Is the city starting to choke on its success?
That might not be the obvious conclusion from a recent report that SEPTA's bus ridership has declined by 10 percent – one of the largest declines in the country, based on federal data. That loss represents a whopping 18 million fewer bus trips than the year before.
Some of the factors in that decline are the increased options for people to get around, including more ride-hailing services, more bike lanes, and cheaper gas prices. Overall, these add up to a major problem: This is a heavily congested city.
Anyone who travels in Center City experiences the mind-numbing frustration of congestion on a daily basis: pedestrians swarming the streets, cars blocking intersections, delivery trucks taking up lanes, major construction forcing detours. All these obstacles slow down bus trips to the point that people are driven off the buses as a main mode of transport.
Uber and Lyft, which have unleashed a fleet of thousands of cars in a short period of time, are just part of the problem. An internet-addicted culture means swarms of trucks delivering Amazon and HelloFresh packages. A city growing in residents and jobs means more and more people crowding into the city and onto its streets. Of course, these would not be a problem if traffic regulations — like block-the-box and parking in bus lanes – were enforced. But they're not.
A recent report about congestion by the Center City District provides a concise blueprint for understanding the full scope of the problem. For example, our dense street grid design, which makes us a great walkable city, is also a nightmare for travel — and for approaching solutions. CCD points out that one of the problems is the fragmented nature of how streets and enforcement are managed. Eight different entities are responsible for managing aspects of our streets, from street maintenance and construction disruption to traffic and parking enforcement.
Block-the-box is a good example: Only police can issue moving violations for cars choking the intersection, but police have lots of non-traffic priorities. The state would have to authorize the Philadelphia Parking Authority or other non-police entities to handle these violations.
PPA is also considering having the cameras on SEPTA buses document the license plates of vehicles blocking bus lanes. Again, the state would have to authorize the PPA to use the SEPTA images for enforcement. Neither of these will happen overnight, though they should.
What this city needs is a Heimlich maneuver for its choked streets.
The mayor is best positioned to get all the entities at the table to figure out a strategy to tackle traffic planning, enforcement, and regulations that are more aligned with a vital and growing city. This is compatible with his Vision Zero plan for a safer city. There is a lot at stake – billions of dollars in fact. SEPTA released an economic impact study Thursday to underscore the impact of transportation on neighborhood and business development, not just in the city but the entire region.
We don't need a study to understand that the harder it is to get around the city, the more people, employers, and visitors will stay away. Congestion may be a good problem to have, but it's a problem that we need to take seriously.