Philadephia's evening commute has turned into a painful crawl through streets jammed with thousands of people left to fend for themselves in the wake of a crippling transportation strike.

There are still no signs that SEPTA and its largest union plan to return to the bargaining table and restore the city's subway, bus and trolley service. The walkout also has affected Frontier Division buses in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties.

Many stranded riders have turned to Regional Rail trains, which are not affected by the strike.

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said most lines were running on time during the evening rush hour, but some were experiencing delays of about 20 to 30 minutes because of increased ridership.

By 4 p.m., the scene at Suburban Station was chaotic, as frustrated commuters jammed the concourse only to find they could not get to the platforms.

Rail employees in yellow vests – some calling into bullhorns - were allowing only small numbers of riders at a time down the stairs. Huge lines extended through the corridors.

"This is unbelievable," said Nancy Cravetz, 52, a payroll manager in Center City trying to get home to Somerton in time to vote and get to her Tuesday night bowling game.

"No rush. Please take your time," shouted an employee, as she allowed about 30 people down the stairs to the R-3 to West Trenton.

Spencer Rand, who teaches legal advocacy at Temple Law School and was waiting for a train to Wynnewood, said the SEPTA strike had disrupted his normal habit of voting before work.

"We left extra early this morning," he said, indicating his two children, who attend Friends Select School. "I'm going to try when I get home, assuming I get home in time."

Eleanor Schnarr, 20, a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said she expected to get home so late she wouldn't be able to eat dinner and complete a homework assignment due tomorrow.

She had not yet voted and thought she probably would not, because "I'm just not that up on the candidates this year.

"But if someone could fix this SEPTA thing I'd vote for them – no matter what party," she said.

The volume at 69th Street Station in West Philadelphia was much lighter by 6 p.m., but residents who managed to get that far were still left to consider their options.

Heline Saunders, on her way from work at a Haverford nursing home, had to figure out how to get to her home near 55th and Race Streets.

"It's not convenient at all," she said of the strike. "It looks like I might have to walk."

Nicketta Burden, 30, was dropped off at the station by her boss and was waiting for a bus to take her home to Ridley Park.

"Everybody is in a recession. Everybody wants a raise. You just can't stop working," she said. "Everybody lost in this game, and they're trying to win. That's what's so crazy, to go on strike... it's just selfish."

The city activated its Emergency Operations Center in the afternoon to monitor the evening rush hour, and police officers were posted at key intersections to monitor traffic and manually change lights if needed.

The city also relaxed some parking restrictions during the strike. Residents can download information on the new parking rules at www.phila.gov/ready.

The mayor's office encouraged people to car pool or use their bicycles during the strike. The city and the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia set up temporary bicycle parking at the north end of Dilworth Plaza, at City Hall. Free coffee, bike maps and safe bicycling handouts are available there.

More bicycles and pedestrians were evident on city sidewalks throughout the day.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority also lifted regulations barring shared rides in taxis and gave the go ahead for limousines, partial rights cabs and county cabs to provide service throughout the city.

With Philadelphia Public School students off today for a teachers' in-service, the full impact of the walkout probably will not be felt until tomorrow morning.

School officials are bracing for a drop-off in attendance and are preparing learning packets for students who can find no way to school.

The city Democratic Committee also went to court seeking to keep election day polls open past the 8 p.m. deadline because of the strike.

Many residents took to their cars or hitched rides, clogging streets and highways with heavier than usual traffic, a scene that played out this morning as well.

The strike, which included 5,100 train and trolley operators, bus drivers and mechanics, caught the riding public off guard this morning, sending them scrambling to find transportation.

No new talks have been scheduled in the dispute.

Gov. Rendell, who took part in the earlier negotiations, chastised leaders of Transport Worker Union Local 234, saying they had turned down a "sensational" contract in hard economic times.

Few commuters voiced support for the strikers, with many questioning the timing of the strike and saying their actions only hurt hard working people.

Union leaders defended the action, saying it had to do with more than money.

As the first glimmer of dawn broke this morning, striking SEPTA workers huddled in small clusters around the Frankford Transportation Center as would-be passengers continued to arrive with no idea that nothing was operating.

Colleen Logan, 45, showed up at 5:20 a.m. to discover that she would not be able to ride the Market-Frankford El to her job as a waitress at Snow White Restaurant in Old City.

"Yesterday it was supposed to be done and over with," Logan said. "Nobody really had a clue."

The affected lines average more than 928,000 trips every weekday in the city, meaning that more than 450,000 people face finding alternate routes.

The walkout even caught some members of the striking union unaware.

Sly Wagner, a train operator for 17 years, showed up at the Fern Rock station ready to go to work.

"I'm like everybody else," he said. "The only way I found out was when I went to the station and the gates were locked."

Gov. Rendell earlier called the decision to strike before dawn "irresponsible."

"This is an outrageous action," said Mayor Nutter, who joined Rendell last night to address reporters in the lobby of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, where negotiations had been under way since 10 a.m.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., urged both sides to return to the bargaining table, saying, "The working men and women and their families in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia are the ones feeling the impact of today's transit system strike most severely."

"Both management and union may see these riders as 'leverage' but they are not pawns, they are the lifeblood of our city – especially in these harsh economic times," the congressman said in a statement. "They deserve better, and they deserve an immediate settlement."

The workers have been without a contract for seven months. Wages and benefits have been at the center of the dispute.

The TWU also is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA's unionized bus drivers, subway and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

The last strike lasted seven days in 2005.

Staff Writer Walter Naedele contributed to this report