Somebody get John Sisson a calculator and show him how to use it

In remarks to Jake Blumgart writing for Next City, John Sisson, CEO of the Delaware Transit Corporation, says as part of the first official response to the #SEPTAWILM petition that doubling service will result in quintupling costs. That is an extraordinary claim, and nobody should take it at face value until they provide extraordinary evidence, including a complete breakdown of those numbers, before and after.

I’m not saying he’s lying. I’m saying that getting the $751,300/year figure of their current contract with SEPTA was like pulling teeth, and included no details. So there’s an airtight case that DTC is too opaque for a government agency, and a building, prima facie case that somebody there doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Meanwhile, you should sign the ‪#‎SEPTAWILM‬ petition if you haven’t yet.


Sign the Petition: Unsuck SEPTA Wilmington service

On the subject of Better Living through Higher Frequency: Friend of the Blog David Curtis has posted a petition calling on DelDOT and SEPTA to attack the low-hanging fruit of SEPTA’s Wilmington/Newark Line, and extend all off-peak and weekend Marcus Hook trains to Wilmington. This comes after the bewildering success of the petition to reinstate overnight Subway and El service, which has now led to >50% increases in overnight ridership on the two nights a week the trains run.

As I may have mentioned, repeatedly, at every opportunity, the two-hour Wilmington headways are the bane of my household’s existence. They are also dirt-cheap to fix; I looked over David’s cost estimates and agree that the marginal cost to DelDOT should come in on the low side of the $350K-1M range of estimates, and very probably less than the $751,000/year they already pay to SEPTA, for twice today’s service. By any standards of transportation spending, that is pocket change, even for a small constituency like Delaware.

Today’s SEPTA schedules are well-optimized if you are a Delawarean working in Philadelphia, or if you are a Pennsylvanian working a 9:00-5:00, Monday-Friday, job in Wilmington. If you work in Wilmington and your hours are 8:00-4:00, or 10:00-6:00, or 4:00-11:00, or anything involving weekends? Or if, God forbid, you might want to stay in Downtown Wilmington or Center City Philadelphia after work and do something fun? Today, DelDOT’s message to you is “Fsck You, Drive.” Which might go a very long ways to explain why most New Philadelphians have no interest in even visiting Wilmington, much less living there. If Wilmington wants to be the city its leaders are clearly trying to make it, as opposed to a more upscale version of Camden, then all of its good options start with fixing the woefully unuseful connection to Pennsylvania. And in turn, Philadelphia has strong incentives to connect to a rare concentration of rail-accessible suburban jobs.

And yes, more SEPTA Wilmington service means more Claymont service, which will lead to more time together for me and my wife, and less time spent by either of us driving a car, so I have deeply personal reasons to want this petition to come to fruition.


America is about Freedom. Freedom comes from Frequency.

Greetings from East Glacier, Montana! I hope everyone back in Greater Philadelphia had a good holiday weekend, and that the weather I hear you’ve been having hasn’t been inconveniencing you too badly. The scenery here is breathtaking, and the weather has been mild and cooperative.

I want to tell a few stories about Frequency Anxiety and its opposite, Transit Freedom. It’s been the theme of this week so far.
Continue reading America is about Freedom. Freedom comes from Frequency.

A bicyclist’s guide to Delaware Carmageddon

As the I-495 bridge closure passes its third day with not even a hint from DelDOT that they are considering expanding transit service, Reddit user /u/wild-tangent has created an excellent overview of bike facilities in Northern New Castle County, especially those that interface with SEPTA Regional Rail stations. Check it out. If you use Reddit Enhancement Suite, you can view the map images inline, which helps a lot in reading comprehension.

Be aware that there is some misinformation in the section on transit: SEPTA passes and tickets are sold at Wilmington and Newark train stations.

Two cities separated by a common everything: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would probably be inextricably linked together even if history hadn’t lumped them together into the same state. As it stands, though, we have a lot more than an ugly blue flag and a bunch of corrupted mountebanks in Harrisburg in common. Both cities fell hard from the heights of their industrial power. And today, both are experiencing rebirths as centers of health care and education, and attracting young adults hand-over fist as leaders in the national urban renaissance, and heavily leveraging their legacy industrial assets to do it. There’s certainly plenty of demand for cross-Pennsylvania travel.

