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.

Wednesday morning service disrupted on PATCO and SEPTA after storm

The violent thunderstorm that swept over Greater Philadelphia Tuesday evening, disrupting all modes of travel during the evening rush, has apparently let the magic smoke out of at least six area rail lines. The most serious outage is PATCO, which is entirely without electric power and does not expect restoration until after the morning rush.

New Jersey Transit buses will have three extra burdens this morning, since in addition to cross-honoring PATCO fares and contending with detours around storm-damaged roads, they will be carrying passengers from the Atlantic City line, which also remains suspended. NJT has, in its usual inimitable way, been less communicative about what is wrong with the ACRL and when they expect it to be fixed. The only statement that affirmatively said that service would remain bustituted through the morning was a tweeted @-reply:

And on the PA side of the river, SEPTA is reporting that the Media/Elwyn and Fox Chase Lines are out entirely, the Paoli/Thorndale Line is out west of Malvern, and the Norristown High Speed Line will be suspended between Norristown and Radnor. The NHSL outage is the only one that has been definitively stated that it will last through the morning. Also, bus routes may be on detour due to debris. As usual, the most up-to-date information can be found on SEPTA’s eye-bleedingly designed system status page.

How to go around the Northeast Corridor shutdown after the Frankford Junction derailment

UPDATE 5/14: As of Thursday morning, SEPTA and NJT are co-ordinating detour service via the West Trenton Line.  SEPTA will be running a new weekday schedule with about twice as many trains as normal.  NJT will be providing free shuttle buses between West Trenton station and Trenton Transit Center.  SEPTA is also providing extra parking at West Trenton Line stations, extra Route 14 bus service, and peak-hour shuttle buses from the Cornwells Heights park-and-ride to Frankford Transportation Center.  Amtrak tickets will be cross-honored on NJT and SEPTA for the duration of the service outage.


In the wake of the derailment of Amtrak train 188 Tuesday evening, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is shut down indefinitely while investigators pore over the crash site at Frankford Junction.  In addition to the disruption to Amtrak service, SEPTA and NJ Transit services that run on Amtrak’s tracks through the accident area have been suspended indefinitely.  This is going to create a lot of hardship for riders for the foreseeable future, and while SEPTA has some alternate service suggestions for every Regional Rail station in the system, they tend to be rather slow, and unattractive to suburban riders who own cars and want a time-competitive trip into Philadelphia.  And driving in is not really an option; not ever, and certainly not while I-95 construction is ongoing.  So while SEPTA’s instructions are valid and fine as far as they go, I want to take some time to point out some of the other options available.

NJT River Line

NJT's River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton
NJT’s River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton

This will be the easiest and fastest way for people coming from Trenton, including connecting passengers from New York: From Trenton Transit Center, go outside and across Clinton Avenue to the Trenton River Line station.

From the Bristol/Croydon area, go over the Burlington-Bristol Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only, no pedestrian access), and turn right onto Broad Street for the Burlington South station. As an alternate route, take the Turnpike Bridge to US 130 south, for Florence station.

From River Wards and Tacony going to New York, take the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only). Drivers have a straightforward path down River Road to Route 73/Pennsauken station, while the few hardy cyclists and pedestrians who try this and who don’t enjoy the prospect of being squished by New Jersey’s finest stroad engineering can use Temple Boulevard and Cinnaminson Ave to Palmyra station.

South Jersey’s DLRT line takes an extra half hour or so compared to SEPTA, but is quite inexpensive: a flat $1.50 all the way from Trenton to Camden. From Walter Rand Transportation Center, connect to PATCO or a NJT bus to Center City Philadelphia. BE AWARE that the River Line has a late start and an early last run, to maintain temporal separation from freight traffic on the line.  (It also takes the River Line a while to run end-to-end, so starting up and shutting down take time.)

SEPTA West Trenton Line

The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush
The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush

For many others, especially those with destinations in West or North Philadelphia, the SEPTA West Trenton Line will be the next best option.  There is an NJT bus that connects West Trenton station with Trenton Transit Center, but it runs peak hours only, so use that at your own risk.  Passengers connecting to and from NJT may want to co-ordinate and share cabs. Since station parking lots will be oversubscribed all along the line, park-and-ride customers should probably consider backup parking locations, especially Oxford Valley and Neshaminy Malls.  Both malls have an mediocre but serviceable bus connection to the West Trenton Line: Oxford Valley to Langhorne via the 14, and Neshaminy to Neshaminy Falls via the 58.  Neshaminy Mall to Neshaminy Falls station should be walking distance, but Bristol Road is narrow and fast and has no sidewalks, so I can’t recommend it in good conscience.

As of 8:52 Wednesday morning, SEPTA has announced that it is adding cars to trains and running unscheduled extra trains on the West Trenton Line to deal with the crowded conditions.

SEPTA Local transit

If you’re coming into the city from Torresdale, Holmesburg, Tacony, or Bridesburg, then congratulations, your local bus service doesn’t entirely suck.  Busing to Frankford Terminal and picking up the El is not the most fun thing in the world, but it will have to do for now.

SEPTA Chestnut Hill Lines


The Chestnut Hill West Line does not run through Frankford Junction, but it is suspended for now due to sharing an electrical circuit with the accident site.  If they manage to turn on the power to Hill West before the NTSB releases the site, that will be a big boon to the Northwest, but as long as it’s down, riders should switch to the Chestnut Hill East line or to local buses.  CHW riders should keep a close eye on SEPTA news sources for updates.
Chestnut Hill West service is operating as of Wednesday morning.

