Baby in one arm, diaper bag on the other, stroller in tow, Lacey Kohlmoos apologized her way past riders to a vacant seat on a packed Route 33 bus Friday afternoon.
Kohlmoos, 34, positioned her 1-year-old son, Finn Heckert, on her lap for the trip from her Fairmount home to the Free Library in Center City. She pressed the folded stroller against her legs, but its wheels still crowded the aisle.
Wrangling a baby, bags, and an unwieldy stroller would be a lot easier if she could keep Finn in his bright blue ride, she said. But SEPTA's policy on strollers is vague, so she collapses it to avoid any chance of an argument. The difficulties, Kohlmoos said, amount to a disincentive to use public transportation and a loss of mobility for parents.
Philadelphia "can be a very walkable city, but if you want to go beyond your own neighborhood, it becomes very difficult," she said.
The hardship prevents parents from running errands, she said, or attending children's events in the city.
Complaints from riders is prompting a policy revision, beginning in January, that will allow parents to keep children in strollers on buses most of the day, SEPTA officials said. They also noted that they have to weigh safety issues against parents' concerns. There is virtually nowhere to put a stroller on a crowded SEPTA bus, making it a hazard for other riders, officials said.
Stroller policy is a surprisingly heated issue among transit riders. SEPTA regularly receives complaints from riders on both sides of the issue, officials said, about 10 a month.
A woman on the 33 bus smiled sympathetically as Kohlmoos struggled to take a seat and later said she was a mother and a grandmother. Still, said Tyrina Fulcher, strollers could be a real nuisance.
"You're walking past and your stroller runs over my shoe," she recalled thinking of parents pushing prams.
In Boston in 2011, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority conducted a rider survey and found that a majority wanted strollers collapsed on board buses. Angry parents accosted the MBTA's board when it considered acting on the survey's findings, and the agency's policy remains stroller-friendly.
"After what happened, I don't think any general manager since then wants to bring it up again," said Joe Pesaturo, the Boston agency's spokesman.
Kohlmoos' frustration prompted her to start a petition to Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager, to allow parents to keep their children in strollers on buses, at least when the bus isn't crowded. The petition had garnered more than 7,000 signatures in about a week as of Friday. Sixty of those were from people in the Philadelphia area, but the issue clearly resonates beyond this city. Signatures came from as far afield as India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
The Chicago Transit Authority has a looser policy. Strollers should be folded if a bus or train is crowded, but at other times, they can be left open as long as they're not obstructing doors or aisles. In Los Angeles, the policy is similar.
SEPTA's stroller policy had left it to the driver's discretion whether a stroller should be collapsed on board. That policy was designed to be more flexible than the rules prior to 2002, when strollers always had to be collapsed. Instead, parents were just confused, Kohlmoos said.
"It's a cause of a lot of anxiety because not every driver is the same," she said.
As of Jan. 1, said Mike Liberi, SEPTA's chief officer of surface transportation, strollers will have to be folded only during rush hours, roughly from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., as long as they are not blocking an aisle.
"We don't want to project an undue hardship on the parents," Liberi said, but "we can't allow a known tripping hazard to exist."
Bus design is part of the problem.
"Given that these buses are fairly new, I think they're horribly designed," said Norma Mori, another 33 bus rider and retiree who compared SEPTA's buses unfavorably with those in her home country of the United Kingdom.
London's public buses have doors in the middle where people with strollers or in wheelchairs can board and open space so a wheeled vehicle won't be in the way.
There are seats along the sides of SEPTA buses near the front door that can flip up to make space for wheelchairs, but if those seats are occupied, there's nowhere else for an open stroller to go.
SEPTA is getting 525 new buses through 2021 to replace aging vehicles among its 1,200-strong fleet, and those will have a pair of seats per bus with one that will flip up specifically to make space for strollers and wheelchairs.
Kohlmoos is an online organizing strategist for Care2.com, the site hosting her petition. Making public transportation easier for parents has become something of a cause for her.
An experience Friday highlighted how infuriating it can be. Before boarding the 33 bus early Friday afternoon, another bus on the same route slowed down at the stop, and she began to take her son out of his stroller. The driver glanced at her, never came to a full stop, and drove on, leaving Kohlmoos to try to keep Finn entertained for another 15 minutes on a chilly day until the next bus arrived.
The stroller petition is her second push for change. Another petition earlier this year advocated for private lactation facilities at 30th Street Station.
SEPTA's planned policy change would satisfy Kohlmoos, but she still intends to submit her signatures.
"I want everyone's voices to be heard," she said. "Until it's signed on the dotted line, I don't consider it a total win."