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Inga Saffron wants your stories:

I’m doing some thinking about Septa buses in Philly. Are there places where we should change routes to accommodate growing/shrinking population? Which routes need more frequent service? Anyone with #17 bus horror stories out there (or other bus routes)? Email me:

Oh, the 17. My 17 story is that I’ve boarded northbound 17s at 20th and Federal at 5:00 AM. And not gotten a seat. The easiest time of day to put an extra bus in the schedule, but no. My working theory is that the 17 is practically useless for anyone north of Fitzwater Street, just from the crowding. (That 17 was the easiest connection from my old place to the first train out of Suburban Station in the morning.)


Second verse, same as the first

Unfortunately a day after the storm is not enough to bring Philadelphia out of its persisting transport woes. The winter storm that dropped a foot of snow on the Delaware Valley yesterday has left the city in the throes of bitter cold, and fine, powdery, blowing, drifting snow; both of those conditions are strongly counterindicated for mechanical objects of all sorts, and the dry powdery snow is a particular problem for electric motors, because it gets in them and then melts, shorting them out. SEPTA buses and Regional Rail have once again been running with the kind of delays that make schedules completely meaningless. Downed overhead wires brought a halt to 101 and 102 trolley service, and the 15 stacked up 7 trolleys deep on Girard Avenue after a derailment.

This is the sort of situation where, since schedules are useless even as approximations, better real-time tracking of transit vehicles becomes a killep app. If people can see that trolleys aren’t running, or that the next bus is still 20 minutes away, they can start walking to an alternate route, or at least get inside out of the bitter wind chill. SEPTA’s Transitview APIs aren’t quite good enough for really mission-critical applications, but they were cheap to develop in-house, and provide a very good base for future development.

In the land of the unmoving, a limping transit system is king

Philadelphia had a rough day today, as up to a foot of snow fell on most of the region in a storm that arrived faster and lingered longer than initial forecasts had predicted. As the deep Arctic freeze settles in for the night, it’s worth commending SEPTA and PATCO, while they took considerable lumps, for staying mobile while the city and region ground to a halt around them.

Google Traffic layer, midday, 21 January 2014. Source: Philareddit
You wanted no part of this shit today.

As the snow approached whiteout conditions near noon, area employers quickly saw reason (or at least the threat of liability), and started sending workers home en masse around midday; this included the State of Delaware, which shut down at noon, and the City of Philadelphia, which locked up at 12:30. Area roads quickly filled with cars restricted to 45 mph on highways, and 25 mph on DRPA’s four bridges.

Sadly, this early rush hour meant that large numbers of Regional Rail traincars were left sitting fallow in yards and storage tracks across the region, waiting for a traditional rush hour — and traditional rush hour staffing levels — that was still four hours away. Still, trains managed to get people out of Center City, packed like sardines on trains that bypassed Temple and UCity riders for hours. Much better stories were told on the Subway, El, PATCO, NHSL, and trolleys, as each of those lines operated with rock-solid reliability. PATCO suffered speed restrictions on the bridge and 10-minute snow schedule headways, but that was the worst of it. Again, if you were leaving from 30th Street, Suburban, or Market East Stations, you got to your home station safely in no more than an hour extra time today, even if you were standing or otherwise discomfited.

It bears pointing out, if the storm hasn’t driven the point home enough already, that higher frequency of transit service doesn’t just mean higher quality of service in normal circumstances, but also greater resiliency in abnormal situations. SEPTA Regional Rail could have cleared crowds out of Center City much faster if its standard midday headway were 30 minutes or better, as opposed to the once-hourly trains that run on the majority of its lines today.

One local transit agency managed to cover itself in lack of glory, though not for success or failure of people-moving: went offline at the height of the storm, as people tried to look up information on unfamiliar trains and schedules. With NJT being the host transit agency of Super Bowl XLVIII in 12 days, it’s good to know that those tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors won’t be able to rely on NJT’s IT infrastructure on game day, either. Also, Jim Weinstein still hasn’t been fired for gross incompetence yet.

Tonight, the city and suburbs remain under a snow emergency. Cars parked on snow emergency routes will be summarily towed. PPA’s Center City garages are, in a rare twist, properly discounted. Owl bus routes will not run, but the Subway and El will run all night, every 20 minutes. A handful of suburban bus routes, and the 35 Loop, are suspended. School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the vast majority of suburban schools have already announced closures. Snow will continue to fall, and blow, and drift, overnight. And while PennDOT and the Streets Department will probably have major arteries cleared, the capillaries of the street system are probably boned for the next foreseeable hours. In the morning, the safest most reliable methods of transportation will be exactly what you should have expected they’d be from the beginning: transit, and a pair of good boots.

