SEPTA’s Regional Rail fare collection contortions are a symptom of a system that is strategically adrift

Ever since last summer’s Silverliner V equalizer beam crisis, SEPTA has been collecting Center City outbound Regional Rail tickets at the platform stairs in the evening rush.  On Tuesday, SEPTA announced that beginning July 10th, it will modify the procedure to punch tickets only, but have passengers retain their tickets and have them displayed throughout their journey.

The reason is simple: without a subsequent on-board check, it is possible for anyone to ride for any length after presenting a Zone 1 ticket to the fare collectors, or for that matter just a Transpass if your train boards at the same platform location as the Airport Line.  And to make the latter loophole even worse, SEPTA’s ambassadors check SEPTA Key cards for Transpass validity rarely to never.  SEPTA remains completely paranoid about revenue leaks from fare evasion, so they are moving to plug the hole now that trains and platforms are no longer quite so overcrowded.

Unfortunately for SEPTA, rush hour trains remain crowded enough that they cannot be easily swept by conductors for ticket checks until a significant number of riders have disembarked, meaning that the ambassadors checking for some form of fare instrument are still necessary to forestall an even more damaging form of fare evasion that was common before last summer: simply carrying one ticket in the knowledge that conductors will not be able to reach you to punch it.  Even riders without nefarious intent simply weren’t always able, or inclined, to seek out a conductor to get their ticket punched.

SEPTA, like most American commuter rail operators, including all of the Northeastern railroads as well as Metra in Chicago, insist on the obsolete and incredibly expensive method of fare collection where multiple conductors per train manually check every passenger’s fare by hand.  This system has been retained virtually nowhere else in the developed world outside of the United States, cast aside in favor of full faregating, or proof-of-payment, either of which dramatically reduces the employee headcount per train, which in turn allows for much less expensive provision of transit service, which in turn means either lower government subsidies and/or lower fares, and usually also allows more frequent and more useful service for riders.  There is a straight line to be drawn between the massive expense of conductors and the sparseness of our train schedules.

SEPTA is at least making a half-measure towards faregating with the upcoming rollout of SEPTA Key on Regional Rail.  The five Center City stations — University City, 30th Street, Suburban, Jefferson, and Temple — will be equipped with bidirectional faregates, requiring a fare to enter or exit.  Platform validators will be posted at the outer stations; when a Regional Rail rider only taps once, they will be charged the maximum fare.  This defeats the disadvantage of the July 2016-July 2017 system, since the default is to the most expensive fare, and can’t be defeated with a cheaper ticket.

But the main advantage of installing faregates will be lost if SEPTA continues to retain low platforms at so many stations, which necessitate the retention of conductors for their other function, raising and lowering the traps for low-platform stations.  SEPTA is still only installing high platforms at one or two stations per year, rather than the mass installation it needs in order to gain the economies from rationalized train staffing, higher train performance from lower boarding delays, and compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of the ADA.  It has not even prioritized engineering for that program, instead wastefully diverting in-house engineering resources to an unnecessary project to extend Market-Frankford Line stations to eight cars long, on the off chance that this President and this Congress decide to do a helicopter drop of money to shovel-ready infrastructure.  Even though MFL ridership is higher than the entire Regional Rail system combined, the potential financial and ridership return to high-leveling entire Regional Rail lines is much higher, and can be done in phases or batches scaled to the amount of money available.  SEPTA does not even prioritize high-leveling stations with high ridership like Elkins Park, which can shave entire minutes from schedules, nor stations like Eastwick or Fox Chase which are the only low-level stations on the Airport and Fox Chase Lines, respectively, which would allow for fewer conductors on those trains.

That said, it is entirely possible that SEPTA’s experiment with partial faregating will fail.  There are notable station chokepoints at all five Center City stations that may simply be incompatible with masses of humanity trying to filter through faregates, in one direction or the other or both.  Time will tell.  If it does fail, the only reasonable option left will be conversion to proof-of-payment, although the platform/door safety function will necessitate conductor overstaffing for decades at current rates.

