The Secret Service Is Not a Transportation Agency

Since SEPTA’s service plan for the Papal Visit came out, transportation experts and casual riders alike have been picking apart what seem to be obvious flaws. As suggestions for improvement are met with uncharacteristic silence from 1234 Market Street, the picture has become much clearer: it’s not SEPTA’s transportation plan, it’s the transit component of a security plan, and in that light, of course it makes no goddamned sense as a transportation plan.

Most reporting on transportation for the Papal Mass on the Parkway has focused on a simple syllogism: 1) 1,500,000 people each turned out for the Phillies parade in 2008 and Live 8 in 2005. Both times, every mode of transportation in the area melted down from demand well over capacity. 2) 2,000,000-2,500,000 visitors are expected to come see His Holiness. 3) Every mode of transportation is going to melt down again.

But the SEPTA preliminary service plan only partially optimizes itself for capacity. The restriction of Regional Rail to only a couple dozen stations makes some sense in light of the lessons learned in 2005 and 2008, but the particular station selection is odd, and misses not only high-ridership stations, but also large concentrations of Catholics, indicating a failure of market research if nothing else. Meanwhile, the Broad Street Line, which carries about as many riders by itself as the entire Regional Rail system does put together, also has a bizarre selection of stations open. It is picking up passengers from Fern Rock — with a tiny parking lot and a connection to a Regional Rail station that is being bypassed — and bypassing Olney, with a higher ridership of both walkup riders and riders connecting from bus lines. Stations like Erie that would take up the slack for the closed Chestnut Hill East Line are also to remain shuttered. The express tracks on North Broad are not leveraged at all.

SEPTA knows where its ridership comes from and also how to optimize its own capacity. This plan does not, quite, do that, even considering all of the actual hard constraints.

The other shoe finally dropped in the dead-news period around the Independence Day weekend, with rumors swirling about an eight-foot high security fence around Center City, Girard to South. Nobody in their right minds would ever suggest such a thing in an active, vibrant, residential city like Philadelphia, but we don’t pay the Secret Service to be in their right minds. What we do pay them for, it’s sometimes unclear, but the generally accepted answer is “paranoia”.  Moreover, while there are vibrant, urban, and residential parts of Washington, DC, they tend to be sufficiently far away from the security fortresses on and near Pennsylvania Avenue.  But it’s becoming ever more clear that a security state infrastructure with no idea how to conduct itself in a real city environment (sorry, DC) is coming to town.  That would be an amusing or frustrating annoyance, but it threatens real harm to real people.

City-dwellers rely on their Freedom of Movement no less than rural or suburban residents.  What the Secret Service want to do is kill the city for at least two days, preserve it in amber while the Pope visits, and then return it to working order.  This is not how a society works.  The entire reason to have such a massive event in a city is the pre-existing infrastructure to keep so many people fed, watered, sheltered from the elements, and so forth.  That infrastructure isn’t just buildings, wires, and pipes, it’s the people to run them, and right now as many of those people as can are booking the weekend or the entire week out of town.

Moreover, whenever there is such a large gathering of people, there is an uptick in the rate of serious medical emergencies, from the increased population if nothing else.  The last time a Bishop of Rome came to Philadelphia, 40 people were hospitalized for heart problems (and there was also a swarm of bees).  Add in to that the “miles of walking” that the City and the Secret Service are asking the faithful to do this time, and the largely suburban demographics of American Catholicism where walking long distances is less of a thing.  If the weather is sunny and warm, we will see heat exhaustion.  If the weather is rainy and windy, those caught unprepared could suffer hypothermia, even at room temperature.  Overall, the security measures intended to save lives will exacerbate health problems and put many more lives at risk.  And the authorities have made no mention of how emergency vehicles will get around the swarms of pedestrians within the secure zone to reach people in distress.

I have held off on writing this post for a long time, mostly because I don’t know of a good direction to channel the anger I have at this situation.  Fixing this won’t be a matter of adding one station to the list of operating stations, it requires a complete rethink of how we plan for secure spaces, and also the priorities we give to keeping people safe from the most common and present dangers as opposed to the most lurid fears of our imaginations.  The last time the feds tried to pull one on us in the name of security, by closing the 500 block of Chestnut Street to all traffic, we eventually organized to tell them to go pound sand.  Sadly, it seems that the preferred option this time is to just let them do what they like, in the knowledge that they’re only going to be here for a week.  One hopes that, if the disruptions were to last any longer, there would be more signs of open revolt.  For that matter, I live in hope that there will be more targeted outrage between now and September.

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  1. I wish we could have some explanation for the station closures. Here are some guesses:
    1. Suburban and the entire CC concourse are to remain empty, because they’re difficult to secure and might be unsafe with this huge crowd of people who don’t know where they’re going.
    2. Another reason for Suburban closure is to select passengers better for directional flow, making it more like the pre-CC tunnel days, i.e., PRR pax from/to 30th, ReadingRR pax from/to Jefferson.
    3. Limiting the number of boarding stations makes it simpler to security screen inbound pax if they choose to do so. Probably won’t announce this much in advance.
    4. Having the above CC stations closed allows prepositioning of outbound trains to handle the post-pope crowds better.
    5. We don’t know much about the 8-foot security fence, but it’s possible that it will improve the flow of people better, making everyone happier & more relaxed, while enabling less overall heavy-handed security procedures.
    While the PR to date hasn’t been great, maybe it makes sense to get people ready for the worst, so that they’re a little more mellow and ready for it.

