Transit for a Future Philadelphia

» It’s time for the East Coast’s second city to wake up

Philadelphia, with one and a half million inhabitants, is America’s sixth largest city, and its metropolitan area, with almost six million, is the country’s sixth biggest. Its urban core – 135 square miles in all – is relatively dense, at more than 10,000 people per square mile, 1/5 greater than that of Los Angeles. But while the western metropolis has been expanding its transit system at a rapid clip over the past twenty-five years, the city of brotherly love has been letting its public transportation stagnate, even abandoning some former streetcar lines as late as 1992. Perhaps it is no surprise that the city has lost one fourth of its population since 1970. Philadelphia’s rapid transit lines now attract fewer daily customers than do Washington’s, Boston’s, San Francisco’s, or Atlanta’s – and yet those are all smaller cities.

But Philadelphia should be transit-friendly; its downtown is the third most populous in the country after New York and Boston, with over 80,000 inhabitants in the blocks surrounding Market Street. And though jobs in the Philadelphia metro area continue to sprawl out, the city still offers almost 400,000 positions within 3 miles of the center, giving it the nation’s eighth largest downtown by employment.

Even with systemic disinvestment over the years, those figures make it unsurprising that, as the map below demonstrates, the city still has one of the nation’s largest mass transit networks, focalized in Center City, just blocks from where the Declaration of Independence was signed so many years ago. Three rapid transit lines – the Broad Street Subway, the Market-Frankford Elevated, and the Patco Speedline – converge near City Hall. A huge regional rail network fans out from the three downtown stations at 30th Street, Market East, and Suburban Station. A network of light rail subway-surface lines extend into West Philadelphia, and a newly reopened streetcar runs down Girard Avenue just north of Center City.

Nonetheless, Philadelphia’s transit offerings aren’t sufficient to meet the city’s needs, and it’s time to consider how the city can invest to improve itself.

Existing Philadelphia Transit

Over the years, transit advocates in America’s first capital have been pushing for improvements, and there have been a number of suggested expansions to the (mostly) SEPTA-run network.

For years, people in much of Northeast Philadelphia, denied rapid transit, have been pushing for extensions of either the Broad Street or Market-Frankford lines along the area’s major right-of-way, Roosevelt Boulevard. Between 1999 and 2003, the city undertook an alternative analysis study of the corridor and recommended the extension of the Broad Street Subway from North Philadelphia along Roosevelt Boulevard, practically to the city limits; a short extension of the Market-Frankford Line would connect the two services in Northeast Philadelphia. The study estimated that the service would attract more than 80,000 new daily transit trips, an astonishing number, at the cost of $3.4 billion. Such a cost-effectiveness ($13.24 per new trip) would automatically qualify the line for federal New Starts funding if the city ponied up its side of the bargain. Unfortunately, the city, saddled with constant budget problems and repeated corruption scandals, simply chose to stop planning the line.

SEPTA more recently proposed an extension to the Broad Street line at the other end of the route, from the current terminus at Pattison south to the Naval Yard, closer to the growing business district there. There has been no movement on that proposal and certainly no funds proposed. Another possibility considered by Philadelphia’s transit agency was the implementation of light rail in the City Branch tunnel, abandoned for years and which runs from Center City northwest to the Museum of Art and Fairmount Park; the corridor would potential then extend west along the reactivated Girard Avenue line. The proposal was axed for reasons of poor ridership potential.

Currently, the Delaware River Port Authority, which also runs the Patco Speedline, is studying new transit routes along the city’s Delaware River waterfront. Light rail lines would extend from the existing subway-surface terminus near City Hall and then provide service north and south along the water. The line would presumably be intended to spur development in an area that has been woefully under urbanized in the postindustrial era.

More recently, SEPTA has committed to reactivating streetcar service along Routes 23 and 56, which were abandoned to buses in the early 1990s, but where light rail tracks remain embedded in the street. The agency has set aside funds for those track improvements in its capital budget for 2014-2021, so it’s possible that those improvements – unlike most of the others listed above – will actually be implemented.