Prioritizing the reduction of staffing is not an anti-union or even anti-employment position.  Right now the main obstacle to SEPTA providing real transit service on its Regional Rail lines is the chronic, acute shortage of engineers.  The best and easiest source of ready candidates for training as engineers, which is a months-long and high-attrition process in the best circumstances, is the conductor corps.  SEPTA can use literally anyone they can get through the training program to add service for riders.  The next time you are caught in bad traffic on I-76 or I-95, the failure of the Manayunk/Norristown or Trenton Lines to capture mode share away from driving due to their inadequate, once-hourly schedules, will be the main root cause.  We need approximately the current overall staff levels, just shifted, in order to protect out regional prosperity from predictable congestion.

Meanwhile, we are about to witness the worst of all possible worlds: overstaffed trains, multiple redundant fare checks, and a system that cannot get out of its own way and does not have a sense of urgency about getting better.  This is SEPTA in 2017.  May the Great Maker have mercy on us all.

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Should SEPTA add free Wi-Fi to the Regional Rail fleet?

septa-wifi-signal-symbol

With schedules back to normal after the summer’s Silverliner V debacle, thoughts are turning to how SEPTA can regain the ridership it’s hemorrhaged over the last three months of misery (which isn’t quite over yet; trains are still shorter than quota).  Jason Laughlin, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, collected a few suggestions on the Inky’s transportation blog.  A Facebook comment thread discussing his article then brought up the idea of introducing free wireless internet on trains.

Now, normally I’m a skeptic about trying to lure riders on to transit with gimmicky perks.  NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s risible plan to lure younger riders onto New York City’s slow and unreliable buses with USB charger ports (and also wi-fi), instead of creating bus lanes and enforcing them, is an egregious example.  But wi-fi on regional rail and intercity trains has a reasonably solid track record of being a popular feature, that doesn’t cost the transit agency very much at all to provide.  The usual complaint is that one gets what one pays for; Amtrak’s wi-fi is notoriously slow internet, slower than one can get tethering through one’s own phone, if you’re paying for that feature.  But at the very least, the experience of slow internet, while frustrating, does not drive away any passengers who would not have also been driven away by the experience of no internet. But bad internet does reinforce public narratives about transit agencies being incompetent and feckless, especially about IT (a reputation that is not entirely undeserved, in many cases).

So, should SEPTA leapfrog a generation of mobile internet solutions (which are now mostly just a cell router in a cabinet)?  My comment on the subject was this:

Amtrak recognizes that its wifi system is considered subpar, especially by Acela customers who want the premium service that they’re paying for. So they’re currently working on divorcing Northeast Corridor wifi from the commercial mobile internet, building our their own network of trackside antennas dedicated to handling their own data. The expected cost of this is expected to be $30 million for the trackside network, and $2 million for upgrades to the Acela fleet, all starting last year and running through 2019, at the end of which the bandwidth caps are expected to come off, so Acela riders can Netflix to their heart’s content.

Using those numbers to estimate what it would take to bring the same system to SEPTA Regional Rail, we’re talking about $11.4 million-$18.5 million for trackside network infrastructure (depending on how much piggybacking on Amtrak’s system is possible and how much redundancy SEPTA will have to build), and a worst-case scenario of $6.667 million to retrofit the entire Regional Rail fleet, which I think is realistically an overestimate, since retrofits are more expensive than including features in the original design, and we’re about to turn over most of the Regional Rail fleet. We’re now talking about a $20-25 million project that would take 3-4 years, after ridership will have already recovered as much as it was going to from this summer’s debacle, and not a $5 million project that takes six months to a year, starting to pull back riders out of their cars then. Is it a sufficiently better alternative that SEPTA should take it? Maybe. I don’t know. But I think either is better than the status quo.

