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Bus Revolution would bring frequent bus service to 1 million SEPTA riders

It is imperative that SEPTA green-lights the project and stops delaying the rollout of transformative bus service across the region.

Commuters getting off and on the 27 SEPTA bus at 15th and Market Streets on a snowy morning in Center City Philadelphia on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.
Commuters getting off and on the 27 SEPTA bus at 15th and Market Streets on a snowy morning in Center City Philadelphia on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

On Jan. 25, SEPTA’s board once again delayed the needed approval for Bus Revolution, a plan that would rework the transit authority’s bus services by allocating more buses to its busiest routes and tweaking or eliminating its most inefficient routes. On Thursday, the SEPTA board will have another chance to approve Bus Revolution. It is imperative that it green-lights the project and stops delaying the rollout of transformative bus service across the region.

Bus Revolution marks a sea change in the way SEPTA looks at its network. For the first time since its 1963 formation, SEPTA is proactively working to adapt its bus routes and service patterns to meet the specific ridership demands of the region. By the end of 2024, Bus Revolution could offer much-needed improvements in transit service to the two-thirds of all SEPTA trips that are taken on buses.

If approved by the board, SEPTA’s adjusted bus network will provide more service on its most used routes and simplify inefficient routes to improve travel speed and reliability. It will also spread more service to weekends and evenings to help serve non-rush hour trips. In total, the adjusted network will add 30% more frequent bus routes to the system (resulting in service at least every 15 minutes) and bring an additional 1.1 million people within a 10-minute walk of a frequent bus route. These changes will dramatically expand the entire region’s access to cost-effective, sustainable travel options.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal of $282.8 million in new state money for SEPTA and other transit agencies may avert SEPTA’s “fiscal cliff,” but projects like Bus Revolution are key to ensuring SEPTA’s operating budget is spent efficiently. Bus Revolution is designed as a cost-neutral process, so SEPTA’s adjusted network will use the same number of vehicles and operators as its current network. Letting fear of a fiscal cliff derail Bus Revolution would unnecessarily worsen the already tough situation SEPTA finds itself in.

Shapiro and our state representatives should do everything they can to avoid SEPTA’s fiscal cliff, but Bus Revolution does not need to be its first casualty.

In her recent opposition to Bus Revolution, Councilmember Kathrine Gilmore Richardson testified that “perfect is the enemy of done” when it comes to planning processes, but still urged SEPTA to delay Bus Revolution until new City Council members could conduct outreach on the plan. After three years of planning, over 200 community meetings and outreach sessions, 20,000 community responses through online surveys, and a further 50,000 riders reached through the Transit app, SEPTA should not delay any further. If all planning processes were halted for political transitions, then SEPTA would never be able to make large-scale improvements in its services.

Bus Revolution may not be perfect, but it represents a proactive, optimistic step toward improving transit service for all riders and prospective riders across Southeastern Pennsylvania.

As Bus Revolution moves forward, advocates should continue to demand that the process be carried out transparently, with robust communications, translation of materials into multiple languages, and availability of materials on accessible platforms for riders with impairments. Just as SEPTA responded to feedback from a variety of neighborhoods in shaping its proposed network, including concerns in Northwest and West Philly, SEPTA should continue to incorporate rider feedback into the rollout of route changes.

Similar bus network redesigns have increased ridership and customer satisfaction across the country, including in Houston and Richmond, Va. SEPTA’s pursuit of Bus Revolution shows that the agency aspires to keep up with the most innovative and effective transportation planning strategies in the country. Its efforts should be welcomed with social and political support.

After implementing Bus Revolution, SEPTA will have a new relationship with the layout of its bus network. Instead of a string of lines inherited from its precursor agencies, SEPTA will be operating a network that it planned for itself and for its riders in the 21st century.

Approving Bus Revolution doesn’t set the new network in stone. Instead, it is the first step in SEPTA becoming a more proactive operator and evaluator of its services that is serious about using its limited resources to produce the greatest benefit for its riders.

Jonathan Zisk is a student in the master of city planning program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. His research focuses on the effects of bus network redesigns on the performance of American transit agencies.