Existing Plans for Philadelphia Transit

Yet, perhaps it’s a good thing that Philadelphia has been incapable of finding the funds or motivation to fund the transit improvements it needs. That’s because for the most part, the proposed extensions won’t serve some of the city’s highest-demand areas.

Consider the map below. The underlying image is a Census 2000-sourced image of Philadelphia’s block groups, showing density per square mile. The redder the area, the denser – up to 80,000 people per square mile in the most populated zones. On the other hand, the areas in beige and white have suburban densities, at around 5,000 people per square mile. Overlaid on top are transit area zones, showing 1/4 and 1/2-mile radii around existing rapid transit (black) and regional rail stations (blue), as well as stations on the proposed extensions (green) described in the previous map. These quarter and half-mile zones provide a good indication of which areas are or would be directly served by people walking or biking to transit – essential for understanding commutes in an urban center like Philadelphia.

As is obvious, the proposed extensions, especially the waterfront line and much of the Roosevelt Boulevard run, extend through areas of relatively minimal settlement. On the other hand, a number of the city’s major dense neighborhoods get no improvements at all – such as the majority of South Philadelphia, near Northwest Philadelphia, and far Northwest.

While it could be argued that investing in transit to the far Northeast would provide a transit alternative to people currently stuck in their cars, the reality is that transit lines in the more congested areas closer to Center City would be more frequented per mile than suburban sections – and that means the city would get a bigger bang for the buck in investing in such urban core lines. People living in apartments and tightly-packed row houses in the city’s densest areas are those most likely to live a car-free life, and therefore are the most likely to be transit-dependent. Recent plans for transit network expansion simply aren’t up to par.

Philadelphia Density Overlay

Below is a proposal for investing in Philadelphia’s transit, focusing on improvements that would serve the city’s densest areas and provide the most benefit to the urban core’s most transit dependent.

Proposed Philadelphia Transit

The proposal is based on the assumption that the most valuable transit investments are those that would serve the most, and the lines described here would do as much by concentrating on expanding to areas of the city that currently lack the kind of transit service that would make Philadelphia easier to get around in without a car:

  • An extension of the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines along Roosevelt Boulevard, but only to Cottman Avenue: this would provide the maximum levels of service to the densest levels of Northeast without investing in the transit-unfriendly and suburban-like areas northeast of Cottman. An extension of the Broad Street Subway south to the Naval Yard and a light rail line running north to Glenside could also serve as efficient improvements to the core network.
  • A light rail line running along the City Branch, through northern Center City, and then northeast along the waterfront to Northern Liberties and Fishtown: such a line would provide service to the city’s most important park, its arts district, and the increasingly gentrifying areas northeast of downtown. The relatively developable Delaware Waterfront northeast of Center City makes more sense for transit investment than the southern areas, currently replete with Ikea shopping centers and the like, and which have been proposed for transit by the Delaware River Port Authority.
  • A light rail line running along 22nd Street or a parallel route from North Philadelphia to South Philadelphia, via west Center City: this project would provide access to Strawberry Mansion, Sharswood, Francisville, Grays Ferry, and Point Breeze, poor and moderate-income neighborhoods at the cusp of major revival but which need public investment to improve. This would act as a continuation of the resumed line 56 streetcar service.
  • A light rail line running east-west along Snyder Avenue and then north along 6th or a parallel route, before returning through Center City: this line would serve the similarly underserved but quickly developing Southeast Philadelphia neighborhoods. It would act as an extension of the 22nd Street line detailed above and potentially connect to the subway-surface lines near City Hall.

These suggestions do not necessarily represent exactly the appropriate alignments for new transit lines in Philadelphia, but their construction would dramatically improve rapid transit service in the city’s most needy areas. The city should take advantage of a transit-friendly President, reassess its planned investments, rally for state and federal aid, and move forward quickly towards constructing a public transportation network that serves the best interests of its population. It’s time to act.

