Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?

SEPTA is performing maintenance on the Market-Frankford Line in Center City this weekend, and will be running shuttle buses from 11th Street to 30th street all day Saturday and Sunday while through service is suspended. Additionally, single tracking will occur 8th St-15th St after 22:00 Friday, and 8th St-13th St Saturday and Sunday. See the Service Advisory on septa.org for all the details.

While I approve of SEPTA taking proactive measures to achive and maintain a state of good repair, and a full weekend shutdown will give plenty of time for repairs too complex to be done overnight, I have to object to the use of shuttle buses to bridge the gap between the 69th-30th and FTC-13th services. The Market St corridor is the main commercial axis of the City of Philadelphia, and is served by three rail transit modes: the MFL, the Subway-Surface trolleys, and the RRD Center City tunnel. On weekdays, each serves a different travel market and runs at capacity at rush hour, with each complementing the other two. On the weekend, with none of the three running anywhere near capacity, it should be possible to compensate for the loss of the one solely with the other two, without resort to busing.

Continue reading Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?

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Thomson’s ghost

SEPTA had a rough morning yesterday on the Paoli/Thorndale Line, with a broken rail taking one track out of service during the morning rush. Shuttle buses provided service between Thorndale and Downingtown, but the eye-opener of the morning came from this tweet SEPTA sent out:

That made quite a bit of sense; it let SEPTA concentrate on shuttling peak-direction passengers out of Thorndale parking lot, and Amtrak got to be a good host to SEPTA passengers on its line. And on Amtrak as on SEPTA, peak direction is towards Philadelphia in the morning, so there were plenty of empty seats on Keystone 605, although it did arrive in Harrisburg 19 minutes late.

But this co-operation in a pinch, while admirable, points out a defect in our transit system: it doesn’t happen every day. On the outer Main Line, Philadelphia-bound commuters are forced to choose between SEPTA, which is cheaper, more frequent, makes the local stops Thorndale, Whitford, and Malvern, and directly serves Suburban and Market East Stations, versus Amtrak, which is significantly faster and more comfortable, but more expensive and less convenient to Center City. This makes little sense for the riders, and less sense for the Commonwealth, which is subsidizing both services. A better system would permit passholders to ride either SEPTA or Amtrak. Metrolink and Amtrak California co-operate like this in Los Angeles: they call it the Rail2Rail program. It makes more sense there to let Metrolink passholders on Amtrak trains, since the prices are closer and the schedules sparser. But letting Amtrak riders ride SEPTA trains that fit their needs better is a win all around.

The Thomson of my title is Edgar Thomson, first Chief Engineer of the PRR. Needless to say, when Harrisburg trains and Paoli trains all ran under the PRR/PC banner, Paoli-Philadelphia passholders could ride any train they pleased. A sad reminder that, despite how far we’ve come since the age of steam, a few things really were better.

Spoked wheels when you want them

One of the things I missed when I was out of town last month was the announcement of the City’s new bikeshare program (about time!), with rollout scheduled by Spring 2014.  The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) is taking the lead on the two year standing-up process, in which time it hopes to leverage $3MM in city money into raising $6MM in outside funds, to finance a network of ~1100 bikes between Vine, South, and 41st (with a few in a satellite cluster around Temple’s campus).

Unsurprisingly to anyone who has seen the explosive success of bikeshare programs throughout the world, much of the early criticism of the project has been that the initial rollout is much too small (650 bikes in the first year), and almost certain to be oversubscribed at peak hours.  Similar outcry has come over the circumscribed boundaries where pods will be found: Center City and the campuses get an amenity, but not the neighborhoods that can provide all-hours usership.  Well, count me in as well, on both criticisms.  Now, I understand that the number of pods the city can afford necessarily defines the boundaries. The density of pods needed for the system to be convenient and effective seems to be fixed, and very high, based on global experience.  The City cannot skimp on pods in Washington Square to provide bikes to Queen Village without harming the system.  But to me, this is an argument that the City needs to assemble more money to go forward.  Politics may be the art of the possible, but while City Council is burning over $1MM to squat on property in Point Breeze, it might decide to begrudge the Mayor enough cash to launch bikeshare properly.