Stay warm, Philadelphia. We’ll shovel out in the morning. And the trains will run.

Mister Gorbachev, open this gate!

Commenter Noah asks the following:

Do you know more about this, from Wikipedia?

“SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line (also known as the “El”) and all of SEPTA’s Subway-Surface Lines stop at the 30th Street subway station, less than 1/2 block (< 1/10 mile) from the southwest entrance to 30th Street Station. A tunnel connecting the underground subway station and 30th Street Station was closed due to crime and vagrancy concerns."

Whose decision would it be to re-open this tunnel? I've always been surprised they're not connected underground.

I’m not quite sure if SEPTA or Amtrak owns that tunnel, but the portal on the Amtrak station side now has Bridgewater’s Bar on top of it, so it would be a significant disruption to reopen the tunnel to the public. On the SEPTA side, you can see the stairs down to the passageway underneath the stairs up to street level at the Northwest corner of 30th and Market.

Photo of tunnel portal from SEPTA subway station
The tunnel to the Amtrak station is through the gate on the right — you can see the handrail going down.

Honestly, the decision to close the tunnel was correct at the time. It’s too far from SEPTA-side cashiers and Amtrak-side shopkeepers, and there’s no good sightlines into the tunnel, for it to have eyes-on-the-street security. Today, the option of cheap cameras supplementing occasional foot patrols exists, to possibly provide a middle ground between 24/7 patrolling and closure. I would recommend separate cameras, controlled by Amtrak PD, SEPTA PD, and PPD, for operational clarity and redundancy.

There is one very good side benefit of the closure, although I will be the first to admit it doesn’t look like a benefit when you’re there: because all connecting passengers have to cross 30th Street on the surface, it creates a large flow of foot traffic across that intersection, which helps calm traffic coming in from I-76 and re-acclimates drivers to the city street grid. That’s a hard benefit to quantify, but it’s there. It also tends to create a lot of delays for vehicles coming off of 30th Street, thanks to aggressive mass jaywalking, which I approve of, because jaywalking is the sign of a civilized society. Unfortunately, buses also get caught in those delays. Can’t win ’em all…

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”

Smoking gun e-mails have now been produced that definitively tie the September 2013 closure of approach lanes at the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to the office of Governor Christie. They additionally provide concrete evidence that the action, taken by Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey (PANYNJ) who have since resigned, was politically motivated retribution against Fort Lee and its mayor, Mark Sokolich (D).

The irony, of course, is that if the PANYNJ had, in fact, taken any kind of traffic study, which they falsely claimed to have in the aftermath of the incident, those of us who believe that driving cars into cities ought to be more difficult and/or expensive would have applauded the move. And if the number of toll lanes assigned to Fort Lee had been reduced from three to two instead of three to one, they might have been subtle enough to get away with their malfeasance, at least for longer. Instead, the Governor of New Jersey has been exposed as a thug who sanctions the abuse of government power for petty vengeance, and allows transportation policy to be set by a combination of caprice and windshield perspective rather than need.

Meanwhile, even rid of the New Jersey appointees directly responsible for the closure of the Fort Lee toll lanes, PANYNJ is still fairly useless from a transportation reform perspective. The Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL) is arguably the most successful and efficient transit facility in the country, but the XBL runs eastbound-only from 6:00a to 10:00a on weekdays, with not even a hint that PANYNJ might build on that success by creating a westbound XBL in the evening. Or implement any kind of bus priority at any other time. Or at any other crossing under its jurisdiction. For Greater Philadelphians who travel up the Turnpike of Anger by bus, who still number thousands of passengers daily, this is a big deal and a big problem; it’s far worse for daily commuters at the PANYNJ crossings. And with Greyhound, Peter Pan, their subsidiaries BoltBus and Yo!, Megabus, and the resurgent Chinatown carriers all looking like they’re here to stay, and Amtrak fares likely to remain out of reach for the bottom tiers of the market, this is one New York problem that strikes home in Philadelphia.

If PANYNJ were to ever get wise and implement 24/7 bidirectional bus priority lanes at the Lincoln Tunnel, or any kind of improved bus approach to the George Washington Bridge, it’s probable that the concerns of us here in Philadelphia wouldn’t have had the slightest bit of influence on the decision-makers. But you’d better believe that, when they do, we’ll care. Meanwhile, we have the unfortunate task of anticipating a third of our region’s transportation decisions being made by a temperamental bully for the next three years. Oh, rapture.