» 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.