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Erin

    Thanks for taking a look at Philly, Yonah! Any resident of Center City-or anyone who ever got lost in the maze of one-way streets made necessary by the fact that you can’t build a road more than two lanes wide-can tell you this town was never built for cars. Busses aren’t a solution, either, since they just end up getting stuck in traffic. I know it would be decades before any of this could happen, if ever in my lifetime, but hey, good to see some sharp minds on this project.

  • Gary

    As a seven-year resident and civic booster, I’ve long been disappointed by Philly’s underwhelming rapid transit system. I like a lot of your suggestions, but here are some notes:
    1. It might make sense to start a Roosevelt Blvd Line only to Cottman, but it really should (eventually) be extended to the city line, giving residents in the Far Northeast a 35-min ride downtown.
    2. Philly’s streets are VERY narrow and a surface trolley (like the 23) just doesn’t make sense, especially since it parallels the Broad Street Subway only three blocks away. If the 23 is ever brought back it should only run west of Broad St.
    3. The rail link from Broad-Olney to Glenside could be done as a short spur of the Broad Street Subway, running as an express train and getting downtown in 18-20 mins.

  • Gerardo

    Thanks for bringing attention to our fair city. I’d like to put in a plug for my two favorite proposals: extending the PATCO Locust St. subway to either the University City rail station or to 30th St. Station, and creating a transfer between the Market-Frankford Line and the Northeast Corridor R7 train.

  • David

    I enjoy your blog very much.

    I have done two google maps, the first is of city and the surroundings and all the transit projects considered

    the second is one i did with the idea of replacing the Cheasnut hill RR lines with a subway/ lightmetro that splits and goes around city hall and then meets at the sport complex

    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=116302958002058674187.000444a546465f20c7059&ll=39.99606,-75.440369&spn=1.073099,2.460937&z=9

    http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=116302958002058674187.00043e6fac1c802f933ac&ll=39.948174,-75.124168&spn=0.134232,0.307617&z=12

  • eldondre

    not a bad take, though I don’t know where you’re from. Many streets aren’t good for light rail in Philly because the streets are narrow affairs (mostly) with the major exceptions of Del Ave and some of the north philly crosstowns. I’d further posit that according to your population map, the NW extension would be extremely usseful and, indeed, the RT6 bus is well used. I’d alter your proposal and send it under Ogontz Ave (old york to stenton to ogontz). this basic idea dates as far back as 1913 in the original transit improvements plan. (interestingly,the area is also served by Dwight Evans who is a fairly powerful politician in Harrisburg…Ogontz Ave has been his baby for years). I’ve also settled on merging the BSL spur with the city branch cut, then using 29th st (an idea also dating back to 1913) as a means of serving the art museum, fairmount, and North Philly (potentially further as well).

  • Ed

    I’d just like to add a clarification to your maps:
    The line you have labeled as SEPTA regional rail that parallels the PATCO line in NJ is actually not part of the SEPTA system, but is the NJ Transit Atlantic City line, running from 30th street in Philly all the way to the Jersey shore. The AC line joins the Northeast corridor tracks with the SEPTA R7 near the Market-Frankfort El, and uses the NEC tracks into 30th Street.

    Also, the green LRT line in NJ is the River Line, operated by NJ Transit.

    I think it’s important to make these agency distinctions because of the different funding sources, and the related impact this has on expansion. SEPTA is funded by all Pennsylvania sources — Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. PATCO is backed by the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates all of the bridges between NJ and PA in the Philly area. NJ Transit is a part of NJ DOT.

  • Gary, edldondre –
    I agree that most of Philly’s streets – especially in South Philadelphia – are too narrow for two-way light rail, but they’re fine for one way. Having the service run on parallel streets would solve that problem.

    Ed –
    Thanks for the clarifications. I should have made that more clear on the map.

    • 00idiot

      Yonah-I would like to know what exactly route you intend for the various proposals, specifically the NW Broad Street Extension. Running the line up to the Cedarbrook Mall probably captures a fair load, but other routes leading north out of Olney Terminal are also very heavy, like the 55 bus out Old York Road. much of this route is along a very wide road, and might be well suited for light rail.

