SEPTA has seen a big drop in bus ridership over the last year, and to win back riders, it's considering a possible redesign of Philly's bus network. That process will start with an analysis of the current system and inevitably involve many compromises and trade-offs. There are lots of issues for the pros to consider, but there are also some ideas that riders should push for to ensure that Philly gets the bus system we deserve.
Riders don't want to have to check a schedule to see when the next bus is coming. That's the biggest difference between convenient and inconvenient service. People want walk-up service, where they can show up at the bus stop and expect a bus to arrive within 10 minutes. Not every bus route will achieve that kind of frequency, but more can, and SEPTA should clarify which routes run at high frequency by putting them on the official map displayed at stations. Right now, walk-up service is weakest on crosstown routes on-peak, and is basically nonexistent off-peak on evenings and weekends. To win riders back, SEPTA needs to address the evening and weekend service gap.
No one loves transferring, but building more transfers into the bus network is good because it would allow SEPTA to run the same buses in more efficient ways that allow for more frequent service. But if we want people to transfer more, we can't charge them for the inconvenience, so any new plan will require SEPTA to end its counterproductive policy of charging $1 for transfers between vehicles. One fare should cover a person's whole trip, not just a ride on a single vehicle. The $1 transfer brings in about $12 million a year, but the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission has estimated that eliminating the transfer penalty would increase ridership about 11 percent over the long term. SEPTA is going to have to invest some resources in winning back bus riders anyway, and making transfers free is a cost-effective way to do it.
One place where SEPTA has an opportunity to save riders' time is to use all bus doors for boarding, instead of making everyone pay at the front. That requires a change in the way people pay for the bus, by having riders pay at bus stops. Roving inspectors would do spot-checks for proof of payment, and issue tickets to people who didn't pay. San Francisco has implemented all-door boarding for buses, and the Proof-of-Payment (POP) system is common practice outside of North America. SEPTA's investment in Key fare card technology makes this easy to implement here, by installing SEPTA Key readers at bus stops for off-board fare collection.
Protected bike lanes have been a hot topic this year, and there's also a strong case for protected bus lanes that separate buses from general traffic. Transit is the best solution we have for moving lots of people quickly. A bus carrying 40 people is a more efficient use of space on our streets than 40 individual cars. On high-ridership, high-frequency routes, the city and SEPTA should explore opportunities to give buses their own right-of-way on the streets by separating them from general traffic, either with physical curbs or with lane enforcement cameras. Getting bus riders out of traffic will take political leadership that has so far been in short supply when it comes to apportioning street space. Even the Boulevard Direct Bus, the city and SEPTA's first foray into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), doesn't give buses their own lane despite having 12 lanes of traffic to work with.
Better Visual Information
Our bus network should be easy to understand even if you aren't from Philadelphia and don't speak English. SEPTA needs to do a better job using visuals to communicate information, and the place to start is with the bus map. Not all bus lines have equally good service, and SEPTA should clarify which lines run most frequently by showing them on the transit map it displays at stations alongside the subways, trolleys, and Regional Rail lines. SEPTA's existing bus maps are hidden on its website, and they only show individual lines—not how the network fits together. SEPTA should also install countdown clocks on their new bus shelters showing when the next bus will arrive. The new shelters have been a good step toward creating a dignified customer experience for bus riders, but these should also tell people where the bus goes, and when the next one will arrive.
The bus network redesign conversation is coming at an important time. SEPTA Key will soon be in place across the system, creating opportunities for policy changes and service quality improvements that weren't available with tokens.
It also comes as Philly is grappling with important questions about how to remain affordable as the city grows. Transportation costs are the second-highest household expenditure in Philadelphia, so affordable transportation is critical. Done well, bus network reform could reduce residents' cost of living by making car ownership a choice rather than a necessity. Buses may not be the first transportation choice for every person or single trip, but there is more that a city government and transit agency determined to grow bus ridership could do to make buses a more convenient choice more often, for more people.