    1. I think the thought process is getting clearer on the RRD side, even if in the end it’s completely ridiculous.

      1) I think you’re right on that Suburban will be entirely shut down (a) to secure the west half of center city including the concourses, (b) to simplify travel for visitors (use 30th for these lines, Jefferson for those), and (c) to simplify rail operations for the biggest peak flow SEPTA can pull off (all trains one-way in AM, one-way out PM, stashing trains in the tunnel and Suburban)

      2) This article today brings a little clarity to the outlying stations:

      Seems to me that SEPTA RRD is completely scarred by the Phillies experience, and wants to avoid crowding and pass ups and the general confusion of 2008 in any way. Hence the extremely limited station choices, and the tickets purchased by time and by station (as close as reserved seats as SEPTA can get.)

      Your point 3 is a possibility too – Limit the number of locations where passengers will be checked headed inbound (openly or quietly….)

      3) All of this makes marginal sense for RRD, but doesn’t explain why the extreme measures on the transit side. Capacity is a whole different ball game on the transit, and I have to think that a workable plan could be put in place. How badly did MFL and BSL suffer in 2008? All the horror stories I recall were from RRD.

      It’s possible that Secret Service is pushing here as well — We want to scan every passenger headed into town, so you need to limit your stations for us. You would think a half dozen on each route would do the job, instead of the current limited choices.

      4) Has there been ANY word of what Amtrak and NJT are planning?

      1. 1) If that phillydotcom article is accurate, and we’re seeing six-car trains maximum, then the most likely scenario for the Center City stations is the one you describe. I thought there might be a slim chance that they would run the ten-car trains the CCCT was designed for, which would require closing 30th Street Upper in its current configuration, but it looks like no.

        2) I am strongly guessing that there will be security screening prior to boarding. Maybe not full airport-style magnetometers, but probably some kind of visual bag check. The $64,000 Question is, will they also have those at all of the entrances to the fenced-off Secure Zone? I might have a checkpoint on my block. Eugh.

        3) The El and Subway survived 2008. Wasn’t pretty at times, but they did get the job done. They could handle whatever crowds we threw at them, especially the Broad Street Line. The only reason I can think of to constrict the service like they’re doing is to do serious security checks on everyone prior to boarding; the open stations, other than Girard MFL and maybe 52nd St MFL, have open areas adjacent to the stations where you could stack people up while they waited for security.

        4) I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the trolleys diverted to 40th/Market.

        5) Amtrak and NJT have been completely silent on what they’re doing.

        1. The trolleys are an interesting question – As of now, 40th Street is not one of the open stations. But I can’t imagine Secret Service will allow 19th and 22nd to stay open. Maybe trolleys will dump everyone at 30th Street, and then run empty all the way down and around the loop?

          I’m trying to resist the temptation, because it’s ultimately futile, but I feel like a sensible plan could be sketched out . Augment the major transit routes into the core with high frequency bus service to transfer points, and even all the way into the core. No reason you couldn’t run Sunday/Holiday service on the periphery bus routes, and take the extra vehicles to supplement key routes.

  2. I came here to read an article on transit — I didn’t expect to run into such great prose. Wonderfully written.

  3. SEPTA always has an cognizant explanation, but this time, they are told to shut up and let the Secret Service take over. No plans to deal with food shortage, medical needs, water provision, toilet paper need/portable toilet cleaning. No plans to deal with hypothermia if it is raining. No plans for medical attention especially triage stations located with US Army/Navy/Marine/AF medics on hand. No plans for huge stockpile of bananas if vendor food is all gone.

    Most likely scenario, Chaput will announced that all those who stay home and watch the pope on TV will get an indulgement granted. Or SEPTA will be told to shut down to discourage huge crowds from converging on the city. At the Basilica, 1700 seat capability and only 2 bathrooms inside to take care of this large crowd. Mass probably 2 and a half hours, people on their own. Literally thousands to watch the second Mass on the Parkway, no place to sit down, food and water? Medical attention? Already demand is way down for available housing in the city as visitors are balking at the sky ask prices. Nutter has announced possible camping allowed at Fairmont Park – is he joining them? Planning especially transportation is a joke and it can get downright dangerous if not planned right.

  4. — When overall ridership and associated service is peakier, does that usually lend to shifting toward a stub-ended station design? Interesting correlation here…

    — Overseas visitors from PHL wishing to use the Airport Line on the weekend should be directed to buy a Papal Pass beforehand, which requires international communication of some sort. Hopefully Pass quantities won’t limited for this line which should see more sustained ridership levels than the others. And why Eastwick?

    — Speaking from experience, there is quite a time penalty when a Silverliner IV empties an SRO train with vestibule doors vs. the V’s quarter-point doors. Similarly, every low-platform station will be a painful sight to see. (Why Pennbrook instead of HLP-equipped North Wales, with similar amounts of Merck parking?) Just another factor ignored by Secret Service.

    — This general unsuitability of Regional Rail for one-way peak transit means it is still advisable for NJT/Amtrak/MARC (almost no existing weekend service) equipment to substitute for Wilmington/Trenton and increase the percentage of SLVs used elsewhere, although it may be too late now.

  5. How many people came to Pope John Paul II’s Mass in 1979? I was a student at Haverford College at the time. A number of us attended the mass on Logan Circle. We took the train from Haverford to Suburban Station. No special tickets were required and the train made all normal stops. Same thing on the way back. There were mobs of people, but no apocalyptic type disruptions of the transit system. And for those who say oh, there was no terrorism back then to worry about, look up the Munich Olympics attack and Baader-Meinhof.

  6. A totally insane overreaction to an imaginary threat. Not to mention, totally ineffective – unless the Secret Service is going to check all the tens of thousands of residences, offices, cars, etc. inside the “security” perimeter. (I’m sure they would, if it wasn’t logistically impossible.) Before 9/11, this would never have happened. Just more proof that the terrorists won.

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