging (IMC), allowing for a trolleybus to switch to battery-electric mode for several miles of off-wire driving.  IMC trolleybuses allow for the electrification of several routes at a time, for the reduced initial investment of wiring only shared trunks; for example, the wiring of Chestnut and Walnut Streets in Center City would allow for the electrification of today’s Routes 12, 21, and 42, without further wired infrastructure in Grays Ferry or West Philadelphia.

The electrification of transportation is one of the most important parts of dealing urgently with the climate crisis, and serves the important environmental justice goal of removing tailpipe emissions from our most vulnerable neighborhoods. 

Further Reading: 


Improve Station Accessibility

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act, SEPTA has made incremental steps to make its system 100% accessible for everyone. However, this effort has been increasingly delayed and pushed back due to changing budget priorities. We believe SEPTA should display a strong commitment to equity by budgeting to finish ADA renovations at all remaining subway and trolley stations by 2026. In addition, SEPTA should draft an All Stations Accessibility Program, as seen with Chicago’s transit agency, to detail how stations are systematically improved for the disability community.

In addition, SEPTA needs to prioritize the construction of ramps and high-level platforms at more regional rail stations, especially Zones 1 and 2 stations within Philadelphia. SEPTA has shown that they have the impressive ability to modernize these stations at relatively low-cost. Raising these platforms will also have a side benefit of faster service, and would better position the agency to provide high-frequency rapid rail service.


Increase Subway Capacity

As the region recovers from the pandemic and more people return to commuting to work, we will once again see our system reach its capacity on certain routes, especially on the Market-Frankford Line. 

5th Square sees increasing frequency, especially during off-peak times, and the reconfiguring of the cars’ interior design as the optimal solutions to increasing capacity.  We do not see lengthening platforms as a cost-effective intervention at this time.


More Transparency with Problems

The Market-Frankford El is, once again, afflicted by new cracks in the steel beams inside the subway cars. SEPTA spent over $3 million on a specialized repair facility for this issue last fall, and another $15 to $18 million is needed for a permanent fix. The repairs are slated to take several years, negatively impacting the number of trains available for service. 

SEPTA needs to show transparency, similar to when Regional Rail cars were taken out of service for repairs in 2016.  The transit agency needs to engage the public and its Board over how it handles problems like this and its spending to address these issues. SEPTA must provide weekly updates on the status of repairs and the impacts this issue may have on the delivery of promised service. The Board also has a duty to provide the agency with appropriate oversight to ensure these vehicle issues are resolved correctly.

SEPTA’s leadership needs to demonstrate the lessons the agency has learned in resolving this problem. Going forward, SEPTA needs to regularly show data on fleet availability and the condition of the agency’s vehicles to ensure these concerns receive the attention they deserve.

More Reading:

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