SEPTA capital dollars are still scarce, so neither the cheap route nor the expensive route are slam-dunk cases.  1234 Market Street has been ruthlessly prioritizing its core services, as it rightly should.  But if SEPTA can make more money (whether through increased ridership or increased willingness to pay for fares) by introducing Wi-Fi, than it will cost it to provide, then it should do so.  And by the standards of SEPTA capital projects, which range up to $1.1 billion for the King of Prussia Rail project, a $5 million project, or even a $20 million project, is small.  I predict that arguments over the wisdom of introducing Wi-Fi will continue, even long after the introduction of the service on the SEPTA fleet, should that ever happen.

A brief summary of my remarks to the NEC FUTURE hearing

I wasn’t expecting to speak at Monday night’s hearing on the NEC FUTURE Draft EIS, mostly because I failed to do my homework and realize that they would be accepting spoken testimony.  So I winged it, with some hastily jotted notes.  Here are the highlights of that extemporaneous speech, heavily revised and extended, as best as I can reconstruct it. The best criticism of the NEC Future proposals is and remains Alon Levy’s “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire“, which you should read if you have any interest in the subject.  Summaries of the presentation and hearing as a whole have been written by (in publication order): Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Smith of Philadelphia Magazine, and Jim Saksa of PlanPhilly.

 

My name is Michael Noda, and I am a writer on transportation topics.  I am also an advisor to The 5th Square Political Action Committee, but my views tonight are my own.

My main motivation in speaking tonight is to see a better NEC with the ability to serve many more passengers over both commuter and intercity distances.  That’s why the proposals that have come out of the NEC FUTURE EIS process are so disappointing.  They aren’t coherent about delivering either performance or capacity upgrade value for the money.  In fact the $290 billion price tag for Alternative 3 (“Transform”) is so far divorced from reality that it calls the entire process into question.  Alon Levy suggests that performance upgrades equivalent to Alternative 3 can be had for less than $15 billion in capital upgrades.  I’m far more of a cynic, and think it would cost three times as much as Mr. Levy thinks it will.  So instead of achieving radical transformation of the Northeastern economy at 95% cost savings, I think it can only be done at 85% cost savings.  That is still an incredibly damning indictment of the process to date.

Some of that cost bloat comes from the high costs associated with American public-sector construction.  Far more comes from scope bloat and the inclusion of entirely unnecessary so-called “improvements” that add billions of dollars in cost, for negligible benefit.  The proposed tunnel down 12th Street here in Philadelphia, to serve a new deep-cavern station under Market East, included in Alt 3 (“Transform”), has been widely mocked and derided, and rightly so.  The economic center of gravity of this city today is at or very near 30th Street Station, and splitting future Amtrak service between two downtown stations is not an improvement for any riders, even the ones with origins or destinations immediately adjacent to 12th and Market.  The most optimistic cost estimate of that tunnel could provide gold-plated versions of necessary rail infrastructure upgrades, throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

But the terrible and wasteful ideas aren’t confined to Alt 3.  Alt 2 (“Grow”) includes an inexplicably perennial proposal to detour the NEC to the Philadelphia International Airport.  That might be a good idea for American Airlines.  If they agree, they should get out their checkbooks and pay for it.  The Airport detour has no transit value. Not enough people are in the market to ride Amtrak to catch a flight out of PHL.  Even if we build it, they won’t come.  The large cities on either side of us have three airports each, and have a combined better selection of flights than we do.  And the airports nearest us, BWI and Newark Liberty, already have excellent connections to the NEC.  Again, maybe there is particular benefit to American Airlines and its passengers, but looking after their interests is not the remit of either Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration.

In sum, the project alternatives are wonderful proposals in the Land of Infinite Money, and if the FRA is willing to tell me how to get there, I will emigrate at the first opportunity.  But in the meantime, we live here, where our resources are finite, and determined (in this context) by our political masters.

