SEPTA was recently named the best transit system in North America
. Yes, our
SEPTA, with its mighty 144 routes: two subway lines, 117 bus routes, three trackless trolleys, nine light rail and 13 regional rail lines that keep Philly moving. The sheer reach of our transit system, and its many modes, would be enough to make other cities with skimpier systems envious. But this vast network comes at a price: maintenance. So while transit boosters bat around big ideas like new lines – like light rail along Roosevelt Boulevard or the Delaware Waterfront – these high-ticket capital projects go well beyond what SEPTA and the city can fund without a significant cash infusion.
The good news: Ridership has hit a 23 year high
[pdf], spurred in part by the rising price of gas and the bumpy, slumpy economy. As many commuters will attest: rush hour trains and buses are packed. And SEPTA has seen major growth in late-night and weekend ridership because of different shifts and employment patterns.
But that good news also means that SEPTA is under pressure because their budget isn’t changing to reflect the increased demand or strain on the system. Instead, SEPTA has been forced to raid its “rainy day fund” just to keep the wheels turning
. Despite SEPTA's successes, the threat of fare hikes or service cuts loom on the horizon unless something major changes. [For more on SEPTA’s tough times, see Daniel Denvir’s recent City Paper story.]
“We really are at a point with our funding that we have very limited resources,” Trish said. As much as SEPTA and the city would like to answer increased demand by, say, putting more buses on the road, they can't. There aren’t any more buses. And there's is no pot of gold at the end of the El.
Of SEPTA’s operating budget, Charlie Webb puts it bluntly: “It’s fixed.”
That means that SETPA and the city have little choice but to find ways to improve service without spending more money. This is a story about creative thinking fostered by constraint.
That’s not to say the folks at SEPTA and MOTU don’t have big ideas. These are people who have thought enough about bus loops to have favorites, able to see poetry in the humming activity of transit hubs, and know the name of roof-level windows for straphangers to see out of (“standee” windows). They are transit buffs, do-ers, and by necessity they are also realists. So their shared challenge is to comb through ridership data, work with private developers to incorporate transit into site plans, experiment with route changes to make sure transit is where riders need it to be, and find any and all wiggle-room for improvement.
“Most of my career has been spent making improvements through resource reallocation,” said Charlie. He has been with SEPTA for about 35 years.
“Resource reallocation” and hunting for efficiencies are the two big means for SEPTA and the city to make adjustments. That's where Charlie and Trish come in. We begin our journey on the Market-Frankford El.