SEPTA issued a blueprint Thursday for revitalizing its bus network in Philadelphia, which is struggling with slow service, shrinking ridership, and increasing competition from ride-share businesses.
A redesigned bus network could be “different from anything Philadelphia has seen in anybody’s memory,” said Jarrett Walker, a nationally recognized transit expert from Portland, Ore., whose report is expected to shape the priorities for city transit.
Changes SEPTA could consider, his 100-page report concluded, include:
- Elimination of transfer fees.
- All-door boarding.
- Stops every other block, rather than at every intersection in Center City, and stops beyond traffic lights rather than before them.
- Converting the Route 15 trolley on Girard Avenue to a bus route.
- Beefing up bus service to transportation centers and Regional Rail stations.
- More direct, easier-to-understand routes.
“Don’t let me pretend this is all easy,” Walker said Wednesday. “This is all difficult.”
Walker, who helped Houston’s major redesign of its bus service, said Philadelphia didn’t need as extensive an overhaul as that Texas city. Most of the routes would likely not change, he said. About 70 percent of the current network was effectively designed to serve the needs of riders.
SEPTA should commit to more frequent service during more of the day, Walker said, so riders can expect a bus to arrive after only a short wait at virtually any time. There is also duplication in SEPTA’s system, he said, where bus routes overlap, as several routes do on Roosevelt Boulevard, or with trolleys and subway service. And buses are less full during peak hours than at midday, he said.
While routes might not change wholesale across the city, the way bus service operates needs an overhaul, said Walker, whose firm received $250,000 for the review.
The report did not delve into the specifics of how routes could be restructured but instead identified topics that Philadelphia should consider to make a bus network more effective. Critical to that effort, Walker said, was the need to reach out to the community to discuss the benefits of a changed bus network, and commitment from the city to lead in the effort, saying SEPTA doesn’t have the political clout to make necessary changes.
The report earned positive reviews from regional transportation experts.
“It looks really smart to me,” said Jon Orcutt, spokesman for New York City’s public transit advocacy group TransitCenter. “It’s trying to figure out what SEPTA can do within its powers and its capacities.”
SEPTA’s bus system is by far the region’s most widely used mode of public transportation, with 18 percent of working Philadelphians and 7 percent of workers regionwide using it for commuting, according to census data. But service has been slowly worsening over the last five years. Speeds have declined almost 1 percent a year since 2014 and now average less than 12 mph most of the time. Fifty-four of the 83 city bus routes don’t meet SEPTA’s standard on-time rate of 80 percent punctuality.
Combine the weaker service with low gas prices and the popularity of Uber and Lyft, all also factors increasing traffic congestion, and the result has been a diminishing number of bus riders since 2015. The 159 million trips by bus in 2017 was 10 percent below just the year before.
SEPTA could choose to not make changes, but it expects to put out a request for a proposal in July for a contractor to create a redesigned network. If it goes forward with the plan, SEPTA would hire a team of contractors to spend the next two to three years redesigning the bus network.
Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager and treasurer, declined to estimate the cost of all the planning. Walker concluded that better service could be achieved without SEPTA’s buying more buses, making substantial hires, or spending significantly on infrastructure.
A review of suburban bus routes is to come later. That approach makes sense, said Greg Krykewycz, assistant director of planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
“If Philly doesn’t have effective bus service, the city just doesn’t work, which means the region doesn’t work,” he said.
Many of the problems that cause slow, inefficient bus service will require the city to take the lead on transit issues.
“There are a lot of problems in this network with the impossibility of reliable operations due to a combination of a lack of priority in very congested situations… ,” Walker said, “and also due to a problem of bus stops not being available because people are parking and there being no enforcement.”
Transportation enforcement in the city is fractured, with city police, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and SEPTA Transit Police all playing a role. The PPA has expressed an interest in becoming more involved in improving bus travel, with its chief executive, Scott Petri, proposing using buses’ forward-facing cameras to photograph the license plates of vehicles parked in bus stops.
City officials say a bus network overhaul would bring benefits to the city, which has a 25 percent poverty rate, that legislators can’t ignore.
“If this city is to grow in equity, we need to improve the transit service, and improving the bus service is the fastest, lowest-cost way that we can do this,” said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and special initiatives for the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems.
The changes won’t come easily, though. Eliminating transfer fees is virtually a necessity, Walker said, since a redesigned network will likely rely on straighter, intersecting routes rather than long, winding ones, but SEPTA has said transfer fees are necessary to its budget. If the fees are eliminated, base fares may increase.
Officials emphasized that much of the work ahead would require communicating with a public that may be angry about losing a convenient bus stop, or even an entire route, and building a more cooperative relationship between SEPTA and the city. City approval would be needed to change traffic signals so buses would have priority or to create dedicated lanes for buses. Street redesign work requires Council’s approval, and the Kenney administration has found its street safety initiatives slow going because of concerns by Council members over changes that could irritate voters, like bike lanes.
Council member William K. Greenlee, who supported SEPTA’s efforts to create a new Route 49 bus, acknowledged that enthusiasm for bus system improvements could be tempered by the specifics.
“We’ve got to listen to our constituents,” he said. “Anything that makes buses run better I’m certainly supportive of, but when you talk about details of changes and something like that, I think we’d have to hear the details.”
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