Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.

Posted in Fare policy, Market Frankford Subway-Elevated, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Philadelphia City Council, SEPTA, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment

Twitter helpdesks are too valuable to be turned off so early

I’d like to write an enormous longform piece on how, in the first five weeks of this year, SEPTA and PATCO have been handling the disruptions of winter weather, for better and for worse. In lieu of the time to crank out the 10,000+ words the subject could take, let me take some time this morning to write briefly on one simple facet: SEPTA’s realtime Twitter account, @SEPTA_SOCIAL, and its PATCO equivalent @RidePATCO. From what I’ve seen, I’ve come to the conclusion that those accounts need to be kept manned much longer than they are now.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had TweetDeck set up to provide a search timeline for everyone who uses the word “septa” on Twitter; this is one of the things that SEPTA does itself in its social media office. As disruption after disruption rolled in over the last month, there was a definite difference in the tone of the customer complaints, depending on whether the disruption was completely within @SEPTA_SOCIAL’s business hours (7:00-19:00 weekdays, 8:00-18:00 weekends), or if it was even partially while the account was dark. Informed riders are happier (if not necessarily happy) riders. That’s the point of the entire exercise.

SEPTA itself, of course, runs 24/7/365. So does PATCO. I’m not asking that either tiny team of social mediators be on call around-the-clock; that would be too much, too fast. But evening ridership is growing quickly. Occasional riders unfamiliar with the transit system tend to ride in the evenings. For that matter, if an evening rush melts down, it will often still be recovering as the sign-off messages go out at 19:00. That’s not a good thing for a Customer Service operation. So I would ask both agencies to prioritize expanding their social media teams to provide coverage of the Twitter desks through at least 21:00, every night. 23:00 or midnight would be even better. Similarly, PATCO signs on in the morning at 6:00; this might be a good thing for SEPTA to emulate.

I know that that is an odd request, when I’m usually banging the drum for much bigger and more expensive things. But the Twitter helpdesk is critical infrastructure for the early 21st Century, as strange as that seems. No other agency does it as well as SEPTA, and PATCO is obviously trying to learn its neighbor’s lessons, unlike other agencies that have yet to see the light about real-time information. And compared to many other things that make transit better for riders, well-trained Twitter handlers are relatively cheap, and are cost-effective. Something to think about as the finishing touches get put on the draft FY2016 budgets.

Posted in Organization before Electronics before Concrete, PATCO, SEPTA | 3 Comments

South Jersey’s pedestrian hostility on full display

Michael Noda:

Sometimes I get asked why I care so much about urbanism and transportation choice. There are several reasons, but one of the most important to me is this simple axiom: cars kill. South Jerseyist ran this post on December 29th, but a similar post could be written on almost any day of the year, anywhere in America.

Originally posted on South Jerseyist:

When you think about what’s been going on in the world for the past week, you might be thinking more about Christmas than pedestrian fatalities, but the latter took no holiday this year. Over the course of the past week, South Jersey has seen an astonishing number of serious pedestrian injuries and deaths on its roadways.

Here’s what’s been happening.

On Sunday, December 28th, at 7pm in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, a police cruiser struck and killed a 10-year old boy “as he walked to a friend’s house for a sleepover.”

Delsea Drive (Route 47) near Elmer Street

Also on Sunday the 28th, in Mount Laurel, Burlington Township, a man walking along South Church Street was struck and killed by a car at 5:25pm.

South Church Street in Mount Laurel South Church Street in Mount Laurel

On Saturday, December 27th, another incident occurred in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, when a man in a…

View original 420 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m supporting The 5th Square. You should too.

Last Monday’s big local news was the announcement of The 5th Square, a new PAC aimed at bringing Philadelphia’s urban space politics into the 21st Century — dragging it kicking and screaming, if necessary. In a year where the exciting transportation news was virtually guaranteed to come out of 1234 Market Street, and the landscape of the municipal election cycle was bleak, the conventional wisdom may have been turned on its head.

5th Square’s public faces are Friends of the Blog Geoff Kees Thompson (blogmaster of this old city) and David Curtis (Fels Institute student and mastermind of the #SEPTAWILM campaign to increase rail service to Wilmington).

Their launch comes as a mayoral campaign field widely decried for its mediocrity is failing to capture the imaginations of city primary voters, and a comparatively interesting field of challengers is quietly lining up for City Council.

Running a successful municipal election campaign is not cheap, but it’s not prohibitively expensive either, and the resources of an urbanist PAC can make all the difference between victory and defeat. That sort of clout can grab and hold the attention of even our notoriously capricious City Councillors. StreetsPAC, the prototype urbanist PAC in New York, carried 13 of its 18 endorsed candidates to victory on a budget of $50,000 in its first municipal election. And New York is, as we all know, a more expensive environment for everything than Philadelphia, and that includes politics.

So will this convert all of the Bill Greenlees and Jannie Blackwells of our government away from their anti-urban Modernist instincts, and show them the light of better bike and transit access? We can hope, but realistically, no. But that’s all right. It will still get the attention of a lot of officeholders and candidates who are running on other issues, such as education, improving the landscape for small businesses, or de-escalating the war on drugs. They may not see the linkages between their issues and ours. But they shouldn’t see any of those issues as incompatible, or even as major competition for political or fiscal resources. And that can lead to progressive action from the 4th floor of City Hall. Right now, City Council is a place where good ideas go to die. That doesn’t have to be the way things are.

5th Square can build a coalition in City Hall to improve the streets of Philadelphia. And that is a worthwhile goal, and I am proud to be the #3 donor listed (chronologically) on 5th Square’s donation page.