So why is it so hard to get there from here?

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s oldest superhighway, and wasn’t built first because Pennsylvania’s government was any more enterprising or innovative in 1940 than it is today. Over the last decade, toll rates have more than doubled, but traffic counts and VMT are flat (PDF, page 125/140), just as VMT has remained steady nationwide on mostly free-at-point-of-use roads. Driving from Center City to the Golden Triangle (or vice versa) via the Parkway East, the Turnpike, and the Schuylkill Expressway, is about 5 hours with minimal traffic, which of course there never is. Also, only the hardiest road warrior would ever drive such a distance non-stop; most have to take a break somewhere on the way for gasoline, food and drink, or avoiding deep vein thrombosis. That adds an indeterminate amount of time to the drive; the various intercity bus services generally put the trip at around 7 hours, including traffic and intermediate stops. And once you’ve finished the drive, you’re still stuck with a car in the middle of a dense major city. Even if you’re fine with that, the city shouldn’t be.

In the last decade, Southwest challenged the incumbent US Airways on the route between its Philadelphia hub and its Pittsburgh focus city — and lost. If anybody could offer a cheap flight from PIT to PHL, it was the short-haul specialists at Southwest, but no dice. Plane tickets on US Airways remain expensive, and the casual flyer spends just as much time in line for security screening at the airport as in the air. And PHL airport is congested, and airport and airlines both would much rather add flights to Glasgow and Doha than the short-haul market of Pittsburgh, even as a commercial air monopoly.

And meanwhile, the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, is the last passenger train on the NS (ex-PRR) Main Line west of Harrisburg. After the the rises in Turnpike tolls and the price of gasoline, Amtrak’s coach fares are actually very competitive with driving. Many people would love to take the train, but it’s slow (7 hours 23 minutes, vs. about 5 hours driving and 7 hours by bus), and terribly infrequent. The Corbett Administration, the Legislature, and PennDOT had to be strong-armed into accepting responsibility for sponsoring the Pennsylvanian in March 2013, under the new Federal rules regarding short corridor Amtrak services, but they did do so, and the state is now underwriting the train to the tune of about $3.8M per year (more accurate figures will be available next winter).

So we have a state of affairs where it’s either expensive or abominably slow to travel between the two largest cities in the Commonwealth, despite the fact that they are very similar cities, with identical major service industries, and longstanding political, economic, and cultural ties. The road isn’t getting any faster or cheaper, and flying is a profligate expense. Someone is clearly falling down on the job, and the fact that we share a common state government means we can point the finger straight at PennDOT. If there’s going to be improvement in getting there from here, it’s going to have to come from the rails. Fortunately, while the Pennsylvania Railroad is no more, its legacy remains. Part II tomorrow will cover the options for how to take better advantage of that legacy.

This post has been crossposted to This Old City.

Longform Sunday: Freedom vs. the Opposite of Freedom

Good morning everyone. I’ve got this post set to go up early this morning, because I have two really big, really important asks on your time today that really need to go together. So I’m setting the timer early so you have plenty of time to watch, read, and process.

The first is this video of a presentation by transit guru Jarrett Walker, given earlier this year in Toronto. Walker’s basic philosophies have been informing this blog since its beginning, and I am ecstatic to see so many of his best concepts distilled into such a relatively short span (27 minutes and 30ish seconds), and posted online in a free-to-watch format.

Jarrett Walker Presentation “Abundant Access” from DeepCITY Project on Vimeo.

The key moment:

“What exactly is it that we do?” “‘Abundant Access’ means:

  • As many people as possible,
  • Able to reach as many destinations as possible,
  • As quickly as possible,
  • So that they have as many real choices and opportunities as possible,
  • And are, therefore… free.

The bedrock foundations of a small-l liberal society, as it turns out, demand very specific things from us, in the built realm, and in the way we operate our transportation systems (of all things!) At least, they demand those things of us if our rhetoric about the rights and responsibilities of the citizen actually means anything at all.

