God help us all.

DERP
DERP

Last night was the Better Mobility 2015 Mayoral Forum, hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  All seven candidates for mayor (six Democrats, one Republican), save for State Sen. Anthony Williams, who was represented by his campaign’s policy director, spent the evening pledging fealty to Vision Zero in particular, and to the idea that Cars Don’t Rule Philadelphia in general.  Which is all very hopeful, and a good sign, since at least none of the candidates were brave or foolhardy enough to contradict the pro-bike, pro-transit crowd in attendance at the Friends Center to their faces.  In fact, it was eerie how much the candidates sounded alike, until you realized that a lot of the talking points were lifted straight from the election platforms of the Bicycle Coalition and The 5th Square.  How much those documents drove the candidates’ positions was made crystal clear on the last question of the night, when moderator Patrick Kerkstra asked, “What would you do to limit the impact of traffic congestion for SEPTA buses?

Despite my best efforts, bus lanes and Transit Signal Priority have yet to make it onto an election platform this year.  (No, I was not the source of the question last night; that was somebody else in the audience.)  This was the one question where the candidates hadn’t been spoon-fed the “right” answer.  Every single participant sat in befuddled silence.  Kerkstra tried prompting the candidates “this is about bus lanes.  And bus rapid transit.”  No dice.  Eventually former Councillor Jim Kenney improvised a weak but passable answer about Transit Signal Priority.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: Bus lanes are the one thing a Mayor of Philadelphia can do to unilaterally assist transit riders.  Everything else requires the approval of Council, or competing with other priorities at SEPTA.  If you are running for Mayor, and you don’t have an agenda that includes bus lanes, transit signal priority, and bus shelters, (which are all things the City does, and not SEPTA) then you have no plan for helping public transit riders in this city, and you should be fucking ashamed of yourself.

Now, to be perfectly clear, there were six very intelligent people up on that stage, and if Lynne Abraham hadn’t left early, there would have been seven.  Snarky pictures aside, I am not saying they had nothing because they were stupid.  I am saying that they are smart, and their failure hurts more because they are smart.  Our politicians, top to bottom, have to shape the hell up.  Or we’re in for a very, very long eight years.

η: As I knew he would, Jim Saksa has his own, better-written, more comprehensive writeup of the forum up at PlanPhilly. (It is only marred by my ugly, scowling mug in the photograph at the bottom.) He sounds almost as disappointed as I am.

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Sauce for the goose: if free transfers on SEPTA are good enough for 11th and 12th Streets, they’re good enough everywhere

The service planners at SEPTA have been very busy bees for this year’s Annual Service Plan revisions, and that work shows in the sheer plethora of adjustments they have proposed, from suburban bus reroutings, to the extension of bus routes to the Delaware River waterfront. But the crown jewel of their work this year is the proposal to chop Route 23 into two parts: a rump Route 23 from Chestnut Street in Center City up to Chestnut Hill, and a new Route 45 from Noble Street in Callowhill down through South Philadelphia. The idea would be for each side to have less exposure to delays, which causes endemic lateness and bunching along the entire line.

SEPTA chose Center City as the place to break the 23 because it had the fewest number of riders going through, as well as some of the worst delays. But to protect the interests of those few riders who do go from South Philadelphia to North Philadelphia, or vice versa, on the 23, SEPTA wants to make transfers between the new 23 and the 45 free.

Already, you might see where this is going wrong. In Greater Center City, the transit network, like the street network, is mostly a grid. This enables people to (again, mostly) predict where transit routes are going, and get between any two points with at most one transfer. The problem with this theory, of course, is the fact that the Center City core is quite a bit wider east-west (and getting wider) than it is tall north-south, our rail transit along Market Street has an express-local discontinuity problem, and a transfer is not included in the base fare except under/adjacent to City Hall, so many high-ridership bus routes like the 17, 33, and 48 run L-shaped to accommodate the primary market demand. SEPTA makes no accommodation elsewhere for riders who might be better-served a more properly gridlike route structure; the free transfer at 11th and 12th Streets would be the first such, and of course it is tied into the ability to do special transfers in software with SEPTA Key.

Someone at 1234 must be grateful, to have been suddenly gifted with the technical ability to avoid a NIMBY pie-fight in South Philly with the relative handful of riders who would be harmed by having their one seat ride broken in two. But in all honesty, it just points out that the entire system is based on an absurd inequity: planning for some people to only pay once (because they have a one seat ride, an unlimited pass, or special deal), while others must pay for a token (or a sucker fare) and a transfer. Not only that, it incentivizes the poorest Philadelphians to engage in pathological rider behavior (prioritizing one seat rides over both speed and comfort) to the benefit of nobody.

So SEPTA needs to stop winking at the right thing and actually embrace it: free transfers across the entire transit system, and a higher base fare to cover the revenue. And it needs to begin planning now, so that it can be ready in 2016 for the triennial fare adjustment.

Pittsburgh is the competition. Let’s steal their best idea: free student and faculty transit

Last spring, I waxed rhapsodic on the similarities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while calling for strengthening the transportation ties between the two cities. But today, I want to recast the Steel City as villain, not hero. Let’s take the Yinzers, for the moment, as our municipal rivals for our most precious resource: human capital. Because they’re doing it right, and we’re not.