Of much more interest to Philadelphians, and much higher return on public investment, is the prospect of improvements to interlockings and curves along the NEC that would allow for more and faster trains through the existing plant.  In this area, the biggest problem areas are at: Frankford Junction, site of the Amtrak 188 derailment last year; Zoo Junction immediately north of 30th Street Station; and PHIL interlocking, where SEPTA’s Airport Line joins the NEC, and inbound SEPTA Wilmington Line trains cross over the NEC at-grade.  The straightening of curves to 4000 meter minimum radius, the installation of high-speed turnouts to replace switches designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for far slower trains, and other such improvements will shave significant time from the journeys of suburban and intercity passengers alike.  This process should be done with closer attention and respect paid to the surrounding landscape; the FRA’s Alt 2 seems to show a straightening of the curve of the NEC between Zoo Junction and the Schuylkill River, which is laudable except that the area inside that curve is also known as the Philadelphia Zoo, and to say that that land is not available for any at-grade or elevated option is to put it very mildly.  As well, the construction of additional flyover ramps at these locations will greatly increase the amount of concurrent traffic the NEC can handle, by allowing simultaneous intercity and suburban movements where today those trains conflict and must stop and wait for each other; this would be especially valuable on suburban rail routes like the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line and the NJT Atlantic City Line, which suffer from low ridership as a result of their abysmally low frequency.  All of these are very unsexy fixes that will not result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities, but they will improve the NEC to true High Speed Rail standards within a realistic budget.  And even in Alt 1 (“Maintain”), the alternative mainly focused on such bottleneck improvement projects, there is little attention paid.

Again, I take no particular joy in making these criticisms.  My call for efficiency is is rooted in a desire for abundance, that is, for an NEC that can live up to its potential as a High Speed Rail connection between the cities of the Northeast.  But the only realistic way to achieve that goal — a goal I do believe the FRA genuinely shares — is to guard vigilantly agains unnecessary scope bloat and excessive unit costs.  An attentive agency ought to have realized that a price tag that is twice as much per kilometer as maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, for inferior service, was a red flag that its process was broken, and taken steps to correct itself before releasing the Draft EIS to the public.  That opportunity may have passed, but it is not too late for the FRA to correct its course.  I sincerely hope that it does so.

Thank you for your time.

New Year / New Mayor Resolutions for 2016

It’s a time of new beginnings, and hopes for a better future!  Or at least, trying to be better than we are now, in ways that will fade along with our newly-renewed gym memberships. In no particular order:

  1. No more “SEPTA Key is Late” complaints.   It’s very late.  We all know it’s very late.  We know, very approximately, why it’s late.  But we’re now being promised a rollout date by April, which is not actually far enough away to be the indefinite future anymore, even under the worst circumstances imaginable.  I’m not saying now is the time to get hype.  I’m not even saying we shouldn’t all still be pissed at the accumulated delays.  I’m just saying I’m tired of rehashing the “it’s late” narrative every week or so.  Unless you are actually doing a longform deep dive on the dysfunctional relationship between the public sector and software development (i.e., you are Jim Saksa last month, or trying to one-up him), you are engaged in weaksauce, populist, pseudojournalistic pablum, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
  2. One Loading Zone per Block.  Now.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.

    So much of the unsafe or even inconvenient conditions on our streets comes from delivery vehicles who, in fairness, have few better options.  And delivery vehicles are only going to proliferate as delivery services get cheaper and more widespread, and our neighborhood commercial corridors fill back in.  It’s all well and good to swap door-zone bike lanes with parking-protected bike lanes, (and we should get on that, pronto), but that’s not going to fix the root cause of these problems, and it’s not going to do anything at all on the vast majority of streets that lack bike lanes.

