There’s nothing about the Route 78 bus that would seem particularly exciting.
Linking 30th Street Station to the Cornwells Heights Station in Bensalem, it operates infrequently and serves only about 225 people a day. Yet Miles Taylor, 19, a University of Pennsylvania undergrad and self-appointed chronicler of the highs and lows of the region’s public transit, can’t wait to ride it.
“The schedule is so bizarre,” Taylor said. “The outbound trips are impossible to ride since there’s no way to get back, but you can take the 4:44 a.m. outbound Trenton Line train from 30th [Street] to connect to the morning runs.”
The story behind that bus route turns out to be interesting. It was created in 2010 largely to accommodate IRS workers when their office moved near 30th Street Station. They work unusual hours, SEPTA officials said, coming in very early, leaving late, and the bus was designed to get workers from Bucks County to the city at times when Regional Rail wasn’t running.
That’s the kind of transit story that’s irresistible to Taylor, who is on a journey to ride and review every train, trolley, station, and 128 bus routes on SEPTA’s system for his blog, Miles in Transit, before he graduates. So far, he has ridden every Regional Rail line and all the trolleys, along with a fair share of buses. He has written almost 50 entries about SEPTA (and some NJ Transit services).
Taylor chases new transit experiences with the fervor of an iPhone fan racing to buy the latest generation of the smartphone. Case in point: He biked to Strawberry Mansion at 4 a.m. to be the first person to board the Route 49 bus when it debuted in February.
“I think that you kind of get the real Philadelphia on a bus,” said Taylor, whose speech brims with enthusiasm for transit. “That’s kind of the most raw places in a city, and you just get to see a ton of different kinds of people.”
Cataloging every mile of SEPTA is just the latest project in a lifelong passion.
“You know how every little boy has this train phase,” Taylor said. “I just never really grew out of it.”
Taylor, a native of Cambridge, Mass., became engrossed as a child by a blog about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which services the Boston region. His parents allowed him to start his own blog when he turned 13, and he began reviewing MBTA routes. He reviewed them all, along with some other transit services in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, by the time he graduated high school. His blog’s focus moved south with him when he started classes at Penn in 2018. (Although he once took a train and bus from Philly to be back in Boston for about three hours, just so he could make the opening of a new station for that city’s train service.)
His blog offers data that seems appropriate for a transit review: frequency, travel times, notes on whether the route is direct or convoluted. It’s more than that, though. Taylor makes observations about the neighborhoods outside the window and the people who join him on his ride. It’s as much travelogue as transit analysis, and is suffused with the enthusiasms of a young man eager to get to know a new city.
“Suddenly, 11th Street ended at Passyunk Ave, which we merged onto,” he wrote in his review of the Route 45 bus. “This street was dotted with lively businesses and restaurants, part of the fantastic East Passyunk neighborhood.”
Getting to know the city, Taylor said, is part of the reason he writes the blog.
“I really like exploring neighborhoods,” he said. “As a Penn student, I’m in a bubble, basically.”
Paul Farber, a Penn fine arts professor who taught Taylor in a mapping course, notices when students make an effort to get to know the city beyond the walls of the Ivy League school.
“In each class, in each generation, there’s a group of students who really take their education citywide and do so with one foot in the classroom and one foot out,” he said, “and it definitely stands out.”
Regarding SEPTA, Taylor has opinions, and isn’t shy about sharing them. The subways are great, he said, much more reliable than Boston’s. SEPTA’s bus schedules, on the other hand, could be better.
“That’s a big problem with SEPTA — they tend to have really strange schedule variances that make everything complicated,” he said.
Taylor, an urban planning major, has struggled to find time to balance transit trips with coursework but typically takes his SEPTA journeys on weekends. He’s willing to travel alone, but sometimes brings friends along for the ride, telling them it will be an adventure.
That process has been a learning experience, too. His blog post about the Route 49 bus included some joking comments that he might get hurt traveling to a neighborhood with one of the city’s higher crime rates and a below-median household income. He was criticized for it: Here was a white Penn student going into a largely minority neighborhood, and making light of violence. The blowback taught him to be more thoughtful about how he describes the places he visits.
“I have to be careful what I say and be really sensitive about it,” he said. “People live up there. I’m kind of riding through and taking pictures.”
Taylor aspires to be a transit planner, and Farber noted that a key skill in that profession is to recognize the realities of life in communities being studied.
“Even with the really impressive body of work that [Taylor] has developed, the question will continue to remain: How can you be both a scholar and a participant in public culture?” the professor said. “And that includes understanding the dynamics of race, demographics, and class in a city.”
Taylor’s encyclopedic memory for routes and timetables encompasses more detail than the average commuter likely uses, but he wants his blog to be accessible to both laymen and transit enthusiasts.
“I want it to be entertaining not just for people who like transit,” he said. “My hope is anyone who has an interest in cities and neighborhoods [can] get something out of it.”