South Jersey

Atlantic City Line passengers, who have been blissfully immune to the vagaries of PATCO’s frequently-altered schedules, should prepare to connect at Lindenwold.  Have nextpat.co bookmarked to keep track of the mess. Pennsauken riders should take the River Line to WRTC and connect via bus or PATCO.

Systemwide cascade

Riders not on the suspended lines who have a marginal decision between two transit options should be aware of how their commutes may be affected by crowding and associated delays.  Park-and-ride customers who live roughly halfway in between the West Trenton and Warminster Lines may want to ride Warminster this week.  Not many LaSalle University students take the Chestnut Hill East line at Wister, but for those who do, the 18 bus to Olney Terminal may be particularly attractive for the rest of the week, and so forth.  SEPTA probably doesn’t have much in the way of rolling stock trapped on the Trenton Line, but checking that hasn’t been anybody’s priority yet.

Cross-honoring

As of 7:30am Wednesday, NJT is cross-honoring Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor Line between New York and Trenton, and on the River Line between Trenton and Camden. After a communications delay, PATCO is cross-honoring NJT Atlantic City Line and Amtrak tickets. So Amtrak ticket holders who don’t mind taking quite a long time to get where they’re going can get completely around the suspension with their existing tickets.

Twitter helpdesks are too valuable to be turned off so early

I’d like to write an enormous longform piece on how, in the first five weeks of this year, SEPTA and PATCO have been handling the disruptions of winter weather, for better and for worse. In lieu of the time to crank out the 10,000+ words the subject could take, let me take some time this morning to write briefly on one simple facet: SEPTA’s realtime Twitter account, @SEPTA_SOCIAL, and its PATCO equivalent @RidePATCO. From what I’ve seen, I’ve come to the conclusion that those accounts need to be kept manned much longer than they are now.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had TweetDeck set up to provide a search timeline for everyone who uses the word “septa” on Twitter; this is one of the things that SEPTA does itself in its social media office. As disruption after disruption rolled in over the last month, there was a definite difference in the tone of the customer complaints, depending on whether the disruption was completely within @SEPTA_SOCIAL’s business hours (7:00-19:00 weekdays, 8:00-18:00 weekends), or if it was even partially while the account was dark. Informed riders are happier (if not necessarily happy) riders. That’s the point of the entire exercise.

SEPTA itself, of course, runs 24/7/365. So does PATCO. I’m not asking that either tiny team of social mediators be on call around-the-clock; that would be too much, too fast. But evening ridership is growing quickly. Occasional riders unfamiliar with the transit system tend to ride in the evenings. For that matter, if an evening rush melts down, it will often still be recovering as the sign-off messages go out at 19:00. That’s not a good thing for a Customer Service operation. So I would ask both agencies to prioritize expanding their social media teams to provide coverage of the Twitter desks through at least 21:00, every night. 23:00 or midnight would be even better. Similarly, PATCO signs on in the morning at 6:00; this might be a good thing for SEPTA to emulate.

I know that that is an odd request, when I’m usually banging the drum for much bigger and more expensive things. But the Twitter helpdesk is critical infrastructure for the early 21st Century, as strange as that seems. No other agency does it as well as SEPTA, and PATCO is obviously trying to learn its neighbor’s lessons, unlike other agencies that have yet to see the light about real-time information. And compared to many other things that make transit better for riders, well-trained Twitter handlers are relatively cheap, and are cost-effective. Something to think about as the finishing touches get put on the draft FY2016 budgets.

Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Itinerant Urbanist looks at how high frequency service makes PATCO an entirely different beast from SEPTA Regional Rail, even with very old data. One note to add; the recent PATCO debacles with the bridge construction schedules can be interpreted as PATCO being forced to give up its major attraction, its high frequency. And in that light, the PR nightmare that ensued was entirely predictable.

Itinerant Urbanist

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to…

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SEPTA Regional Rail on strike for first time since 1983

Engineers and electricians hit picket lines at the close of the service day last night, marking the first strike against SEPTA Regional Rail since the first year SEPTA operated the service.

Governor Corbett is publicly stating that he will ask President Obama to compel workers back to the negotiating table and back to work, under the terms of the Railway Labor Act.

While it is not clear how long this strike will continue (if Governor Corbett has his ducks in a row, it may not last the day), it’s worth knowing alternatives for service. SEPTA City and Suburban transit is still running: SEPTA has a guide for alternate transit service. DART First State is running express bus shuttles from the four Delaware stations to pAT&Tison Station on South Broad Street, for Monday-Friday traditional-peak service only: the timetable is here. (One would think that DART might want to serve weekend and reverse-commuters as well, especially in light of the I-495 bridge closure, but nobody has accused them lately of outside-the-box thinking.) PATCO is still on a construction schedule, and NJT is running normal service. Amtrak is running normally on the Northeast and Keystone Corridors.

Finally, a safety note: do not assume that just because train service is suspended, that tracks are safe. Inspection trains will run throughout the day so that service can be brought back quickly when engineers return to work. Trespassing on the railroad is still a good way to get yourself killed or traumatically injured. Don’t do that.