Fast and frequent, with fewer stops, a new bus on Roosevelt Boulevard promises improved commuting for thousands — and a possible model for SEPTA as it seeks to redesign public transit in the region.
The express bus will debut Sunday, covering about 10 miles between Frankford Transportation Center and the Neshaminy Mall. Its route is essentially the same as the Route 14 bus but is far more streamlined. The 14 bus makes more than 80 stops. The new Direct Bus will make only eight, reducing the length of the overall trip from 47 minutes to about 30. The express bus stops are the boarding or departure points for almost 50 percent of the Route 14 bus' riders.
A bus on the new service should come along every 10 minutes during rush hours and every 15 minutes the rest of the day and during weekend days, officials said.
The new route also brought 10 new glass and metal bus shelters to the Boulevard through the city's investment, offering a higher profile destination for travelers than the simple signs that mark most stops along the road.
"It brings a sense of place that was missing from Roosevelt Boulevard," Mayor Kenney said at a ribbon cutting Tuesday at Roosevelt and Cottman Avenue in front of one of the new shelters.
SEPTA is in the midst of a two-year review of its bus service that could lead to significant changes. This express route is a testing ground that could be expanded, said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.
Painted dark green, with a lime green stripe at wheel height, the express bus is designed not just as a better alternative for the 12,000 people who use the Route 14 bus each day, but as something that can eventually grow SEPTA's ridership. The efficiency of the new service, and the simplicity of its schedule, could attract as many as 2,500 new riders in the next year and a half, SEPTA officials said.
That could translate into fewer cars on the notoriously congested road. About 86,000 vehicles a day use the road, which is among the city's most dangerous. Between 2011 and 2016, the 12-lane divided highway saw about 3,000 crashes, according to city data released last year. Those resulted in more than 50 fatalities, 20 of them pedestrians.
To really compete with private automobiles, though, there's more the city can do, said Tabitha Decker, who is involved in a project to improve bus service in New York City for the philanthropic foundation TransitCenter. In New York, she said, the city has created some dedicated bus lanes, which significantly improve reliability. The Roosevelt Boulevard express bus, she said, will still be vulnerable to delays due to traffic jams.
"That service, while trips are faster, is likely to still be somewhat unreliable," she said.
New York City is also implementing all-door boarding, rather than admitting travelers only at the front door. On routes with both of those changes made, she said, ridership has increased 10 to 31 percent.
All-door boarding is something SEPTA has discussed trying on this new bus route, officials there said. They expect to assess quickly how successful the new route is and would consider making changes as soon as February.
Creating a dedicated bus line would fall to the city, and the possibility is being studied, with results expected in 2018, said Angela Dixon, director of planning at the city's office of transportation and infrastructure systems. Under consideration is a bus lane that also would be open to drivers turning onto one of the more than 300 driveways to businesses along the boulevard, she said.
Iyana Kennedy, 18, is a daily bus rider, using the Route 14 or 20 buses to get from Frankford Transportation Center to her job at Target on Bustleton Avenue. The express bus would cut about three or four minutes off her commute, she said, and would be even more significant for the many commuters who use the bus to get to jobs at the Neshaminy Mall.
"That's a big difference compared to the 14," she said.
Running the express, in addition to the existing Route 14 bus, will cost SEPTA an additional $1.9 million a year, but it did not buy any additional buses. The 11 buses used for the service were repurposed from the authority's existing fleet.
The stops it will serve, in addition to the Frankford Transportation Center and Neshaminy Mall, are Cottman Avenue, Rhawn Street, Welsh Road, Grant Avenue, Red Lion Road, and the Neshaminy Interplex. The Route 14 bus, which will still run, will use the new stops as well, and SEPTA is allowing free transfers from that line to the new express line.
Philadelphia transit activist Marcus McKnight described the route as a step toward bus rapid transit, something SEPTA should eventually pursue on other routes. He described it as safer, faster, and more efficient.
"It's an excellent start," he said, urging SEPTA and the city to replicate the service elsewhere. "The other end of the boulevard would be great. Some of our suburban routes could use some type of better express service."