SEPTA surging extra service to to West Trenton Line and other routes to accommodate displaced NEC riders

SEPTA announced Wednesday evening that it would be moving trains and buses to Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County to meet increased demand on parallel routes, in the wake of service suspensions after the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional 188.

The centerpiece of the new plan is a near-doubling of service on the West Trenton Line. Free NJT-operated bus shuttles will connect Trenton Transit Center and West Trenton Station throughout the day.. Additionally, Route 14 bus service has been augmented, bus shuttles are running from Cornwells Heights to Frankford TC, and auxiliary parking lots near some stations have been opened. Details of the emergency plan are available on SEPTA’s website.

Most of the new West Trenton trains are expresses, running nonstop between Bethayres and Fern Rock TC, and running with D-stops between Bethayres and West Trenton. That is SEPTA-ese for “we don’t know how well these trains will hold a schedule, so show up a bit early and forgive us if we’re late.”

Amtrak riders can have their tickets cross-honored on the West Trenton Line, as well as the NJT bus shuttle, meaning both detour routes from New York to Philadelphia are fully cross-honoring Amtrak fares.

This comes after SEPTA ran longer trains and unscheduled extra trains on Wednesday to cope with the crowding. This new level of service is possible in part because the equipment normally assigned to the Trenton Line would otherwise be sitting idle, while SEPTA and Amtrak wait for the investigators to finish collecting evidence at Frankford Junction. Only in the off-peak hours does SEPTA have the equipment to run more trains under normal circumstances.

It is expected to be sometime next week before trains run can run on the Trenton Line again, and it is possible that the first hours or days after the reopening will only have one or two tracks available, in which case Amtrak may keep the limited operating slots for its own trains.

Surveillance video strongly suggests Amtrak 188 derailment due to overspeed

A surveillance video in Port Richmond caught a brief glimpse of Amtrak 188 Tuesday night, and what it saw strongly suggests that the train was well over the maximum speed for the track segment immediately before it derailed.

The video, which was obtained and broadcast by CNN, shows the doomed train pass seconds before a series of flashes from arcing electricity announces the destruction of the electric catenary:

In the event that the video is taken down, let me briefly list the critical moments:

  • At 9:23:40, the train comes into view, led by ACS-64 locomotive #601.
  • At 9:23:44, the seventh and last Amfleet I car disappears from view.
  • At 9:23:46, the first flash is visible.

(I am relying on the accuracy and precision of the timestamps in the video itself, but I see no reason to suspect any inaccuracy.)

An ACS-64 is 67 feet long, and an Amfleet is 85 feet. This gives a total train length of 662 feet. (The actual train is slightly longer, but we will ignore this to get a more conservative figure.) If we call the elapsed time it takes the train to pass the camera 4.5 seconds, we can convert feet to miles and seconds to hours, and come up with an average speed of 101 mph, less than 10 seconds before the derailment.

The curve at Frankford Junction is limited to 50 mph, or was as of 2009.

Needless to say, this is well ahead of NTSB findings, and says absolutely nothing as to why the train was going so fast, but we can say with reasonable certainty that we now know the major proximate cause of Tuesday night’s wreck.

(Acknowledgments for this post go to @sandypsj, @sunnyswords, and @apocalypsepony for helping double check my arithmetic.)

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.

Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia tonight

According to initial reports, Amtrak train 188 has derailed at or near SHORE interlocking, near Frankford Avenue and Wheatsheaf Lane in North Philadelphia.  Former Congressman Patrick Murphy has tweeted photos from the inside of a cafe car that has rolled on to its side, showing injured passengers and first responders at the scene.

The Philadelphia Fire Department has declared the derailment a “mass casualty incident”.

SEPTA Trenton and Chestnut Hill West service is suspended indefinitely, as is Amtrak service on the NEC between Philadelphia and New York. NJT hasn’t made an announcement suspending the Atlantic City Line, but I assure you it’s also closed west of Pennsauken. (Update 22:01: ACL suspended.)

I will update this post as information comes in.

Update 22:30:  Police sources are saying this may have been a collision between the Amtrak and a freight train; it is not yet clear what basis they have for saying this.  Freight is a common sight at SHORE, since it acts as the sole gateway for freight rail between South Jersey and the rest of the country, with the exception of the NJT River Line in the off-hours.  Conrail Shared Assets stores freight cars in a small yard a short distance from the junction.

Update 23:30: Amtrak reports that 238 passenger and 5 crew were on board.  ~50-60 have been taken to local hospitals, another ~15 “walking wounded” are on a SEPTA bus at the scene awaiting transport.

Update 23:45: Mayor Michael Nutter confirms five deaths and six critically injured.  120 firefighters and 200 police responded to the scene.

Update 0:00: CSX confirms that none of its trains collided with anything or were otherwise involved in the derailment of Amtrak 188.  SEPTA is saying the Trenton Line will be suspended indefinitely, and they expect that to last throughout the day on Wednesday.

Indego launches tomorrow. Are you ready?

Philadelphia’s long-awaited bike share network launches tomorrow with a ceremonial ride-off from Eakins Oval.

