Changing Skyline: Bring Philadelphia's suffering bus travelers inside

Passengers gather on the sidewalk to board a bus near 30th Street Station.

Consider it a tale of two transportation modes.

Go to JFK Boulevard in University City and you'll see travelers huddled on the sidewalk like refugees, in the scorching sun of summer and the chilling wind of winter, while they wait for buses to New York or Washington. Then walk across the street to the soaring waiting room of 30th Street Station, where Amtrak riders heading to the same destinations relax in climate-controlled comfort, sipping lattes until their trains are called.

Though no one could argue that conditions for American rail travelers are ideal, intercity bus riders have it many times worse. Philadelphia boasts the second-highest bus ridership in the country, after New York, and yet our main bus station at 10th and Filbert is a grim, one-story, cinder-block affair that would not look out of place in a third world country. At least it has a roof. For riders taking the BoltBus or Megabus from the university area - some 5,000 people a day - there is no cover at all.

But Philadelphia's neglected bus riders could finally see some relief. Buried deep within the new Amtrak master plan is a proposal for a modern bus terminal on the north side of 30th Street Station. And unlike most of the projects depicted in Amtrak's eye-catching renderings, the bus station is something that could actually happen in our lifetimes.

Building a new bus station for its competitors was probably the last thing on Amtrak's mind when it commissioned the long-range plan from SOM, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Olin. The main goal was to monetize the underused real estate over the 30th Street Station rail yards to compensate for the never-ending reductions in federal funding. What seemed to captivate the public most after the plan was released this summer was a proposal to build a miniature Center City north of the station, between the Schuylkill and Drexel University.

The high-rise development would certainly be a huge boon to Philadelphia's economy. Unfortunately, the forest of skyscrapers is unlikely to materialize until Amtrak can build its long-promised high-speed rail network. At best, we're talking three or four decades. When those superfast trains finally do arrive, you can bet ticket prices will be in the stratosphere, beyond the reach of anyone who doesn't travel on an expense account.

Buses, on the other hand, are cheap - as little as $10 for a one-way ticket on the Philadelphia-New York run - and are likely to remain so. Low fares are one reason private motor coaches are now the fastest-growing form of intercity travel, growing faster than planes, trains, and automobiles. By beefing up its bus infrastructure, the city could enjoy an economic jolt at a fraction of the cost of high-speed rail.

Long-distance buses were once seen as the travel mode of last resort, patronized by drifters and lost souls. But the introduction of luxury coaches equipped with restrooms and WiFi has changed all that, explains Joseph P. Schwieterman, a transit expert at DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Rising Amtrak fares on the Northeast Corridor accelerated the shift. Now, everyone from college students to business travelers rides short-haul buses.

Bus operators have done particularly well on the East Coast, where cities are crammed close together. Philadelphia's location in the middle of the vast Northeast megalopolis has made it "a hotbed for short-haul bus companies," Schwieterman says. Together, BoltBus and Megabus carried more than 1.8 million Philadelphia riders in 2013. Greyhound, which owns BoltBus, handles similar traffic at the Filbert Street station.

The growing numbers have made the deplorable condition of the city's bus infrastructure unacceptable. Because the Filbert and JFK depots are next to Regional Rail stations, they are, in theory, an intermodalist's dream. Yet there are almost no signs or pathways in either location to smooth the connection to the trains. "People are always stopping to ask me, 'Where is the BoltBus?' " says Natalie Shieh, who is overseeing Amtrak's master plan from her office at 30th Street Station.

Amtrak's design for the new station is still preliminary, but the early concept calls for a covered, 11-bay terminal on Arch Street, steps from the train station's north entrance. A ticket office and waiting room would be incorporated into the canopy structure. Because the site borders the Cira Centre's front plaza, there is an opportunity to create an outdoor seating area served by food vendors. With the Amtrak parking garage next door, it's an intermodal trifecta.

There's just one hitch. The alignment of the I-76 and I-676 ramps complicates vehicle access to the site, forcing buses to loop around from Market Street. The ramp arrangement is also the main reason Amtrak has never been able to get the traffic circulation right at 30th Street Station.

So, before it builds the bus station, Amtrak wants PennDot to reconfigure the ramps. As highway projects go, it's small change, $32 million. But given the pace of these things, Shieh estimates it will take 10 years before Amtrak can start work on the bus station, which is now estimated to cost $17 million.

That's too long for people to stand out in the heat and the cold. It's also too long for Drexel University, which is planning to expand onto JFK Boulevard as part of its Schuylkill Yards innovation district.

Why wait for the ramps to be reconstructed? Amtrak owns the one-acre surface lot. It wouldn't cost much to erect a temporary canopy and small enclosure, and make a few street adjustments to accommodate buses. This is exactly the kind of problem architectural competitions are meant to solve. If we can do pop-up beer gardens, we can do a pop-up bus station.

Boston, Washington, and Denver have already taken steps to improve conditions for bus travelers, by carving out space in their Amtrak stations for bus bays. Though these makeshift depots don't offer the graciousness of a classic train station, they're far better than leaving riders out in the elements. Amtrak might also consider setting aside space in its garage for buses.

Initially, bus operators resisted moving indoors because it meant paying docking fees. But city officials in Boston and Washington put down their respective feet. The operators, in turn, added a small surcharge to their ticket prices. As the popularity of bus travel broadens, operators have come to believe civilized waiting areas are crucial to their brands.

The problems at Filbert Street go beyond the station's dismal physical condition. Traffic congestion is terrible because buses must navigate Chinatown's narrow streets. A 2009 Planning Commission study noted that putting bus bays on Arch Street created a wide gap that "cripples one of Chinatown's most important retail streets." Because the property is privately owned, it is hard to believe the station's large surface lot will remain undeveloped after the Gallery reopens in 2018.

So, here's the big question: Instead of having two substandard bus depots, should Philadelphia aim for one gracious, modern bus facility? Bus travel is expected to double by 2040. Philadelphia can't just wait around to solve the problem of its bus infrastructure.

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Changing Skyline:

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