If you think it's harder to get around Philadelphia these days, especially Center City, it's not your imagination. Traffic congestion is a growing problem. A few factors contribute to more clogged streets — among them, the fact that 68,000 more cars live here than eight years ago.
Ride services like Uber have joined the taxi fleets, and bus routes are overdue for evaluation and improvement. These are, in fact, among the points contained in a transportation plan for the city that Mayor Kenney released this month. The CONNECT plan looks ahead to the next seven years and outlines a vision for the city's need for millions of people to keep moving efficiently, safely, and affordably. Past administrations haven't spent much time on large-scale transportation planning, but with a growing population and shifts in residential and work patterns, this is a critical issue right now.
The CONNECT report, created by the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, is grounded in the practical. It worries about the fatalities that busier streets have caused; Philadelphia is second among major cities in traffic deaths. The plan advocates for a redesign of the bus network, fixing streets, and managing congestion; it's not intended as a sweeping master plan. The most radical notion it considers is that the state will step up its contribution to public transit, which is currently low and by no means stable.
Transportation can be a dull subject – but not in this city. Debates – over bike lanes, parking, and SEPTA, and congestion – can be lively, and loud. We've tapped some advocates and experts for radical ideas for what Philadelphia can do to address our transportation problems and make us a better city.
Dramatically increase the cost of residential parking permits
Letting people use the public streets to park their private vehicles has a cost far higher than the $35 a year we charge for a residential parking permit. Between the street maintenance costs, the cost of administering the residential permit program, and the opportunity cost of dedicating so much public land to idle vehicles rather than moving people on buses, bikes, or two legs, city taxpayers are on the hook for a truly massive hidden subsidy to drivers.
Meanwhile, the city also contributes the lowest amount per-capita of any of our peer cities to SEPTA operating costs, and there's a real need to both increase our local contribution to transit to reverse SEPTA's ongoing ridership losses, and increase the share of street space dedicated to transit vehicles to get them out of ever-increasing traffic congestion. That new local revenue should come from city car owners, and the dedicated street space for transit vehicles should be redistributed away from parked cars.
There's a really clean and simple way to accomplish this. Since the $35 number is entirely politically derived anyway, the new political principle should be 'Pass Parity'—the monthly cost of a parking permit should not be less than the monthly cost of a SEPTA TransPass, currently $96 a month. That's still a great deal at about 20 percent off the going rate for renting off-street parking, depending on the neighborhood, and it would raise a lot more local revenue for transit too. Some of that funding could be used to reduce the cost of TransPasses for low-income riders, and improve bus service frequency to make riding transit more convenient. — Jon Geeting, political director at Philadelphia 3.0
Make public transit free for kids under 12
Public transit needs to be financially accessible for families to use in Philadelphia. Unlike some of our other transit peer cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston — who either have discounted rates or provide free rides for children under 12, we charge a full adult fare for children 4 and up. What's worse: SEPTA's Regional Rail service, utilized most frequently by suburbanites, discounts fares 50 percent for children 4-11 years old and SEPTA's Independence Pass, marketed to tourists, is touted as a discounted family pass.
Why are we dedicating SEPTA's sparse resources to Philadelphia's richer suburban neighbors and out-of-town tourists, when so many families within Philadelphia are weighed down by the cost of public transit? A family of four traveling round trip using just one bus would be charged upward of $20, $16 if they have the SEPTA Key card. If they need to transfer, it costs an additional $1 on the Key per person. Not to mention the cost of each individual Key card is $4.95 and families cannot use one card to swipe multiple times. For families with more resources this makes car shares like Lyft or private car ownership cheaper and easier to use, causing more congestion in the city, often slowing down buses. — Dena Ferrara Driscoll, family biking advocate
Charge for online convenience
Shopping online — even for staples like paper towels, underwear, and toothpaste, to say nothing of the makings for tonight's dinner — is frictionless. Until recently you didn't even have to pay sales tax. It's like magic.
Except it's become increasingly clear e-commerce has unintended and potentially dire consequences for big cities like ours. Because this artisanal shopping experience has a huge impact on our infrastructure — not just in the enormous environmental waste in packaging (have you ever gotten a complete order from Amazon in one box?), but hundreds of delivery trucks clogging the streets and emitting their fumes.
Then there are the consequences of gutting the bricks and mortar retail landscape, starting with the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of retail workers. There is an economy and efficiency to traditional retail that has served human society for eons. Retail stores also serve as an important part of our social tapestry – public/private spaces where people interact. As stores continue to disappear to make way for luxury housing and hotels, we risk reinventing the city as a place where everyone is holed up in their rooms, waiting for the UPS guy to bring us our toothbrushes and underwear.
That's why I'd advocate for something like a carbon offset fee to be added to online orders; the revenue should help fund improvements to mass transit. Call it an impact fee to remind people that it's time we started acknowledging that convenience has consequences. The internet isn't free, and neither is free shipping; we're all paying the price. — Sandra Shea, PMN managing editor of Opinion
Make Regional Rail more like the subway: cheaper and faster
Denver, Los Angeles, and other cities are spending billions of dollars to create regional transit systems not nearly as extensive as SEPTA. Let's leverage our regional rail network to be more like a subway system with frequent trips and low fares.