  3. Fix the CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 zoning categories.  Speaking of our neighborhood commercial corridors coming back, it would sure be nice if we had mixed use zoning categories for those corridors that were usable by-right.  If you have an example of by-right new construction in either of these zones since the new zoning code came into effect, leave it in the comments, because that will be the first I hear of it ever happening.
  4. Signatures on the dotted line for University SEPTA.  Bundling deeply discounted SEPTA (and Indego?) into tuition at colleges and universities is a win for everybody, we just need to finalize the details in time for the new SEPTA tariff scheduled to go into effect this July, and the next academic year starting in August.  Even if, gods forbid, we miss that deadline, placeholder language should go into the tariff so that the program can kick off next winter instead of waiting an entire year.  The time to move is now.
  5. An Open Streets PHL debut to do everyone proud.  Ever since the Pope’s car-free security perimeter (peri-miter?) got everyone interested, a lot of people have been working to bring Open Streets to Philadelphia on a more regular (and better-planned, less disruptive) basis, starting sometime when the weather warms up.  You might even recognize some of the names.  Mayor Kenney is very much on board.  So let’s do this.
  6. Street sweeping.  Can we take the most basic step necessary to shed our “Filthadelphia” image?  Even if it means people have to move their cars every once in a while?  If New York (more crowded) and Baltimore (poorer) can figure out how, we can.  Candidate Jim Kenney suggested an opt-out as political cover; I hope Mayor Jim Kenney doesn’t stick with that, but if he does, it should be the most restrictive opt-out possible, i.e. by-block, by supermajority petition, with an automatic sunset unless renewed by the same supermajority.
  7. Move the ball forward on badly-needed project planning.  SEPTA trolley replacement.  King of Prussia Rail.  Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard.  City Branch Transit.  The Rail Park (going north, not west, and yes I will fight you, FOTRP).  The 30th Street Station District.  Reconfiguring the Northeast Corridor through North Philadelphia.  None of them are getting done this year, but we can do more to make sure they get done as soon (and as inexpensively) as possible.
  8. Restripe Washington Ave already.  The amount of gridlock and lack of leadership on this one is appalling.  The PCPC-led design process resulted in a good plan for restriping.  Follow-through on that plan didn’t happen largely due to lack of political leadership.  So anarchy continues to reign on South Philadelphia’s emerging main street.  If anybody dies on this street in the new year, you’re going to read some very unkind words here.
  9. Exclusive bus lanes on Roosevelt Boulevard, Market Street, and JFK.  Super-wide streets with frequent bus service need bus lanes.  Full stop.
  10. Hourly SEPTA service to Wilmington, already.  The addition of one more train in each direction each weeknight serving Delaware’s largest city (and Philadelphia’s largest transit-accessible suburban job center) was a highlight of our December, but it was marred by the lack of a counterpart train on Saturdays that had been previously announced.  Delaware needs to cut it out with this piecemeal nonsense and actually approve funding for hourly (or better) SEPTA service to Wilmington en bloc, as it’s the most cost-efficient transit in the First State, and will only attract more riders if those riders can rely on there actually being a convenient train when they need it, in both directions.  I’m not terribly optimistic for anything more than incremental improvements, but I haven’t entirely run out of hope for more.
  11. Half-hourly service to Norristown and Chestnut Hill East.  Jeff Kneuppel floated this in September 2014, as SEPTA’s deputy GM.  He’s now in the big chair, and we’re still shivering with antici– (say it!)  –pation.  Or maybe just with the cold, waiting for trains that are still hourly.
  12. Light the Manayunk Bridge.  Yes, I’m fully on board that the highest and best use of this iconic viaduct is as a multi-use trail.  But multi-use involves being, er useful, and the Manayunk Bridge won’t be until we put lights on it (and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail) so that it can open early enough for commuters and stay open into the evening.  Half a bridge (i.e. what we have now) is better than no bridge, but let’s not lose sight this project with the finish line tantalizingly in sight.

The argument for Philadelphia from cost control

A lot of local political bigshots came out to the Navy Yard last Monday to announce full funding for another study of the case for extending subway service to the South Philadelphia office park.  It may not be the most pressing transit need in the region, but it does have good potential.  Perhaps more important: if Philadelphia can build subway tunnel at a tenth of the cost of New York, then that creates a strong political argument to shift federal funding here, to build and strengthen our network.