  • To make LRT work well on the narrow one-way streets, IMO, it would be necessary to remove parking on one side of the street where both sides currently have it, as is the case on most South Philadelphia N-S streets. An alternative that you might want to consider for connecting that Snyder Avenue crosstown line to Center City is Moyamensing Avenue, the only wide, two-way N-S street in South Philly between Broad and the Delaware and the current route of the 57 bus.

    It would also require a crackdown on delivery vehicles blocking the center travel lane. Buses can sometimes squeeze around these vehicles; trolleys cannot.

  • niel

    Nice ideas. A big factor that I don’t think got much play here is the extremely conservative, innovation-averse climate at SEPTA. The new management is certainly doing better than the previous, but this is a system that has consistently lagged a decade or more behind most others in the country in terms of adopting all kinds of new technology, from farecards to updated rolling stock (though they’re better about buses now, I have to say).

    SEPTA’s take on new service has traditionally been that they have all they can handle just offering what they offer now, and that there is no money for anything new or different. By “there is no money” I have usually understood “there is no will.”

    So we can draw up all the wonderful plans we want, but if the leadership at SEPTA and in the city aren’t interested in change, it won’t happen.

  • Gary

    Yonah,

    Actually, most surface routes in the city *do* already operate on parallel streets, for example, the 23 generally runs n/s on 11th and 12th. I don’t know if you appreciate how narrow Philly streets are, but even prominent ones like Walnut and South are less than 30′ wide in most cases, and there are major problems with double-parked cars, delivery vehicles, road/utility work and other obstructions. I just don’t think surface rail in mixed traffic would be effective anywhere between Girard and Washington Aves.

  • One more comment on this post:

    Opinion in the Northeast about rapid transit is more conflicted than you might be aware of from your vantage point.

    While support for a Northeast subway has grown since community opposition doomed the last serious effort to build one in the 1950s, there remain a non-trivial number of Northeast residents who continue to insist that the area does not need rapid transit, reverse-commute ridership on the Route 14 bus be damned.

    Many of the opponents object to the line for the same reasons they did in the 1950s: they fear that a subway would bring a worse element into the Northeast.

    This relates to issues of culture, race and class that are beyond the scope of this blog, but these issues continue to affect how Philadelphians in general — not just Northeast residents — view their mass transit system.

  • Great stuff! The exact same arguments could be made for NOLA…

  • GT

    before you use any type of PATCO light rail to the waterfront you’d need to bury I95, without which Philly doesnt really have a waterfront. too bad the Big Dig set such a bad precedent….

  • GK

    The author makes some good points, but it’s unfortunate that bus service is completely overlooked. The assumption that rail transit always equals rapid transit is not an accurate one (see: Route 15 and the surface portions of the other trolley routes). Significant enhancements to bus service (i.e., widespread “Transit First”-type improvements) might provide the best bang for the mobility buck.

  • niel

    Though I hate to admit it (being a rail-buff), it’s less about the mode than the right of way. Either BRT or light rail is the best option *if* it has its own ROW. The reason both buses & the Route 15 don’t live up to their potential is that they’re stuck in narrow Philly streets. East of Girard, where the 15 gets its own ROW, it speeds up considerably and is quite good. The problem with all this is that there is precious little space to put new ROWs.

    • Matt Fisher

      BRT sucks by contrast to LRT, in the same sense Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career sucks. And Shaq sucks as a genie in “Kazaam”. :)

  • great post.

    one thing you missed though is the schuylkill valley metro. its one of the most important projects the city could undertake, connecting center city with king of prussia. this would be of great service to the region, not just center city and its immediate surroundings.

  • Ken

    There are some interesting ideas here, but I think there are a few things that may have to be addressed first: A) there are a heck of a lot of cars parked on the streets these days – perhaps space could be freed up by creating more parking garages first, then bringing in light rail or buses, B) some of the existing public transit routes go through somewhat scary areas. Crime in the city really must be significantly reduced and the public transit lines better protected. C) The highest revenue-generating lines would probably circle or criss-cross the downtown area and waterfront area where they would be used by locals, travelers, and business people alike.

