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: njtransit.com 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.

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