Indego Founder keyfob.  That's right.
Indego Founder keyfob. That’s right.

It’s here.  It’s finally here.  GET HYPE.

Indego's initial station map.  Click for live version.
Indego’s initial station map. Click for live version.

YOU ARE NOT HYPE ENOUGH.  GET MORE HYPE.

Now if I could only figure out where the hell I put my bike helmet…

Jobs, job access, and building a strong, solvent city

I went to Young Involved Philadelphia’s City Council Candidate Convention last night.  As I talked directly with many of the candidates, there was a common refrain among many of them: “The city needs to rebuild its tax base by bringing more jobs back into the city.”  (The policy conclusions each candidates drew from that premise varied, of course.)  And that’s true!  But I think it focuses attention and energy in the wrong place, in part because I think that accomplishing that task as a first-order goal is hard, while the task “rebuild the city’s tax base by attracting new residents” is much easier, in part because it’s building on an already existing, successful, trend.

The issue is that our extensively decentralized job market isn’t going anywhere in the short term, but that alone doesn’t actually draw people to live in the suburbs.  We live in an economy that is very, very short on job security, or any other form of loyalty between an employer and and employee.  This cultural shift seems like it’s permanent, and it’s arguably a good thing for an economy trying to create wealth.  A generation ago, a family might base a decision on where to live on minimizing commute time to the one or two specific jobs they already had.  Today, they must base their decision on minimizing commute time to the entire set of possible jobs throughout the region.  Even if most of those jobs are out in the suburbs, that pressure is going to bring a lot of educated, skilled workers into Greater Center City, and neighborhoods with fast and frequent transit access to Center City.  Center City’s importance is not only as a job center in its own right, but as a transportation hub with direct connections throughout the region.

If you’d like a visual representation of what places this kind of job-access pressure is going to bring new residents to, look no further than this map produced by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory.  (The project landing page, with links to their full 2014 report, methodology, and maps for other cities, is here.)  Maps like this one, which measure the absolute number of jobs accessible by transit and walking in 30 minutes, can help policymakers understand where residential development pressure is likely to spread to, and which neighborhoods are likely to remain affordable indefinitely.  It can also help transportation planners understand which areas are being poorly served by the existing transit network.  That can boost the priority given to projects like City Branch BRT, which will give better, faster access to underserved Strawberry Mansion; or to projects that connect peripheral job centers to the regional network, like BSL-Navy Yard or NHSL-King of Prussia; or to initiatives that boost frequencies on Regional Rail lines and reduce waiting times for neighborhoods like Germantown and Manayunk, like the city did during the PSIC era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overview Screenshot of UMN's transit accessibility map of Philadelphia
Overview Screenshot of UMN’s transit accessibility map of Philadelphia

Bringing residents back is obviously not a panacea for what ails the City of Philadelphia, but it’s a good, necessary start.  (Fixing the schools so that people don’t have to flee to the suburbs when their kids turn 5 is an obvious next step.)  But in addition to directly restoring the income and property tax bases of the city, more new residents will bring new jobs with them as a trailing indicator.  As I said, I don’t think the peripheral job centers are going anywhere anytime soon, but people generally eat, shop, and use services in the places that they live.  Residents are customers for city-based businesses, old and new.

Not only will a continuation of the residential renaissance create new retail-level businesses and jobs, but there’s another, slightly more cynical mechanism that will cause jobs to follow people into the city: our old friends, the 1%ers.  As Chester County native and proto-urbanist William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) noted in his 1989 book City, when corporate headquarters fled New York City to southwestern Connecticut in the mid-20th Century, there was no evidence to support the popular claim that businesses were fleeing onerous taxes in New York to lower taxes in Connecticut.  Even then, taxes in Connecticut were substantially similar to those in the City.  But there was a very strong relationship between the locations of the new suburban headquarters and where the CEOs of the companies lived; the average distance was eight miles.  The development of ultra-high-end housing (like the $17.6M penthouse that was the subject of false rumors involving Jay-Z and Beyoncé) in the Center City core might look a bit unseemly at times, but if those apartments get bought up by C-suite executives, we can expect more corporate office towers (and their associated jobs) to follow them into our most accessible location.  Maybe that process might involve a bit of promotion for our insanely competitive private schools, while we’re still working on the public ones.  It’s not an equitable solution in the short term, but the potential upside in the medium term is awfully hard to argue with.

All this matters because many of our longstanding civic problems, like funding our public schools, counteracting the effects of poverty and income inequality, reducing violent crime, improving our public transportation system, and even picking up trash and litter from the streets, are primarily issues of funding.  We simply can’t afford to do the basic tasks of city government with our current tax base in the long term.  We can keep trying to paper over the difference with state and federal aid, but that’s not a good strategy in the long term.  Making Philadelphia an attractive place to live makes all these problems tractable.  Attempting to lock out newcomers, which is as likely to displace longtime residents as it is to actually dissuade New Philadelphians, will keep real solutions out of reach, for all time.

God help us all.

DERP
DERP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.