Earlier this month, Philadelphia’s trolley riders faced one of the great banes of their year: a temporary shutdown of the trolley tunnel from 13th to 40th Streets. SEPTA closed the major city connector for 10 days starting Aug. 9 to complete repairs and preventive maintenance, which it has now done annually for seven years. But over the next decade and beyond, SEPTA is looking toward a much more ambitious plan: modernizing the entire system.
Philadelphia’s trolleys are beloved by many for their old-time charm, harking back to streetcar systems that were pioneered in the 19th century. Since the early 1990s, some trolley car operators in Philadelphia have even dolled up their vehicles with holiday lights and garlands in winter. The city’s current vehicles were manufactured in the late 1970s and early 1980s, contributing to their nostalgic vibe today. But that age is also a liability: The vehicles don’t comply with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, meaning they are not accessible for many riders with disabilities.
» READ MORE: Route to the future
To change that, SEPTA is seeking funding for a years-long $700 million modernization effort, which would go toward purchasing 100 new ADA-compliant trolleys, making sure boarding zones are accessible, and retooling trolley routes if needed. Five trolley routes cross through the Center City tunnel, largely serving residents of West and Southwest Philadelphia. The tunnel as a transportation asset is unique to the trolley system, carrying around 70,000 passengers across the Schuylkill on a typical weekday.
Considering the system’s potential, some transportation experts think Philadelphia could do one better than modernizing, and in fact could expand our use of trolleys. The Inquirer turned to urban planners and design minds to ask: Should the city use trolleys more, or focus on updating them while expanding other transit options?
Philadelphia is adding population for the first time since SEPTA’s predecessor began dismantling the trolley system in the 1950s. To prevent the city’s growth from resulting in more congestion, pollution, and traffic violence — including deaths and injuries — it is imperative to make walking, bicycling, or transit as attractive to as many people as possible. Sometimes converting a bus to a trolley will be the best way.
Alarmingly, bus ridership has fallen in recent years, in part from a vicious cycle of unmanaged congestion, reduced transit reliability, people quitting the bus, service cuts, and more ridership losses. SEPTA’s 2018 “Bus Choices Report” identifies a number of interventions to reverse that trend, among them: eliminate the $1 transfer fee, get buses out of congestion with bus lanes and other tools, and focus on providing high frequency service on intensely developed corridors, combining nearby parallel routes if necessary. Let’s do it.
But what if high quality service is so popular that buses become overcrowded and uncomfortable? We could switch to articulated “bendy” buses, add more transit lanes, or increase frequency. But there are limits to those approaches; transit running in mixed traffic generally can’t operate more frequently than every four minutes and even articulated buses can’t cram more than 100 people inside — some routes, like the 52, 17, or 66, are already nearly maxed out.
How else do you add capacity? Trolleys. Modern streetcars can carry 150 to 350 passengers and comfortably make turns that are too tight for articulated buses.
Those of us who ride West Philly’s Subway-Surface Lines will also tell you how much smoother the ride is than a bus. Power delivered by overhead wires guarantees zero street-level exhaust. Running on rails means that vulnerable pedestrians or bicyclists are never surprised by where the vehicle is in the street.
But aren’t trolleys difficult to board with a stroller or wheelchair? How do they get around a double-parked car? Aren’t tracks dangerous to cyclists? Isn’t the infrastructure prohibitively expensive?
Good things cost money, but because a trolley life cycle can be four times that of a bus, some audits suggest overall costs of trolley operation can be lower than for buses. Wide doors, low floors, and curbside design make boarding ADA-compliant and comfortable for everybody. These are the modern vehicles that glide through Houston, Phoenix, Casablanca, and Vienna.
Some of the world’s best walking and bicycling cities are also great tram cities — think Portland or Amsterdam — not only because they’re working on track inserts to improve cyclist safety, but because they’ve tamed vehicles and carefully planned streets that do the most good for the most people.
Trolleys were last replaced with buses in the 1990s largely because we had given up on clearing cars from the tracks. If we want high quality transit, our mayor and Council need to have the political will to manage our streets and put public good above selfish interests. After all, a few people double parking should never hold up thousands of potential daily trolley riders.
We should not convert a bus to trolley for nostalgia or to spur development. We should do it on corridors where upgrading capacity is the only way to meet transportation demand. This is not a one-size-fits all solution, but rather an important addition to the transit toolbox of a world class city.
Jonas Maciunas is principal of JVM Studio and serves on the boards of the Garden Court Community Association in West Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance.
Philadelphia is one of the most distinctive cities in this country. Not just because of its early grid system, or its history in the making of this country — but also because of its trolleys. Our city has the largest network of trolley lines anywhere in the United States.
Most other cities weren’t so lucky to retain this valuable asset when over the last century car-culture took over city streets to turn them into a single-use network, erasing the shared street history we had in this country once upon a time.
Trolleys here also crisscross areas of the city that are otherwise underserved by transit, and are especially in need of safe, clean, reliable modes of transportation that do not require the costly purchase, storage, and maintenance of a vehicle.
The question then remains — as SEPTA plans a huge trolley update, should Philadelphia also bid to expand its trolley network? Considering all the good and the existing culture, it seems like a no-brainer. However, trolleys are an expensive, infrastructure-heavy network. Pursuing other transportation priorities would have greater impact for the people of Philadelphia.
Why install rails and subsequent overhead wire when a bus will do the trick? A bus can be electric, extended to have greater capacity, and prioritized on our roads through “bus rapid transit” lanes that separate them from other auto-prioritized lanes (and even better if it’s a car-free transit mall instead). They’re easier to modify if a route needs to be changed to accommodate more or less ridership in certain areas.
And critically, buses have a better level of accessibility for people in wheelchairs or using other mobility assist devices. Strollers and luggage fit more readily, and the ride above ground provides a connection with the city at large.
Philadelphia is also unique in having the largest central bike ridership in cities with over 1 million people. We should focus on establishing a comprehensive network of direct, protected bike lanes, complemented by bike share (dockless included), to provide equitable options for getting around the city in something other than a car. The health impacts of socialization, physical exercise, and zero carbon emissions simply speak for themselves.
And that’s to say nothing of alternatives like walking, skateboards, scooters, and so on.
All of the above contribute to a more equitable level of choice in transportation options. If you can take bikeshare back to the subway, or take the bus with your bike on the front rack, or even take a walk through the local park on your way to work, we all benefit. When the street design reflects this level of human-centered transit, we all benefit even more.
We should also not be looking for fewer trolleys — only that we understand the ease of prioritizing other less costly and sustainable options for getting around. If we go through the arduous process of ripping up trolley tracks, we run the risk of mistakes of the past.
Our city’s goals now afford us the ability to make the right choices for the future of Philadelphia — one that protects the transit assets we have and prioritizes people, not cars.