Today, someone is matching donations to 5th Square up to $500. So today would be a very good day to get out your proverbial checkbook. 5th Square is already well on their way to reaching their January fundraising goal of $5,000 from small donors. Let’s get them over the top well ahead of schedule!

Donate today to The 5th Square.

Posted in Philadelphia City Council, Politics | 1 Comment

Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

Posted in Amtrak, Bike sharing, DART First State, Fare policy, Housekeeping, New Jersey Transit, PATCO, Politics, SEPTA, Threats to Life and Safety | 2 Comments

December schedule change will carry first fruits of #SEPTAWILM campaign

Back in July, Wilmington-based grad student David Curtis launched an online petition asking Delaware for increased SEPTA Regional Rail service to Wilmington. This week, we are seeing the first results of that show of public support with two new trains to Delaware each weekday. It’s a very promising start.

Curtis and I both estimated the total costs to be on the order of one million dollars per year. Even for a small state like Delaware, that is the DOT budget equivalent of the money sitting in your wallet. Delaware Transit Corporation CEO John Sisson misunderstood the petition as demanding that all Marcus Hook short-turns be extended to Wilmington, which would require a hefty up-front capital investment to clear a physical bottleneck, and his staff came up with the more exorbitant operating cost of $3.3 million per year, which this blog castigated him for in harsh terms. After Sisson met with Curtis in person, things got straightened out as to the actual direction of the petition (off-peak service where the track capacity exists, not peak service where it doesn’t), and apparently the staff at DTC went to work searching for stray funds in the budgetary couch cushions. And it seems they found some.

I reached out to David Curtis for his thoughts on the new changes. “There are currently five major gaps in the weekday service at Wilmington,” Curtis wrote back. “This December 14 service upgrade closes the latest weekday service gap.” In addition to the five current weekday gaps of 90 minutes or longer, Curtis also pointed to the very early end of service on both weekdays and weekends as problematic.

In addition to the headline rail improvements, there will be two new daily roundtrips of the DART Route 59 rail shuttle between Wilmington and Newark. One partially plugs the 3-hour gap westbound/5-hour gap eastbound in the afternoon between the existing midday run of the Route 59 and the evening rush, while the other is an evening run that creates a new “last arrival” time in Newark of 22:15, departing Suburban Station at 20:40. So Philadelphians employed across northern Delaware, as well as Delawareans working in Philadelphia, are now able to stay after work for dinner out and early-evening activities, whereas before it was a very risky gamble to stay after — unless, of course, you had driven to work that day. That kind of uncertainty pushes many people towards driving every day, if they can. Street life in Downtown Wilmington today is anemic, as office workers evacuate the city at the end of the working day, rather than patronize local businesses or entertainment venues, and far too much land is given over to parking cars. This vicious economic cycle has dragged Wilmington down for decades, and the rehabilitation of the city’s heart has only barely begun. As Curtis points out, “These [service] upgrades are great for ridership increases, but they also have tremendous economic development implications. Wilmington’s downtown and riverfront districts have already changed dramatically in recent years. Today, hundreds of additional residential units are under construction and more small businesses are popping up on and around Market Street.” More strongly linking Wilmington’s economy and Southeast Pennsylvania’s can only reinforce that trend.

As for how we can build on this good first step, “Delaware is in the midst of budget preparation for the upcoming fiscal year. The immediate goal is to receive additional funding [from the Delaware General Assembly] for DTC to continue upgrading this service in the upcoming fiscal year, which takes effect July 1. If you’ve been following the Delaware budget hearings, you know that money will be spread pretty thin.” To keep up the pressure on the General Assembly, Governor Jack Markell, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, and DTC CEO Sisson, Curtis and I both urge you, if you haven’t yet, to “go to www.septanow.com, sign the petition, and get others to sign it.” Curtis has revised his estimate of the cost of extending every off-peak and weekend train to Wilmington to just shy of $2 million per year, which is higher than our back-of-the-envelope math from July, but reflects more detailed information about the cost structure of Wilmington service, and a more conservative estimate of the cost recovery of more trains. The new trains will grow ridership across the entire schedule, so the net cost to Delaware (after the rebates it receives for ticket sales) should decrease over time. If the full funding is not immediately available next fiscal year, Curtis suggests the extension of three specific evening train pairs as intermediate steps: 235/9236, to extend Saturday service by two hours; 277/9264, to extend weekday service by one hour; and 279/9266, to extend weekday service one additional hour after that. Together, those three trains will cost Delaware an additional $440,000 annually to run, but the implications for both nightlife and swing-shift workers alike should not be underestimated.

As though on cue, an op-ed in Friday’s Wilmington News Journal from a civil engineer shows us what the most likely alternative is to additional transit. According to J. Michael Riemann, Delaware needs to keep feeding the same roadbuilding addiction that’s gotten it into a massive fiscal hole and maintenance backlog. “DelDOT will need to come up with an additional $130 million each year for the next six years to cover the $780 million dollar shortfall (capital funds [i.e. road expansion] of $600 [million] + state of good repair [of $180 million]).” Compared to that, $2 million for hourly train service is an incredible bargain, and will save DelDOT much more than it costs, starting on Day 1. And that’s not just saving the state incredibly unnecessary new roads and road widening, but also allows it to put its roads on diets, and reduce the number of lane-miles it has to plow, salt, and repair, year in and year out. More rail service can pay for itself, only considering the expense side of the ledger. New roads don’t create value, but new rail service will anchor new investment and create new wealth in Downtown Wilmington. Curtis’s conclusion, which I wholeheartedly endorse: “Wilmington’s growth will always be limited if its transportation options are also limited. Delaware can’t afford for that to happen.”

Posted in DART First State, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Wilmington/Newark Line | 3 Comments

How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

Posted in Legacy Infrastructure, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Threats to Life and Safety | 2 Comments