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.