BSL Navy Yard Extension Map
Proposed routing of the BSL extension from the Navy Yard Master Plan

Discussions of the politics of federal transit funding are always fraught.  I have argued in the past that our fundamental political position with respect to the Federal Government (and the State Government, for that matter) is so weak, that we should not rely on it, and instead look to more self-reliant methods to support our rebuilding efforts.  But there is a moment right now, where federal transportation funding is in limbo, and the urgent transit megaprojects seeking federal funding are all coming from the New York City metropolitan area, a national disgrace of project cost control.  Philadelphia is in a fairly rare place in being able to justify several moderately-expensive ($10^7 to $10^9) projects with very good ROI and ridership numbers, while having a solid foundation in maintenance and state of good repair, and lack of hostility from Governor Wolf, as compared to his transit-skeptic counterparts in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

In contrast, the eyes of the nation (and Congress) are on New York City, which has a majority of transit riders nationwide, and has several expensive ($10^9-$10^10) megaprojects in construction, or in the planning pipeline.  However, New York City is a dumpster fire of project management and cost control.  Scope creep alone accounts for billions of dollars of waste, as station terminals are expanded in the hopes that the fractured, balkanized pieces of New York’s transit agencies might never have to share assets with each other.  Projects are delayed years and overrun their budgets by billions, and yet neither the contractors, nor the agencies, nor the politicians are ever held to account for it.  The three most expensive rail tunnels in human history, by cost per kilometer, are all in New York: the 7 Line Extension ($1.3B/km), the Second Avenue Subway ($1.7B/km), and LIRR East Side Access ($4B/km); the most expensive outside of New York is London’s Crossrail 1 at $1.0B/km.  The two most expensive rail stations in the world are a few blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan: the Fulton Street Transit Center ($1.4B), and Santiago Calatrava’s White Stegosaurus, the World Trade Center PATH Terminal ($4B).  The next big project is the Gateway Tunnels under the Hudson River into Penn Station, whose estimated $20 billion price tag, proposed to be split 50-25-25 between the Feds, New Jersey, and New York, dwarfs the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts budget, which runs at about $2 billion per year.  And in tacit recognition that there is no longer any authority trusted to lead the construction efforts, an entirely new Gateway Development Corporation is proposed to fill that role, an astonishing rebuke to the very existence of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

If Philadelphia can develop a reputation for delivering transit infrastructure projects at rates that are affordable, and not an international disgrace, we can attract the attention of federal funding in a way that we have not since Frank Rizzo secured funding for the Center City Commuter Connection from the Ford Administration’s UMTA (and that our present Congressional delegation has notably failed to replicate).  This will take co-operation and careful management from SEPTA, the City, PIDC, the construction trades, contractors, and luck (it’s possible that terrible soil conditions at the Navy Yard will drive up costs in a legitimate and unavoidable way).  Liberty Property Trust should probably be hit up for some of the marginal cash they will make from building more midrise offices and hotels at the Navy Yard instead of parking lots; development-oriented transit should always have a funding component from the private entities it enriches, as happened at SEPTA’s new station at Lansdale 9th Street with Stoltz Real Estate Partners.

If this strategy works, all those worthy local projects that are languishing for lack of funding, from the City Branch to the West Chester Restoration to the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, will have a fighting chance at becoming reality.  And that is something that can pay dividends across the city and throughout the region.  I don’t think I’m alone in making this calculation; why else would IBEW 98 head John Dougherty be the primary political champion of the Navy Yard subway extension?  But one political leader and one union is only a start; the commitment to keeping costs down has to come from everyone at all levels of the project.  And it starts with an alert and informed public, keeping an eye on the project as it proceeds, and committed to expediting its completion.

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.

