Bus detours for Made in America start today, Extra El/Subway/RRD service Sat and Sun

The Made in America festival is back in town this weekend, with Beyonce headlining on Saturday and Nine Inch Nails headlining Sunday. Due to road closures around the Ben Franklin Parkway, SEPTA is detouring six bus routes away from the festival area, broadly defined as Market to Girard, 16th to the Schuylkill, beginning at 5:00 this morning as streets close for concert setup. Detours will continue through noon on Monday.

SEPTA will be adding extra service on the Market Frankford El and Broad Street Subway, on both Saturday and Sunday, and Regional Rail will run extra trains at night as the concerts end. Diversion of Subway-Surface Trolleys to 40th/Market, and construction-related bustitution on the 15 trolley, will end as scheduled in the predawn hours of Sunday morning.

Subways have the best capability for handling massive concert crowds, so if you’re arriving in Center City as the gates open at noon, or leaving after the last song, and the El or Subway is an option for you, then it is the official recommendation of this blog that you take it. If you need to go to, through, or near Center City, and have the option not to drive at all, the recommendation is that you not do that either.

Added Regional Rail trains have been posted here in PDF.

Details of the detours on Routes 7, 32, 33, 38, 43, and 48 are badly but decipherably written in this PDF.

Ride-and-park Reverse Commuting

A bleary-eyed man staggers, coffee mug in hand, into the depths of Market East Station. In the pre-dawn gloom, he makes his way to Track 2, and boards a train.

Fifty nine minutes and twenty ounces of coffee later, the train pulls in to West Trenton station. The man, fully awake and caffeinated, has caught up on his morning e-mail on his smartphone, and makes his way to the parking lot, which is rapidly filling up at this hour. He jumps in his car, and against the main flow of traffic, drives towards I-95. His office, in a Mercer County office park unserved by New Jersey Transit buses, is less than 15 minutes away.

A fictional narrative about a hypothetical Philadelphia commuter? Hardly fictional, and hardly hypothetical. Ride-and-park reverse commutes (park-and-ride in reverse) are an increasingly popular lifehack in the Delaware Valley, and it’s not hard to understand why. As much as car-free urban living has grown popular, greater Center City has grown even faster, and parking is as difficult and as expensive as ever. Gasoline prices have been mostly level since the Great Recession, modulo seasonal variance, but they remain non-trivially high. And the time involved in driving long distances is seen as especially wasteful in an era of constant internet access, when that time can be devoted to any number of work-related or social tasks, so spending an hour on a train to save 40 minutes in a car makes sense.

The catch is that the small brigade of ride-and-park commuters have evolved in a fragile environment that does not anticipate their presence and may inflict sharp penalties at any moment. While SEPTA and PATCO do run reverse-commute trips, the scheduling is subject to change for the benefit of the peak-direction crowd. The real pitfall is parking. Not all SEPTA parking lots allow overnight parking at all, and most of the ones that do make it difficult to prepay for subsequent days of parking. That means that any parking enforcement before 8:00a might sweep them up in the dragnet. Despite the fact that the lots are nowhere near full, except during working hours, SEPTA does not offer a parking permit for ride-and-parkers. In addition to leaving money on the table, this prevents useful communication. For example, SEPTA cannot create protocols for where to park in the event of snow, which might lead to snowplows burying a reverse commuter’s car under an eight foot high plowed snowdrift.

And the bad consequences of leaving reverse commuters out in the cold reverberate in more places than SEPTA Headquarters. Brandywine Realty Trust is seeking to build a residential tower at 1919 Market Street, a/k/a the embarrassingly empty lot on the northeast corner of 20th and Market. The latest version of their proposal includes a 223 space parking garage attached to a 278 residential unit tower. Building so much parking is an expensive proposition, but even right on top of the densest transit corridor in the city, Brandywine does not feel it can market upper-end housing without building parking. I submit that it would have been far cheaper for Brandywine to build a parking garage for the future residents of 1919 Market Street in Fort Washington, Claymont, or Fern Rock, than on-site. Not only does that option save money, it preserves economically useful land, in a city that badly wants Center City residential real estate and could do without more parking. Sadly, while the city’s new zoning code does not require any accessory parking in Center City’s CMX-4 and CMX-5 districts, the zoning code makes no provision for locating parking away from developments in greater Center City, regardless of whether minimum parking requirements apply. Given that PPA is plunging at least $15 million of public money into renovating its garage at 8th and Filbert amid calls for the state-controlled agency to sell off its surface parking lots, finding ways to move cars and parking out of Center City seems like it ought to be a higher priority.

As I ranted about last week, transit outside the city is charitably described as sparse, and as suburban employment centers were built, they tended to have very little regard for proximity to Regional Rail stations, thanks to the precepts of the sprawl development Ponzi scheme. There are some places that are lucky enough to have connecting bus routes or 200-series bus shuttles, but they are more the exception than the rule, nor do they provide connections to all trains at a station. Much as an all-transit commute might be ideal, sprawl suburbs were built for cars. Ride-and-park acknowledges that some places are just not ready for transit primetime, while minimizing the economic, environmental, and societal effects of previous bad development choices. Keep the cars in places built for cars, and the people in places built for people.

As of now, I know (mostly thanks to the internet) of ride-and-parkers who use Claymont, Cornwells Heights, West Trenton, Fort Washington, Paoli, Exton, Woodcrest, and Lindenwold stations, confirming anecdotally that the best park-and-ride lots also make for the best ride-and-park locations. Where else do you know or suspect that someone is using transit to keep their car out of the city and their sanity intact? Sound off in the comments.

Don’t know what you got, ’til it’s gone

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.