When the wide-eyed college froshling matriculates at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, or Chatham, they receive a student ID that acts as a free pass onto any Port Authority Transit bus or LRV. It’s not actually free; there is a small fee attached to their tuition bill that funds it to the tune of $180 per year. The same froshling’s twin, going to Penn, Temple, Drexel, St. Joe’s, or USciences? Gets a 5% discount on a SEPTA Transpass, which at $91/month is a terrible deal for the average college student taking occasional rides.

Now, not many students are going to pick Pitt over Temple, or CMU over Drexel, just for free transit alone. But being able to live in the neighborhood of your choice (or, at least, within one’s budget), and being able to access all that the city has to offer? The prospect of easy, painless navigation of the entire city without needing to keep a car on hand can be very attractive. Put another way, when Temple doesn’t have free transit and Pitt does, Philadelphia isn’t in competition with Pittsburgh, Lower North Philadelphia plus a tiny sliver of Center City is in competition with Pittsburgh. That’s a much more lopsided comparison, and not one in Philadelphia’s, or Temple’s, favor.

Now, granted, some of this state of affairs is because the Port Authority of Allegheny County is ahead of the technological curve, and has smartcard readers that are compatible with the student IDs, and SEPTA does not. But SEPTA will have closed that gap by the end of this calendar year.

Philadelphia’s new Urbanist PAC The 5th Square, which I wrote about in January, and whose Advisory Board I just joined, has made implementing this idea part of their political platform, and it’s right to make it a priority. That being said, it really shouldn’t have to become a political issue. It should just be a series of bilateral agreements between the universities and SEPTA.  However, it’s increasingly clear that somebody needs to give the universities a good hard shove, in order to get the ball rolling, and that role can easily be filled by a Mayor (or a City Council) looking for an opportunity to exercise their leadership in managing the sometimes-fractious relations between the universities and the neighborhoods surrounding them.  Free transit for students and faculty would radically change the incentives for housing and land use in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, where the first few blocks beyond the campuses are increasingly an academic monoculture, rendering them unaffordable even as entire neighborhoods suffer through disinvestment and neglect a mere half-mile away.  While not many students or faculty are specifically looking to move to Kingsessing or Carroll Park, a handful willing to try could do wonders for the stability of those neighborhoods, encouraging investment and slowing the displacement that is actually occurring in our city, which is driven much more by blight than by gentrification.  City Hall might be skeptical, in its traditional habit of being afraid of all change, but blurring the geographic boundary between town and gown can only benefit a strapped city government that needs to rebuild a tax base to fund schools, infrastructure, and services, with 500,000 fewer people than the city was designed for.

A lot rides on SEPTA’s willingness to play ball, but SEPTA officials speaking on background have expressed readiness to come to a reasonable accommodation with any university or major employer.  SEPTA may have its plate full with the ongoing rollout of SEPTA Key, the technological substrate on which any agreement would rest, so it would take a minor miracle (or a particularly open checkbook) to get an agreement in place for Fiscal Year 2016, but the timeline for Fiscal Year 2017, a/k/a/ the 2016-2017 academic year, should have plenty of room in it to come to a deal.  (That timing would also have the advantage of being simultaneous with the next scheduled triennial fare increase, which requires a review and rewrite of the operating tariff anyway.)

SEPTA has many of its own reasons to want college students to take transit.  The most obvious is to create the habit of riding in younger adults who may be new to city living, so that they carry on that practice for the rest of their lives.  Another is simply that residential student populations are inexpensive for SEPTA to serve.  They generally don’t travel all the way into the Center City core, which is good for managing crowding, and they tend to travel in off-peak hours, which renders many concerns about crowding moot.  There is a concern about commuter students, who make up most of SEPTA’s existing University Pass user base, but the anemic uptake of that program indicates there just aren’t all that many commuters; of the big three schools, the highest number of commuters are at Temple, where SEPTA is best situated to absorb them, with the enormous untapped capacity of the Broad Street Line.

The schools, in addition to the additional feature for recruitment, would also have a major benefit accruing to them; the ability to reduce the considerable money and land they have to sink into parking.  With most campuses landlocked by force or by choice, expanding outward to accommodate new academic buildings — and new parking garages — is no longer an option.  Nor are parking garages a good use of scarce capital dollars, with average construction costs running well north of $30,000 per space.  Better to renew campuses by removing existing parking, but that can only happen if people have an alternative to keeping a car on campus, or driving to work.  The schools may also choose to get out of the business of running their own duplicative transit services, which have their own non-trivial costs associated.

Finally, free-at-point-of-use transit for students and faculty can serve as a showcase for other large employers, who might want to negotiate their own deals with SEPTA for transit. Pittsburgh’s PAT does not charge riders on its light rail system between Downtown and the stations on the North Shore. Major North Shore institutions, like Rivers Casino and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, pay a relatively small sponsorship fee every year to keep it free. In Philadelphia, where major employers are building new office towers and competitively recruiting new employees, the ability to draw top talent can rest on providing good reasons to come to Philadelphia, instead of Silicon Valley or New York. While some would characterize a system where Comcast, Aramark, and FMC are paying for their employees to ride SEPTA for free as creating a privileged class of riders, I would say instead that reducing the number of cars on our streets benefits all Philadelphians, and undermine a much more damaging and insidious privilege given to those who are wealthy enough to own a car, and misincentivized enough to drive it.