Visualizing parking is the first step to resolving parking politics

A new map shows exactly which block faces in Philadelphia require the pittance of $35/year to keep a car on them. The terms of parking politics in this city may never be the same.

Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount
Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount

Lauren Ancona’s previous magnum opus was a map showing the boundaries of the PPA parking permit districts, a work that landed her a job with the city’s Open Data Office. She’s now followed that up with the next level of detail, a block-by-block accounting of where permits are actually required. Permits aren’t the only tool of parking management in use, of course. Ancona’s map does not (yet?) show which blocks are metered or otherwise have limited parking, so that results in odd blank spaces where those are in use, including most of Center City and Old City.

But the main thing that jumps out at the viewer, as Friend of the Blog Jon Geeting writes pointedly in his analysis at PlanPhilly, is that many neighborhoods that are the most obsessed with parking supply are doing Jack Squat about managing parking demand. In many cases, only a small minority of blocks require permits; some neighborhoods can count their permit blocks on the fingers of one hand.

Basically: a lot of people, in a lot of neighborhoods, who have used parking as a rallying cry for NIMBYism of all stripes, have just been called on their bullshit. If you can’t be bothered to get the actual resident-parkers of your block to agree to pay the PPA $35/year to chase away the people who don’t live on your block, then you shouldn’t get to cry “Parking!” to prevent new residents from coming to your neighborhood.

Geeting specifically calls out Pennsport and its four blocks of permitted parking, which is entirely fair given that neighborhood’s reputation as being full of parking zombies. But Manayunk, and Fishtown north of Columbia, are no better.

Lower Northwest permit parking map
All of the permit blocks in the Lower Northwest. You’d think that keeping Main Street barcrawlers off the neighborhood side streets would be a popular rallying cry.
Fishtown permit parking map
A tale of two Fishtowns: for once, not lifers and newcomers, but split by Columbia Ave.

Given the high rate of car ownership and easy access to the El in Northern Liberties, one might expect more permitting there than not, but no.

Northern Liberties permit parking map
Two errors on this map: 1) “Olde Kensington” is labeled on the wrong side of Girard, and 2) Not enough permits

Now, there are neighborhoods that are doing a good job at requiring permits. They should be encouraged, even if that means, in the case of Graduate Hospital, splitting its parking district off from Center City West’s.

And there are other neighborhoods where a high concentration of people with cars registered out of state (i.e. students) makes the current process for establishing a permit block politically impossible. But for once, our system of Councilmanic Prerogative offers an opportunity for good progressive urbanism. A progressive District Councillor can short-circuit the process by creating permit blocks, by legislation, where they will do the most good: immediately adjacent to commercial streets with temporary parking only, and within a block of Subway and El stations to reduce the amount of parking arbitrage available in those areas. While I would like to see entire neighborhoods with some type or another of curb parking control, I am willing to take this one step at a time, and push the higher priority locations first.

Map of permit parking near Broad and Girard
This is an express stop on the subway. This is not OK. And thanks to Temple students and their landlords, it will never fix itself.

This is not just a one-way street, politically. With more permitting comes more data; if those who today we can easily dismiss as parking zombies who only have anecdotes backing them up, could instead show up to RCO zoning presentations and show data that more cars have permits than there are curb parking spots in the district, that is powerful evidence that new development should include off-street parking (unbundled and market-rate, of course), which can be used to convince parking supply skeptics like me. This actually just happened this week with the story about Graduate Hospital’s permits, which brought me around to support of structured parking at new development along Washington Avenue, where previously I was hardline against. Hopefully this can open up wider discussions of car ownership, land use, and parking arbitrage. (As a hypothetical, land-poor Manayunk may want to build its structured parking at Ivy Ridge, or in an auto-oriented location in Upper Roxborough. If MDC can acquire properly-zoned land for it, why shouldn’t that happen?) But the first step to resolving a deep political difference, is to establish a common reality that all parties agree exists.