SEPTA Wins Best Transit Award, Deserves Some Credit (and Criticism)

Last week, Philadelphia’s public transportation provider was recognized as the best large transit agency in the nation. Many locals were in a state of disbelief. Did SEPTA deserve the honor? Diana Lind looks at the good, the bad and the slow of Philly’s transit.

A regular SEPTA bus with an unusual message. Credit: Flickr user SpecialKRB

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Last week, Philadelphia’s regional public transit agency, SEPTA, won an award. In the words of spokesman Andrew Busch, it was “definitely the biggest honor we’ve received in terms of peer recognition and industry recognition.”

The award, for the best large transit agency in North America, was bestowed on SEPTA by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). In announcing the award, APTA President Michael Melaniphy cited SEPTA’s financial management, commitment to sustainability and increased ridership. He went one step further to say that SEPTA represents “the best of the best.”

Local media were quick to seize on the disconnect between SEPTA’s operational advances and the day-to-day reality of commuting in the city. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s response to the announcement (“REALLY?”) summed up many people’s sense of surprise. Some chortling and reserved praise followed.

But was APTA wrong to give this award to SEPTA, or are we commuters too tough on our transit agency?

To be sure, SEPTA deserves some accolades. The agency has done a fine job of managing $191 million of stimulus funds to make 32 major improvements to the system, including renovations of the Spring Garden and Girard Avenue stops, which hadn’t been touched since the 1920s. SEPTA also was the first agency in the country to have a consolidated, fully multi-modal control center that helps manage everything from agency police to regional rail in one, central place. And SEPTA has focused on sustainability, from hybrid buses to building the country’s first LEED Silver train station at Fox Chase. Lastly, the long-promised new payment technology that will allow commuters to pay for fares with their cell phones will be rolled out starting a year from now.

The Spring Garden SEPTA stop. Credit: Andrew Bossi on Flickr

But how can you reward an agency for these milestones while overlooking how SEPTA fails many of its patrons on a daily basis? For most Center City residents and commuters, an LEED silver train station in the ‘burbs is irrelevant when you consider SEPTA’s abandonment of The Concourse, the squalid acres under Broad Street that serve as an unofficial homeless shelter. We’re all excited about the new payment technologies (NPT) underway, but frustrated that nowhere on the NPT site does SEPTA give an explicit date of rolling out the technology. If SEPTA begins using NPT on the Market-Frankford line next year as planned, that will be a full 20 years after New York City’s transportation system first began using the MetroCard. Until then, we still use tokens and paper transfers. We can’t pay for fares with a credit card or get receipts for purchasing tokens.

But my frustration with SEPTA goes beyond the point-of-purchase. I take SEPTA buses to and from work most days. Though I live close to Broad Street and work on Girard Avenue in Brewerytown, I am reluctant to take the Broad Street line up to Girard and transfer to the #15 trolley. Why? Because it costs $1 more each way, or $2 more every day. That turns into $500 more each year. Even for someone who earns more than Philadelphia’s median wage, that’s hard to cough up. But for most SEPTA patrons — 50 percent of its city bus and rail riders have a total household income of less than $35,000 per year — transferring is just too expensive.

And so I take the #32 or #48 bus up to work, a 2.7-mile ride that takes as long on a bus as on foot. Because SEPTA doesn’t have a phone app or displays near bus stops that tell me when the next bus is coming, I usually spend 10 or 15 minutes waiting for a bus, and then a 25 to 30 minute ride, making an average commute take 30 to 45 minutes. Despite the fact that there are three buses that stop at 29th Street and Girard Avenue, right near my office, my return commute is rarely any faster. While I make the most of my commute by reading a book, it’s frustrating that I don’t have too many options about how to spend a full hour of every workday.

Particularly for neighborhoods like Brewerytown, having slow and inefficient transit is a penalty that has serious consequences on various aspects of life. A commute that was 15 minutes faster each way would give locals an extra 30 minutes each day to prepare dinner, spend time with loved ones, work out, apply for a job. None of these things can be accomplished on a bus, and over time, like the $1 transfer fee, the time adds up to diminished opportunities.