What am I defining as “properly”?  Glad you asked.  Bikeshare, while it’s certainly usable for commuting, is meant to be more of a casual trips and errands service: rent a bike for a 15 minute trip one way, then return in the other direction when you’re done, with only mild peaks in usage by hour or direction.  I dispute that Center-City-and-Campuses-Only is going to attract much additional bike usage; most trips wholly within that catchment can be made best by walking, and the rest can be made by subway or bus. That ability is why Center City is so attractive (and so expensive) in the first place. Serving adjacent neighborhoods, where the origins and destinations spread out a bit, is more in the sweet spot for the bike mode, especially on “crosstown” trips like Graduate Hospital to University City, or Northern Liberties to Fairmount. Without one or both endpoints in Center City’s density, more trips end up like these, a bit far (though not impossible) to walk, and with SEPTA’s hit-or-miss crosstown bus service as an unappealing alternative. (I challenge you to argue that service on either the 40 or 64 is good. I need a laugh today.) Even trips between Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by bus can be rather unpleasant, given buses crowded with riders traveling longer distances (the 17 is nearly useless north of Christian St during rush hour, packed to the gills with Point Breeze and Girard Estate riders).

I recommend that any bikeshare network aim to have sufficient coverage from Girard through Washington east of 52nd (plus Temple) by the middle of its second year. That would be a good basis for a well-used — and therefore high revenue-earning — system. It would vastly increase the bicycle mode share, and take a lot of pressure off local SEPTA routes that need it most. In fact (and this is a novel suggestion that will probably brand me forever a heretic at Bicycle Coalition HQ), SEPTA may want to run the bike share program, or at least integrate membership into its fare structure. 1234 Market St. may have the most to gain from seeing bike sharing become a runaway success, eroding car ownership in the city while reducing its own cost of providing quality service to the region’s core.

The political problem of Philadelphia

Today’s post isn’t directly transportation-focused. It’s about the politics that comprises the backdrop our struggles take place against. I’m sure others have said what I have to say with more eloquence and sobriety, but this is my version, and if I’m going to have to refer to it in the future, I ought to spell it all out at least once.

The big problem with being Philadelphia is being Philadelphia. Continue reading The political problem of Philadelphia

11th hour Fiscal Deal restores transit tax benefit for suburban riders

As noted already by David Alpert and Ben Kabak, the agreement passed yesterday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” restores a tax benefit to transit commuters that had expired at the beginning of 2012. Transit riders will be able to pay $240 per month in pre-tax dollars, saving them and their employers money. This is up from the $125 per month that was the maximum throughout 2012, after Congress failed to renew the benefit, and the $230 per month maximum that was in place 2009-2011; it restores parity with the parking benefit, which went up from $230 to $240 at the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, the restoration is only in place for 2013, and extending it further is the responsibility of the 113th Congress; a dismaying prospect given the record of the 112th.

The new benefit is a huge benefit for SEPTA Regional Rail riders, virtually all of whom have been forced by their benefit managers to pay the first $125 with their benefit cards and the rest out of pocket for the last year. $240 is enough to pay for any monthly pass SEPTA offers. It will also cover NJT’s Atlantic City Line out to Hammonton, or an NJT River Line + PATCO or PATCO + SEPTA City Transit daily commute, or a monthly pass on Amtrak’s Keystone Service from Downingtown to Center City. Basically, this is a huge win for responsible suburban commuters to Center City, and a good foot forward to start 2013.

And one last note: if you’re interested in signing up for this benefit, as a commuter or as an employer, DVRPC’s program has changed its name from TransitChek to RideECO.