Imagine strolling down to the Regional Rail station from your home in Fox Chase or your apartment on Germantown Avenue during the morning rush and paying little more than a subway fare to get to Center City. You've just missed the train, but you're not panicked because another train arrives in nine minutes. Throughout the day and on weekends, trains come every 20 minutes in Regional Rail zones 1 and 2. Trips that only made sense to take by car or didn't make sense to take at all suddenly become options on SEPTA.
Once transit becomes the better option, households in N.W. and N.E. Philly and suburbs like Haverford save thousands every year needing just one car. Others save more without owning a car at all. There is less congestion on our roads and more activity on our main streets. It is easier than ever to access jobs and spend the money we earn across the region. With higher levels of service on the Manayunk/Norristown line, numerous bus services in N.W. Philly terminate at Wissahickon Station for a quick connection to rail. Buses no longer sitting in Schuylkill Expressway congestion are plying routes throughout the city.
Our region received an incredible endowment from the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads – let's not waste it. — Andrew Stober, Vice President of Planning and Economic Development at the University City District. He served as a senior transportation official in the Nutter administration.
Replace parking spaces with loading zones and bus zones
Less space for parking means more space for other uses. Less space for parking almost certainly also means less driving in general. If, by contrast, we decide to add more parking because there are more residents, jobs, and shops, congestion will get worse. Some cities take a radical approach to dealing with parking. Many municipalities disallow overnight on-street parking to ensure that households with cars have somewhere to put them. Japanese cities take this a step further and require proof of a parking space in order to buy a car. These policies are not politically feasible, deeply disruptive to implement, and probably not even economically desirable in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities throughout the city to put urban parking to better use. In some neighborhoods, this probably means replacing more parking with more loading zones. In others, it might mean replacing parking during daytime hours with a bus-only lane. — Erick Guerra, assistant professor in city and regional planning at University of Pennsylvania.
Make bus service competitive with Uber and Lyft
While some say that Uber and Lyft can effectively replace SEPTA buses, that is dead wrong. This is what SEPTA needs to make its bus service competitive.
Eliminate the transfer fee: SEPTA has long resisted eliminating transfer fees for fear of losing revenue, but the transfer fee undermines SEPTA's ability to provide seamless transportation. Everyone knows that rides that involve a transfer are less convenient than those that do not. Why is it sensible to charge a higher price for inferior service? It isn't.
Make real-time information real: SEPTA has made considerable progress in its real-time information system. Unfortunately, there are still gaps in reliability which undermine its usefulness.
Establish group fares: People often travel in groups, which can be very expensive when compared to ride sharing. With new capabilities of the KEY card, it is possible to create fares that cater to groups. Group fares would go a long way toward competing with Uber and Lyft.
Sell universal passes: SEPTA has long resisted offering discounted universal passes, which are sold in bulk at a deep discount to universities, businesses, and other organizations as long as the organization commits to provide passes to all students or employees. Common in many cities, universal passes create loyal ridership and a strong constituency for transit.
Retake control of bus rights of way: In order for SEPTA buses to deliver effective service, they can not be consistently delayed by parked delivery trucks, by Uber drivers dropping off passengers, by construction that reduces lanes, or the failure to enforce "don't block the box" laws. Delays force riders off buses, which just results in more traffic congestion. — Richard Voith, president and founding principal of Econsult Solutions
Extend the Broad Street Subway northbound to Cheltenham and Ogontz
After dropping off passengers at Olney Station, subway cars head off to a residential neighborhood where its maintenance shops and a small park-and-ride are located. Meanwhile, north of Olney Avenue, hundreds of cars, trucks, and buses are sitting in agonizing traffic trying to get to and from the homes, shops, and offices in North Philadelphia. A two-track extension of the subway to this busy location with several stops in between would greatly reduce the traffic and commute time for area residents. — Marcus McKnight, transit advocate
Erect parking towers outside Center City
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, architect Louis Kahn envisioned a more walkable city that was designed for the true client of the urban space: pedestrians. To decrease the number of cars driving through Center City, Kahn imagined parking garages placed strategically on the edges of the city, from Schuylkill River near Logan Square to Market East next to Independence Mall. Kahn's plan never came to fruition, but the increase in congestion in Center City suggests that perhaps it is worth revisiting. — Abraham Gutman, Opinion staff writer
Expand the Cross County Pass
Let's say you work in the Greater King of Prussia area and you live in upper North Philadelphia or Lower Northeast Philadelphia. Ideally, you should be able to walk to your nearest station, board a train, ride through Center City to get to the station closest to your job. Then, if need be, catch a bus to reach your final destination. You should be able to utilize a Cross County Pass which is $30.50 for a week, because you're starting in one county (Philadelphia) and commuting to another (Chester/Montgomery) while traveling through the city (and county) of Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, the way it works now, you have to buy a higher zoned pass. For folks who work at, say, the King of Prussia Mall, you're forced to sit on a bus for over an hour on the Schuylkill (sometimes almost two) because of this poor policy. These beliefs from yesteryear are causing people to spend more money and time on transit service — and some of those people just may decide to drive, adding even more congestion to our crowded roadways. — Marcus McKnight, transit advocate
Let unarmed traffic cops work in the right place at the right time
When residents of Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square heard that a vacant parking garage on 22nd street might be turned into a day care, all hell broke loose. One of the main concerns? Traffic. Every morning parents would double park to drop off their kids at the peak of rush hour, the street would be clogged, and day care's neighbors would have a newly hellish commute.