Now, compare that philosophy to the nightmare scenario of suburbia gone septic, as illustrated in this ~10,000-word excerpt from danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The teenagers of boyd’s research turn to social networking sites as their last and only outlet for ordinary socialization. It is their only choice because, in large part, their parents live in a state of constant moral panic and have architected away any possibility that they might be allowed to have any personal contact whatsoever with other actual humans. A paragraph from the most illustrative section:

When I arrived at Sabrina’s house at the edge of a picture-perfect cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she didn’t try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which was scary.

(boyd closes her excerpt with a citation to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in case the point was at all unclear.)

Much as I despise Facebook as software (I do not have WordPress automatically post links to this blog there on principle, despite knowing that it would bring at least twice the traffic of Twitter, where I do autopost), thank goodness for Mark Zuckerberg and his predecessors. Without them, suburban America might have been producing an entire generation of unsocialized neurotics. Instead, Facebook becomes the main provider of city streets in the online world; to crib from Strong Towns’ definition of a street: a platform for creating and capturing value within a place. That the people coming together may be united in their love of Doctor Who instead of geographic accident is not a particularly interesting distinction to me.

But it all points to an enormous cultural gulf between people who believe that their children are best served and protected by maximizing their physical isolation, and people who believe that their children are best served and protected by living in, and among, a watchful society that allows them to become full participants as soon as possible. My own children are strictly Hypothetical and Future at this point in time, but I do know that if I can’t trust them with an unlimited transit pass on or before their 14th birthdays, then I will consider myself to have abjectly failed as a parent. If there’s a culture war on, I know what side I’m fighting for, and for whom.

Google, please unfuck yourself

I’m writing this on board a Paoli/Thorndale train I’m taking to tonight’s meeting at the Chester County Library in Exton about Chester County transit. (Ed note: Second row, far left at the meeting.) I’m taking this train to the 204 bus, which acts as a feeder between Paoli Station and destinations farther out on US 30 not accessible to train stations. As to why there are destinations not accessible to train stations along US 30, quite a lot of that is Chester County’s historical attitude towards pedestrians, which is to build roads that are completely indifferent to whether pedestrians live or die. (For instance, the all-rail method of getting to the Chester County Library involves a 20 minute walk from Exton Station, which wouldn’t be bad at all except that that walk involves a path along roads designed for 50+mph, with limited sidewalks, through an interchange with limited-access US 30.)

My beef today is that, for all that this will be a remarkably straightforward trip beyond the edge of the world, it was a 90 minute struggle with Google Transit before I could actually figure out that there was a straightforward, non-suicidal way to do it. That’s unacceptable. Google’s transit directions before the most recent upgrade could be described as adequate. They weren’t always optimal, but they were close enough, often enough, that it wasn’t worth worrying about. Now, after the transition to the “New Google Maps”, any itinerary involving a transfer is often sufficiently ridiculous as to beggar belief, and the expanded scope of detailed information just turns into a trail of breadcrumbs for the expert user to follow, one to the next, to figure out her actual best plan.

This is especially terrible because accurate GTFS-based trip planning available on everyone’s smartphone is an enormous boon to transit agencies. I actually can’t underoverstate how liberating it is to know, even in a strange city, that you have every transit schedule you might possibly need in your pocket. And having a computer help with the decision between two or more mutually-incompatible transit options takes a lot of the stress out of daily life.

Transit networks that are useful are complicated. That’s simply a fact of life. Not even the most obsessive nerd (like me) is going to know enough details about it to actually navigate freely, outside of a few narrowly constrained corridors. That’s no way to live in a big, beautiful city like ours, or anywhere else. So many people, before the advent of online trip planning, simply didn’t bother, and drove. The number of people who might give up again if Google doesn’t restore reliability to its trip planner, or anoint a successor, may be the difference between health and insolvency (or a fare hike) for SEPTA and many other agencies that are now carrying the choice riders they failed to attract during the dark years of the late 20th Century.