In a time where Center City is becoming more vibrant, SEPTA bus ridership is declining. Philadelphia can remedy this by acting boldly to ensure transit — which is cheap, convenient, eco-friendly and accessible — is the first choice for all Philadelphians. Bringing back the Chestnut Street Transitway would be a step in the right direction to improve mobility for everyone.
Beginning in 1976, Chestnut Street between Seventh and 18th streets was closed off to private vehicular traffic; it was restricted to buses, cyclists, and pedestrians. This was known as the Chestnut Street Transitway. In the early 2000s, Philadelphia’s city government reopened Chestnut Street to cars, primarily to address concerns from businesses about how there was a lack of foot traffic, along with complaints from pedestrians and cyclists about noise and fumes from buses. Technically, a single lane on the right side remains restricted to buses and cyclists, but it is completely unenforced.
The demise of the Transitway was a symptom of the greater urban malaise facing our city at the time. But now, Chestnut Street is on the upswing. Market East, within which Chestnut Street is a key commercial corridor, has been cited nationally for its retail strength and potential. There has been an influx of new construction, along with many planned developments, as well as businesses popping up to fill the needs of residents.
Many shoppers reach these businesses on foot, bike, or transit. This is best exemplified by Target’s surface parking lot at 12th and Chestnut Streets, which is often nearly empty, yet the store is full of customers.
If the city were to reinstate the Chestnut Street Transitway, people who arrive by private vehicle to visit Target and other Chestnut Street businesses could be accommodated by being dropped off at a loading zone on the numbered cross streets, with the street space on Chestnut Street dedicated to moving the greatest number of people safely and efficiently on foot, bike, and bus.
Advancements in sensor and emissions technology would ensure that the new and improved Transitway would be a success. Buses could be equipped with red-light sensors, which would change the light ahead of them as they approach, so that service would be timely and frequent. The newest hybrid SEPTA buses, as well as the all-electric Proterra buses slated to begin service on other routes, do not pollute the air as older buses did, and their engines are much quieter than previous generations of buses. These advancements add up to cleaner air, less noise, and the ability to increase bus frequency, which were the major complaints that made the Transitway’s previous iteration unsuccessful.
We also have the benefit of other American cities trying and succeeding at creating mixed-use Transitways. For example, State Street in Madison, Wis., follows the same model of shared space and is widely judged to be a success—and is indeed one of the most vibrant streets in the whole of Madison. Additionally, the Madison Transitway has nowhere near the density of residents and pedestrian count that we have on Chestnut Street, particularly with new residential and office developments coming online.
With the popularity of Open Streets in Philadelphia, the increasing demand for more spaces protected from private vehicles and the need for timely and more frequent buses, we need to bring back the Transitway. The bottom line is that we have the infrastructure and the means. Let’s try something new (again) that would make life better for everyone.