But there may be a solution.
Earlier this year, City Council president Darrell Clarke proposed establishing a new class of unarmed police officers to help navigate traffic. If that proposal becomes reality, the new traffic cops could work with Philadelphia Parking Authority officers to enforce parking and traffic violations based on time of day. For example, between 7 and 9 a.m., they could work outside of day cares and schools to make sure that one lane is always free for moving traffic. Between 9 a.m. and noon, they could monitor business corridors to clear loading docks outside of restaurants and retail stores. The ultimate goal would be to identify who is blocking traffic, when, and where. Utilizing strategic law enforcement and community involvement could do wonders to make moving along city streets as smooth an experience as possible. — Abraham Gutman, Opinion staff writer
Allow all-door boarding on buses and trolleys
SEPTA should adopt all-door boarding, which would lead to shorter traffic blockages and faster travel times on transit. It works by having digital fare card readers located by each door. When a bus/trolley pulls up to the stop, passengers with passes or fare cards (like the SEPTA Key) can board through any door; those who are paying the fare in cash can only board through the front door. Those who pay in cash receive a paper fare receipt.
Random spot checks are performed by fare inspectors or police officers to keep everyone honest. Any passenger without valid receipt would receive a citation with a steep fine. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) implemented this in 2012 and saw average boarding times drop from 4 seconds to 2.5 seconds, saving time for passengers and other drivers on the road. — Brandon Shaw, transit services coordinator at Transportation Management Association (TMA) Bucks
Let more buses control green lights
One great way to increase the speed of public transportation — and thus reduce congestion on the streets — is to expand Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) throughout the city, especially on Roosevelt Boulevard. TSP allows for buses and trolleys to use transmitters to keep traffic lights green until they pass through the intersection, resulting in fewer stops as the vehicles travel down the line. TSP has the added effect of clearing the car traffic that would sit at a red light in front of a bus/trolley as well, improving traffic flow.
Some Philly routes — bus routes 6, 52, 60, and the 66 trackless trolley line — already have TSP, but there are a host of other streets and routes that could benefit from this technology, including: Walnut and Chestnut Streets for routes 21 and 42, Market Street for routes 17 and 33, and Roosevelt Boulevard for the Roosevelt Blvd Direct Bus and routes 1, 14, 20, 50, and R. — Brandon Shaw, transit services coordinator at Transportation Management Association (TMA) Bucks
Use smart technology to control vehicles
What if sensors could suggest vehicle routes that avoided areas busy with children? Or could detect — and deter — a vehicle from parking too close to an intersection, blocking access for pedestrians? Consider that sensors will soon be deployed to enable safe movement of autonomous vehicles. But what about the other half of Philadelphians (upward of 70 percent in Center City) who get around by walking, biking, or riding transit?
One bold idea is to build a smart transportation system based on the concept of safe sensing. Sensors could control vehicles in a way that prioritizes the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles while also ensuring efficient travel. This idea is bold yet not innovative. Safer travel could be achieved tomorrow with effective signage and consistent enforcement; we should not need technology to coerce vehicles to stop at a stop sign. But, in a city that condones rolling stops and, of all major cities, had the greatest increase in pedestrians killed since 2015, perhaps safe sensors are the bold idea needed to make Philadelphia a better, safer city. — Carrie Sauer, Safe Mobility Research Director at University of Pennsylvania and Megan S. Ryerson, professor and associate dean for research at PennDesign
Consider the passenger — and the whole picture
Transportation is an integral part of any city's ecosystem. Considering transit projects in a vacuum inevitably leads to disjointed solutions. But, Mayor Kenny's proposed City Transit Plan offers the opportunity to avoid this mistake by taking into account the following:
Any public transportation option should be designed with the passenger in mind. Each journey needs to compete effectively against the automobile and therefore should be as efficient and comfortable as possible. That is not the case today. For example, fare payment and trip routing could be integrated into a single smart phone application, potentially with integration with carpooling apps, such as UberPool, and bike sharing.
Next, transportation, land use, and economic development need to be approached together. In other words, why consider development that isn't accessible by public transit and why not integrate development into transportation hubs? By doing so, it is possible to solve many problems in a single design.
Finally, any bus rerouting plan should take these principles into account, strengthening existing transportation hubs for better transfers and introducing new development opportunities at the same time. This not only creates more efficient journeys that reduce automobile usage, it also creates new revenue streams necessary to pay for the improvements and to support the system's upkeep.
This holistic approach is not only designed to improve Philadelphia's transportation system, but also to give the city the tools it needs to better retain and attract residents and businesses. — Jim Venturi, Principal at ReThink Studio, Inc.