  • DBX

    It’s a sad comment on the state of Philadelphia that the last mayor who actually had the will to implement a vision on transportation — even if it was borrowed from advisers like Damon Childs and Edmund Bacon — was Frank Rizzo. Not exactly in the pantheon of great American mayors but it has been downhill since him.

    The Center City Commuter Connection remains a landmark in American transportation, probably the only scheme of its kind in the last 50 years to successfully tie together disparate commuter rail networks, and also notable for the fact that it is not a half measure but rather a truly major piece of infrastructure, a four-track main line underneath the heart of the city.

    When will our current politicians have the will to take the bright ideas of our planners and put them into reality?

  • Nathanael Nerode

    Looks like that NW extension of the Broad Street Line is the most straightforward and effective improvement. The Broad Street Line already benefits from having express tracks and is (unlike the Market-Frankford or the Subway-Surface) therefore not packed to capacity yet. Extension through a dense area with grade separation and provision of express service — probably without needing to order *that* many more vehicles? Sounds like a good move.

    The best way to serve near NE, SE, and SW Philly is an interesting question. I wonder if there would be any way to give a trolley loop line running through near SE and near SW Philly meaningful amounts of exclusive ROW. Pedestrianized street with trolley, so it’s exclusive except for the cross streets? Are there any streets which are close enough to neighboring streets, with cross streets spaced closely enough, and vibrant enough, that they could afford to become trolley/bike/pedestrian only?

  • Chad

    The Chestnut Street transitway destroyed Center City’s most vibrant shopping district in the 1970s, and it’s only started recovering in the last few years since the street was restored to car traffic. There’s no reasonable chance that any street in the city will be pedestrianized for a long time now. Really, the city just plain needs more subways. There are trolleys running in a wonderfully dense network in West Philly, but they’re slow when they’re above ground and the tunnel is overburdend when they’re under. Most of the rest of the city is far away from transit, except along Broad Market, Front/Kensington/Frankford, and in the Northwest along the two Chestnut Hill lines. Every other part of the whole city needs subways, period.

  • CH

    Some of the ideas on here are good ones but I have to agree with some others on here, Philly’s narrow streets would not really allow for a light rail line above ground especially in areas like north and south Philly. The light rails would only get caught up in traffic and defeat the purpose. I like the idea of a subway extension into the greater northeast at the city limits. But before any of this can take place City Hall would have a have a major enema to rid the city of the fecal matter that’s been running the show down there for years. SEPTA could use the same thing!

  • Yonah,

    I agree there is major need for improvement in Philly’s transportation system. The key will be to be able to afford it, and to keep improvement costs manageable. That’s not going to be an easy task.

    Jim

  • Bob

    I’ve lived in most sections of the city and I have to say that — oddly enough — putting I-95 underground would bring much more life to the entire waterfront then anything else. It would be expensive but only a fraction of what we spend on wars. When will we declare war on city infrastructure.
    The spur all the way up the Blvd would not work — people living there do not want it, they also have two cars in actual driveways. Build these things where people live and people who can not park cars live — the city has lots of opportunities for this. If the Germantown trolley came back , cars would use the side roads as before.
    So the only digging should be to bury I-95 which stole priceless realestate and bring back the old fashioned electric trollies. It’s Philadelphia – not Manhatten when they bulldose everything.

  • Colin

    Any type of loop (LTR or subway) around center city and the surrounding neighborhoods would be helpful. I’d put the southern end at Tasker-Morris or Ellsworth-Federal with transfer and the northern end further, maybe Cecil B Moore. Just quibbling though, very good ideas.

  • Mike

    There already was LRT along your “Stenton Ave” corridor; route 6 was a trolley from Olney to Cheltenham via Ogontz Ave until 1986 and went all the way to Willow Grove (N. of Glenside) before 1958. Criminal that the city limits section was abandoned.

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