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SEPTA’s Metro plan showcases the potential of community feedback in public planning | Editorial

SEPTA's Metro rebranding was the result of a targeted community engagement process that could provide lessons for other city agencies.

This diagram provided by SEPTA illustrates how station signage would look as part of the agency's Metro rebranding of its rail transit network.
This diagram provided by SEPTA illustrates how station signage would look as part of the agency's Metro rebranding of its rail transit network.Read moreCourtesy of SEPTA

For many residents of Greater Philadelphia, there is no shortage of nits to pick about SEPTA, our region’s oft-maligned public transit agency. But when transportation officials announced earlier this month that they were rebranding all of the system’s rail lines under the banner of “SEPTA Metro,” a strange thing happened — many of those who are usually the agency’s harshest critics were already on board.

That wasn’t by happenstance. SEPTA underwent an 18-month listening process while devising the Metro plan; they gathered input from transit activists and members of the civic, business, and immigrant communities. Because these constituencies were able to be part of the process, many who might have been Metro’s biggest skeptics instead now feel a sense of ownership and investment in the plan.

» READ MORE: SEPTA proposes renaming light and heavy rails lines

Certainly, the rebranding was not without its share of foes. Nevertheless, this moment could provide a valuable lesson for other agencies, particularly those in the transportation space. Take the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability. Whether it is implementing safety improvements along Washington Avenue or at Broad and Erie, the office seems unable to bring many of their proposed enhancements to fruition, often citing an inability to get buy-in from the community, even when their own surveys have shown support for change.

Like SEPTA, it is essential that the transportation office recognize that in a city like Philadelphia, there is no such thing as making everyone happy, but targeted outreach and community input beforehand are imperative when pitching proposals to the public at large.

Reflexively contrarian voices have a tendency to monopolize some kinds of community engagement. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the current situation at some of the region’s school board meetings about mask mandates. Polling data show that the vast majority of parents — not to mention students themselves — are supportive of mask mandates in schools. At some school board meetings, however, the opposite sentiment often dominates public comments.

» READ MORE: SEPTA uses virtual reality to improve wayfinding

That dynamic can make accomplishing projects with widespread benefits and concentrated costs sometimes seem nearly impossible, which can put collective action to address long-standing problems out of reach. That’s why SEPTA’s community input process — which identified interested, representative, and productive partners beforehand, held focus groups throughout, and will benefit from strong buy-in from these partners during the public comment phase — seems so rich with potential. It balances the genuine need for community input with the urgency of actually getting things done. With that in mind, this board is keenly aware that unless SEPTA is able to accomplish such initiatives as its Trolley Modernization Plan, with buy-in from local government around prioritization of road space, this rebranding will only serve as a repackaging of an existing product, rather than the service enhancements people need.

State-of-the-art trolleys operating with fast, frequent, and reliable service as a part of a revitalized Metro system is an exciting prospect for our region’s future. If other agencies can learn from SEPTA’s community engagement lessons and secure the right of way and signal prioritization approvals that are critical to the modernization plan, we might yet see it come to fruition.