As Mark Tadlock stepped off a bus outside the Olney Transportation Center, he heard the pops. A gunman around the corner had unleashed more than 20 bullets into a group, striking six people, and sending dozens of commuters and students outside the bustling transit center fleeing in all directions.
“It was just mayhem,” Tadlock recalled of the Monday shooting at Chew and Park Avenues.
“You never know what’s gonna happen when you’re standing right here,” Tadlock, 31, said Wednesday as he waited for the 18 bus at Broad Street and Olney Avenue. “Sometimes I catch a Lyft because sometimes I’m afraid of getting in some type of trouble.”
As gun violence in Philadelphia is reaching new levels, with the city on pace to set a record for annual homicides, the crisis has infiltrated many residents’ daily lives. When shootings occur near public transit stops, those who rely on the service to get to work and school are left to live with the looming worry.
Because of shootings outside the transit hub — one of the busiest in the city, serving an average 25,000 people each weekday — some residents say they no longer feel safe standing outside the station. One woman said she rode the subway often, but now uses taxis to get to doctor’s appointments. Others walk more or, like Tadlock, rely on ride share apps. Some said they’ve just become desensitized to the threat of violence.
There have been 19 separate shooting incidents in close proximity to the Olney Transportation Center since 2015, data shows, with a total of 32 people shot. This year, 15 people were struck in three shootings during heavy afternoon commuter times — including one in February that wounded eight people.
Nearly 1,700 people have been shot in the city in 2021, the highest year-to-date total in at least two decades. Homicides are up 18% year-to-date, with 397 as of Friday.
‘We don’t have any other option’
Despite anxieties, most riders said they have little recourse, and have to use the station.
“I mean, we don’t really have any other option,” said Carrie Gobreski, 17, a senior at Julia Reynolds Masterman High School. She takes the subway from Spring Garden to Olney, and catches a bus home.
“When something like [the shooting on Monday] happens, you have to let yourself feel uneasy and scared and not really be able to do anything about it, because we don’t have any other option to get to and from school,” she said.
While most riders will never be faced with a shooting, and non-shooting crimes are down citywide, police say, that doesn’t ease residents’ discontent.
Maria Rodriguez, 45, comes to the area often to take her aunt, Marisol Ayala, 63, to doctor’s appointments at Einstein Hospital, and to get her hair done at her favorite salon. She said she stopped taking the subway from her North Philadelphia home after the February shooting.
“I’d rather take a taxi and pay whatever I gotta pay. I used to take this a lot,” she said. “But it’s scary. It’s really scary.”
The taxi trip is about $15 each way, she said, and it’s adding up fast.
“It’s hard, and it’s a shame,” she said.
Councilmember Cindy Bass, whose district includes the transit stop, said more police should be added to the intersection, and SEPTA needs to find new ways to prevent crime, limit loitering, and improve conditions.
“People don’t feel safe there,” she said. “They want to get away from Broad and Olney as quickly as possible. ... We owe it to these citizens to do better.”
SEPTA and PPD are working together
SEPTA Transit Police and the Philadelphia Police Department say they’ve invested police coverage at the Olney station. They said they are working with the surrounding community to improve safety and ease residents’ concerns, like adding more officers, cracking down on drug sales, implementing better lighting, and communicating with the nearby schools and council districts.
“I take this personally when any of this stuff happens to people in this area,” said Capt. Michael Zimmerman of the 35th Police District. “Anything that we can do, we’re gonna do.”
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel said that violent crime has gone down inside the station, with one aggravated assault reported from June through August. Transit police were called most frequently for medical emergencies and fare evasion during those months. All customer complaints about the station were about minor issues, like smoking or about mask wearing, he said.
Olney Transportation Center passengers aren’t the only ones impacted by rising gun violence. Four people were shot in one incident in August near the Erie Station on the Broad Street Line. Near the Market Frankford Line’s Allegheny station in Kensington, 21 people have been shot this year — an area which, overall, sees the highest concentration of gun violence in the city, largely driven by the open-air drug market. Shootings have also been reported close to other stations, like 56th Street’s in West Philly.
Zimmerman said drug sales, mostly of marijuana and sometimes pills, have driven some of the crime on the block of Monday’s shooting.
In the past few months, SEPTA and PPD officers have been working undercover to crack down on drug sales, Nestel said. He thinks it has made a difference, but more intersectional approaches are needed.
“Other factors need to come into play that don’t involve police,” said Nestel.
Multiple SEPTA officers are stationed full-time at the Olney hub, Nestel said, whereas at other stops, officers may just pass through or report during peak hours. Zimmerman said his officers are also dedicated to that block, school resource officers shift there at dismissal, and he’s constantly evaluating the coverage strategy.
Annie Wardlaw, 65, said she has had safety concerns in the past, but has noticed a heightened police presence in recent weeks, which has “kept a lot of peoples’ minds at ease.” Other riders, including students, said safety has never been much of a concern for them.
Ryan Perkins, 53, said he’s not worried, partly because he’s used to the threat of shootings in the city.
“I’m from North Philly, they shoot a lot,” said Perkins. “I’m used to daily shootings. So two times in seven months ain’t even bad to me.”
This article is part of The Toll: The Roots and Costs of Gun Violence in Philadelphia, a solutions-focused series from the collaborative reporting project Broke in Philly. You can find other stories in the series here and follow us on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.