The task seems simple enough: Create a public transit service linking Grays Ferry, Fairmount, and Brewerytown to the booming job market in University City.
SEPTA has buses. The city has roads. Just put tires on asphalt and connect points A to B to C, right?
Making the new route real, though, has been a three-year process that included in-depth review of employment and commuting data from the U.S. Census, visits to streets and intersections in the area SEPTA hoped to serve, addressing such essentials as restroom access for drivers, and lots and lots of community meetings.
The proposed route has been changed three times in the last three years, but with the latest iteration, SEPTA’s planners believe they’ve come up with a winning blueprint for a Route 49 bus. If approved by SEPTA’s board, the bus could start rolling as soon as the fall. It would be the first entirely new Philadelphia route in almost a decade, and comes as SEPTA contends with a three-year trend of shrinking bus ridership.
With SEPTA expecting to tackle a bus route overhaul in the next three years, the process of creating the Route 49 bus might be a window into what could happen region-wide.
“I don’t foresee the process will be all that different, especially with the community outreach and engagement,” said Anita Davidson, a SEPTA planner who has worked on the Route 49 proposal for most of her 3½ years with the transit agency.
On the ninth floor of SEPTA’s Center City headquarters, Davidson works in a cubicle surrounded by posters of the Route 49 bus’ path and maps of transit networks in Philadelphia and Chicago. The 27-year-old is among just four people at SEPTA designing changes to SEPTA’s 77 city bus routes.
“Sometimes it blows my mind that I get to work on something that could have such a positive impact on the city of Philadelphia,” said Davidson, who studied geography as an undergraduate at George Washington University and urban spatial analytics at University of Pennsylvania.
The idea of a north-south service that would link University City and 30th Street Station to nearby residential areas, and to the cultural attractions along the Ben Franklin Parkway, began with requests from communities.
“What I find exciting about this route is we take two areas that have been historically poorly connected by transit in this city and gave them a one-seat ride,” said Andrew Stober, vice president of planning and development for the University City District, one of the groups pushing for the new route.
Today, there is no direct transit between Fairmount or Grays Ferry and University City, even though the census showed SEPTA that 2,000 University City workers live within a quarter-mile of the proposed route, many of them in areas where public transit use is light.
SEPTA is projecting 3,000 riders will use the new bus route on workdays. Revenue from those riders should cover about 22 percent of the $4.3 million cost of fuel, maintenance, and manpower needed to expand service.
In the last three years, SEPTA shared earlier versions of the plan with the communities along the route. In Strawberry Mansion, residents complained the bus route didn’t travel far enough north. City Councilman William K. Greenlee recommended the route travel 29th Street, rather than 26th and 27th as originally planned. Graduate Hospital residents made clear they didn’t want additional bus service in the neighborhood. An older version of the proposal would have routed the bus onto the South Street Bridge. Buses would have had difficulty making the turn from South Street onto 24th Street.
Showing the public a line on the map, SEPTA’s planners said, can create the mistaken impression that the route is going to be imposed on a community, rather than proposed. Adversarial meetings aren’t uncommon, and Davidson said that early in her time on the job she struggled with fierce negative reactions.
“When I was younger, I would take it personally,” she said. “Now, I think, ‘What are they trying to say other than that it’s stupid?’ I have the ability to find grains of usefulness from those negative comments to improve my work.”
Davidson and her team made adjustments. The proposed route uses 34th Street instead of South Street to cross the Schuylkill and extends farther into Strawberry Mansion, to 33rd and York streets, before ending at 33rd and Dauphin Streets. The new route also required compromise. By diverting away from the South Street Bridge, the original plan to extend service up to 38th Street would have been too circuitous, so the new proposal goes only to 34th Street in University City.
Public hearings will be held on the latest proposal in May.
The new route is more direct and efficient than the earlier version, said Jonas Maciunas, who heads the urban design firm JVM Studio. It also brings much-needed access to University City.
“The gravity of Philadelphia has, I don’t know if you want to call it shifted or spread,” Maciunas said. “The amazing thing is the percentage of population transportation carries between Center City and University City.” SEPTA planners found University City employment improved from 55,000 jobs to 75,000 jobs from 2007 to 2015, and development is still coming.
SEPTA has since last year expressed concern about shrinking bus ridership, and recently released federal data showed that Philadelphia lost a greater percentage of bus riders in 2017 than comparable metropolitan areas nationwide.
This spring, SEPTA expects to receive the results of a system-wide review of the bus network. Officials are already preparing for what could be contentious interactions with the public over the possibility of revitalizing bus service. SEPTA officials are quick to say they don’t expect a wholesale redesign.
“We have a very good base system in place,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager and treasurer. “I don’t want our customers to be alarmed.”
They expect to focus on improving frequency and reliability, but long-term riders may still be displeased with changes that will improve service but could eliminate stops or divert routes.
SEPTA will likely approach a bus network redesign similarly to the way Route 49 was handled, though, Davidson said. She considered the back-and-forth process as it exists as time consuming, but necessary.
“I don’t see this as something that slows the process, but makes the final process stronger,” she said.
Davidson has been riding SEPTA since she was 10 years old, and sees transit as a major force for good in the city. In particular, she’s interested to see whether the Route 49 bus will create access to jobs in University City for Grays Ferry residents. Relatively few commuters travel between the neighborhoods, despite their proximity. Getting from one to the other takes about a half-hour on at least two SEPTA vehicles.
“I think the part for me that seems exciting,” she said, “is being able to engage at such a large scale with the very diverse Philadelphia communities and try to give them a product that’s meaningful for them.”