Loretta Tague, an administrative assistant who lives in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, has a love-hate relationship with SEPTA's 17 bus. This is what she loves: Every five minutes at rush hour, a sleek hybrid roars up to the corner of 20th and Carpenter Streets and promises to speed her to Center City in less time than it takes to punch an e-mail into her phone. This is what she hates: All too often, the driver refuses to stop and let her board.
On Monday, at 8:51 a.m., Tague, nearly in tears, sent her boss a text. She had been shivering in the cold and snow for nearly 20 minutes. Five 17 buses had blown by and she didn't know when she would ever get to her office at 16th and Market.
Identical tales of transit woe could be told by other rush-hour commuters who ride the city's busiest routes - the 33, 47 and 48. But the 17, which begins at the sports complex in South Philadelphia, may well be the most notorious. By the time a northbound 17 bus crosses Washington Avenue, riders have forgotten the meaning of personal space and drivers have stopped taking on new passengers. The long cold snap has only increased the crowding, and what SEPTA calls "pass-ups."
Riders have grumbled for years about pass-ups, no-show buses, and those mysterious four-bus convoys that travel nose-to-tail, but now SEPTA can no longer make excuses. After years of being vilified and criminally underfunded by elected officials, SEPTA ridership is at a 20-year high and its system has been embraced by a new, transit-friendly generation that is densifying Philadelphia's rowhouse neighborhoods once again. They think nothing of hopping a bus or subway to get to work during the week or to try out a restaurant across town on the weekends.
Perhaps sensing the new mood, the car-loving, sprawl-creating Pennsylvania legislature finally approved a package in November to stabilize SEPTA's finances for the next five years. The relative windfall, which covers capital improvements, immediately led to speculative chatter and public hearings about expanding the region's transit system. Some want a rail extension to King of Prussia, others argue for continuing the Broad Street subway to the Navy Yard.
But what about now? Philadelphia is a bus-riding town and better service would be immediately transformative. Buses carry more than 53 percent of SEPTA's customers, reaching deep into the crannies of neighborhoods, compared to 34 percent for the subway lines and 10 percent for regional rail.
Since 2011, the number of people piling onto buses has increased by an average of nearly three percent a year. The increase is, no doubt, one reason that car ownership in the city has been trending downward. Over a third of Philadelphia's households do not own cars, the fourth-highest of any American city, after New York, Washington, and Boston - rail towns, all.
Yet Philadelphia's bus riders get no respect, as Tague and others can testify. There's no advocacy group that represents bus users, as there is for rail passengers.
What makes things worse is that SEPTA's board is dominated by suburban representatives, who hold all but two seats, even though about 80 percent of riders are city residents. Regional rail, which is geared toward the suburbs, receives more than twice the public subsidy that SEPTA's City Transit Division does - $3.76 per passenger, vs. $1.78. It's a gross inequity.
I recently met with Charles L. Webb, who oversees SEPTA's buses. A 39-year veteran of the agency, he can discuss quirks of every route as if they were his children. He has great ideas about embedding wireless counters to gather data about riders' habits. But when asked about the pass-ups on the 17, he said it was news to him.
That surprised Richard Voith, a former SEPTA board member and regular bus rider. "Pass-ups are just unforgivable," said Voith, who has been snubbed repeatedly by the 23 at Broad and Erie.
The pass-ups also are easy to fix. Rather than focus only on new rail projects, which cost billions and take decades, SEPTA ought to concentrate on beefing up bus service. Dramatic improvements could be accomplished in just a few months and at almost no cost, said Voith. Once SEPTA introduces its long-promised, standardized fare card - perhaps later this year - taking a bus will become even easier, since riders will no longer have to dig into their pockets for tokens or money to pay for a transfer.
How hard would it be to improve bus service? The new state funding doesn't provide money for operations, but after talking to transit experts, I came up with 10 low- to no-cost fixes, some that SEPTA could implement right now - before this frigid winter is over.
Or, SEPTA could let the pass-ups and uneven service continue. Lindsey Bingaman, who takes the 17 to Suburban Station, and has suffered from too many pass-ups, has been working on her own solution. Come spring, she may just start riding her bike to the station.
Changing Skyline: Ten steps to improving SEPTA's bus experience
1. Stop every other block. Philadelphia is America's only big city in which buses stop at every corner. That increases travel times considerably. Reducing stops would enable SEPTA to put an extra bus on every route, dramatically increasing frequency.
2. Give buses the green light. The Nutter administration just secured a $30 million federal grant to install wireless devices to hold the green traffic light for buses, reducing delays. Stopping at fewer red lights means buses can travel faster, restarting the route sooner.
3. Far-side stops. Same concept. Instead of stopping before a traffic light, buses pick up on the far side of the intersection. It won't work everywhere, but fewer stops means the bus completes the route sooner.
4. Eliminate parking on bottleneck blocks. One reason buses get bunched together is that they get stuck in traffic on narrow residential streets. Eliminating parking on one or both sides would create more space to maneuver. Politically, this will be tricky, as residents will object to losing parking. But the easier it is to take transit, the more willingly people will give up their cars.
5. Add more L-shaped routes. One reason the 17 and 12 are so popular is that they carry people both north-south and east-west, without a transfer. But no L-shaped route exists that ends up in University City, where hundreds of new jobs are being created.
6. Add express buses on Roosevelt Boulevard. More than 25,000 riders a day traverse the boulevard to get to Temple University and Center City. It's a long, slow slog. SEPTA recently began experimenting with "limiteds" that skip some stops. Express buses would be even faster.
7. Divide long routes into two parts. Some SEPTA routes seem to have descended from Native American trails. The 23, which goes from deep in South Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill, is one. The longer the route, the less likely it will be able to stick to the schedule.
8. Move on back. Crowding isn't the only reason for pass-ups. Frequently drivers assume buses are full because riders are clustered near the front door. A recording that tells riders to move back would remind people to make room.
9. More weekend and night service. It's no longer a 9-to-5 world. Evidence suggests that off-peak ridership is growing.
10. Real-time data. While you can download apps that provide the exact location of buses, the data runs 3 to 5 minutes behind. Reduce lag to one minute. And how about posting schedules at bus stops for people without smartphones?
- Inga Saffron
Note: This column was updated to reflect the correct number of non-car owning households.