There is a bright side to all of this. SEPTA’s ridership is at a 23-year high with 339.3 million trips per year, and a 1.6- percent increase in ridership over last year. With continual ridership growth, there will be 12 million new riders taking SEPTA in the coming years. This means there’s an opportunity to introduce a number of Philadelphians, people in the region and tourists to what could be a truly first-rate transit system.

What should SEPTA focus on? Here are a few ideas.

1. Eliminate transfer charges

Charging people to transfer discourages transferring. This practice lowers rates of ridership when we should be doing everything possible to encourage people to take a bus or train everywhere. Increased ridership makes it easier to introduce more frequent buses and trains, improving service, creating a virtuous cycle. The money lost on people paying transfers would probably be made up by new riders and increased use of the system. See the way the MetroCard revolutionized transit use in New York 20 years ago.

SEPTA’s NPT system comes a full two decades after New York’s MetroCard. Credit: Steven Kreuzer on Flickr

2. Eliminate half the city’s bus stops

Most SEPTA bus lines have a stop on every single block. As a result, buses move painfully slow. With a stop on every block, the city has an abundance of poor transit infrastructure (a pole with a sign) on every block, and a limited, ad hoc set of good bus shelters. There is also a tremendous amount of redundancy built into the system. Ten lines run down Market Street; a full dozen stop in front of the Municipal Services Building at City Hall.

Half the number of bus stops, work with the City to put legitimate shelters at major intersections, and reduce redundancy by streamlining routes while encouraging more transfers between buses.

3. Invest in maps, apps and other forms of customer service

Before there were phone apps that told people when the next bus was coming, there were simple amenities that made transportation easier and more pleasant to use. Right now there is no citywide bus map that SEPTA has produced; an unaffiliated mapmaker has made his own transit map which is helpful but not 100 percent accurate.

Start with creating serious maps for all modes of transit, then move on to apps. Right now there are TrainView and TransitView programs. TrainView is fairly redundant, as most regional rail trains stick to a pretty serious schedule. Transitview for buses gives you a vague approximation of where a bus is and when it will arrive at your stop, and moreover is inaccessible even with a smart phone. There’s really no other way to put it: These applications stink. Hackathons are great, but they would be even better if SEPTA actually used some of the apps produced. Better yet, get a good developer to make a decent app that people can use with smart and dumb phones.

4. Be more transparent

When asked about SEPTA’s past attempts to consolidate bus stops, SEPTA spokesperson Busch mentioned a pilot program that ran on the #47 bus. During that pilot, SEPTA tried reducing the stops by half, and found that more people were confused about the program and the buses didn’t really move faster. But the report on the project barely elaborates on the information I just wrote out. SEPTA’s trials deserve public attention and input. The public deserves the data — show us the average times before and after the pilot! Give us reader surveys. And tell us why you haven’t tried another pilot on another bus line. This will help build education about programs SEPTA is thinking about rolling out.

What a weak slogan. Credit: The Reckoner

5. Lastly share your vision and change your slogan

It is hard to compare SEPTA with New York’s MTA, but I can’t help it. I no longer live in New York, but I visit at least once a month and ride the subway whenever I am there. I feel like I know more about New York’s capital program than I do about SEPTA’s. SEPTA has a strategic plan that it’s been implementing for two years and will administer for the next two — but much of the public is in the dark about the agency’s priorities or goals.

Instead of telling us about all the great things SEPTA has been doing and wants to do for the public, SEPTA’s new “I SEPTA Philly” ad campaigns make no sense. “Is it clean?” What the hell is this supposed to mean?

Which brings us to the final point: SEPTA needs a new slogan. “We’re Getting There” is an embarrassment on a variety of levels. It’s an apology, a phrase with a negative double entendre. And it’s right — SEPTA’s not there yet, it’s in the process of becoming.

But worst of all, it’s self-referential. According to the strategic plan, “SEPTA is diligently working to change the public’s perception of the organization and to be known for being a passenger-focused organization.” Then perhaps it should put the customer in its slogan. SEPTA should be more like “Taking You Places.” Now that sounds like the dreambus I’d like to get on.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

Tags: philadelphiainfrastructurepublic transportationtransit agenciesbuses

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