As I believe I’ve mentioned, I moved this summer, and I had a six week period in between when my old lease in Point Breeze ran out and when my new place in Francisville was ready for move-in. In the meantime, I crashed in the spare bedroom of a friend and former flatmate in Swarthmore Borough. And, while I’m immensely grateful for the hospitality, it was a soul-crushing experience to be constantly reminded, for the entire time I was out there, how terrible it is to be transit-reliant in the suburbs.
The sad part is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Swarthmore has comparatively excellent transit service for a suburb. It’s traditionally the top station on the Media/Elwyn Line by ridership. The 109 bus, which runs through Swarthmore on PA-320 on its way from 69th Street to Chester, is one of the best in the Victory Division for frequency (and, relatedly, ridership). And yet service, by absolute standards, is just not that good. The Media/Elwyn Line runs once-hourly outside of the rush hour peaks, which is fine for a pre-planned trip to a scheduled event in Center City, but no good for a more spontaneous walk-up trip. The 109 has the speed and comfort drawbacks of buses, and only goes to the asphalt wasteland of the Baltimore Pike STROAD corridor in one direction, or Chester in the other. Chester is either the region’s most distressed or most undervalued asset; one can connect to almost anywhere in southeastern Delaware County, as well as the Airport, Wilmington, and Newark, but the density of lines on the map belies their inconvenience. Most of the bus routes at Chester TC run once an hour; the Wilmington/Newark line runs once an hour to Pennsylvania points, and less often than that to Delaware. Meanwhile, the rider experience of actually making a transfer at Chester TC is marred by the obvious signs of severe and prolonged economic distress that confront you in literally every direction in Pennsylvania’s oldest city.
Contrast this to my new flat, still piled high with boxes and disassembled shelves. I am literally around the corner from the Girard Avenue stop on the Broad Street Line, where locals run 5-8 tph through much of the service day, plus express and Ridge Spur service, often good for another 5 tph and 4 tph, respectively. The 4 and 16 buses provide additional service on Broad Street, and the 2 runs every 20 minutes off-peak on 16th and 17th Streets. The 15 trolley (currently bustituted for track and platform work, for the balance of August) is plainly visible, but barely audible, from my front stoop. It runs every 15 minutes. These are the frequencies at which I no longer even check to see when the next trip is, I just put my sandals on and start walking, unless I’m connecting to an infrequent Regional Rail line. The very act of checking schedules is as likely to prolong my wait time by causing me to miss a train, trolley, or bus, as it is to shorten my wait time at all.
Now, granted, this is a location that is fantastically well-served, even by city standards. That’s not an accident, given my search criteria. And maybe I’m just spoiled. But go back to that point I made about the service being so frequent that I don’t check schedules for ordinary, nonconnecting rides. This is the psychological hump that most people need to satisfy before they will consider living without access to a car. I recognize that I’m personally unusual in my willingness to choose transit over driving, even when I have the unrestricted choice (I live in a household with more than one working adult, but only one car, a slowly shrinking demographic, according to Jon Geeting’s crunching of Census Bureau data). But I think that the basic concept of transportation you don’t have to think about is the critical one, and that the personal details are going to be mostly trivial. In the city, in addition to walking or biking around neighborhoods, transit can fill that role. In the suburbs, even in dense, walkable/bikable suburbs like Swarthmore, it can’t. Or, more precisely, as of now, it doesn’t.
So, what frequency qualifies as “frequent enough”? Obviously, this is not going to be the same number for everyone, nor is it even going to hold equal across modes, nor should it. The average person is prepared to wait longer for a faster ride, a more comfortable ride, a more predictable and reliable schedule, or waiting in a place that offers more protection from the elements. Of course, on all of those points, it provides an edge to grade-separated rail over mixed-traffic bus routes, with intermediate-order transit modes occupying intermediate positions. But for guidance, we may do well to look to the great bus transit capital of America, Los Angeles. In 2006, LACMTA published a map of all routes that ran every 12 minutes or fewer at midday, on the stated assumption that it was the service frequency that allowed riders to dispense with carrying timetables. Later versions of the map, including this one from August 2012 [PDF], relaxed that condition to 15 minutes. The original 12 minute criterion is probably the best for local buses in city traffic, but the 15 minute criterion takes in all of LA’s skeletal rail transit system at midday, which would explain the change. So, as a first approximation, I would say that “frequent enough” headways here in SEPTAland are 12-15 minutes on local buses, 15-20 minutes on trolleys and light rail, and 20 minutes on short Regional Rail lines, and 30 minutes on long Regional Rail lines. Clearly, that’s a long way away for most of the system, outside of rush hour, but it’s a good set of goals for the highest-priority lines.
In home news, I’m going to still be digging out from boxes for the next while, but I’ll try to get back to a full posting schedule before Labor Day.