It was one of those sparkling, late Saturday afternoons in December when Chestnut Street in Center City looked like a stage set for a Christmas movie. Every store glowed with light, and package-laden shoppers skipped merrily along the sidewalks.
Unfortunately, I was stuck on the 42 bus, trying to get across town to meet friends.
Almost as soon as I boarded at 21st Street, the driver encountered a parked car in what is supposed to be a bus-only lane. The street was jammed with traffic, making it hard to change lanes. Pedestrians passed us as we inched toward 17th Street, where a tide of humanity flooded the crosswalks and kept cars from turning right. After several light-cycle changes, the bus plunged forward half a block, only to be thwarted by an Uber pickup. Another half block on, at 15th Street, everything came to a halt: A VIP party bus lazed idly in front Del Frisco’s, one set of wheels straddling the left lane, making it impossible for anyone to squeeze past.
This was the moment I realized I would have been better off walking. But as I stared into the abyss of the black party bus, amazed that it took 20 minutes to go six blocks, I had another, entirely different thought:
Did Philadelphia make a big mistake when it eliminated the Chestnut Street Transitway?
For many Philadelphians, it is an article of faith that the bus-only Transitway was a major policy fail that nearly killed shopping on Chestnut Street. But from the vantage of 2018 (as well as the back of a traffic-moored 42 bus) that narrative seems as outdated as tie-dye and bell-bottoms.
Opened in 1975, the Transitway transformed the 12 busiest blocks of Chestnut Street — from Sixth to 18th — into a corridor that prioritized pedestrians and buses over cars. Because it was a product of the ‘70s, when cities were struggling to compete with suburban shopping, the Transitway was really an urban mall in transit clothing, featuring elaborately paved sidewalks, lots of pedestrian seating, and futuristic traffic lights called “Transitrons.”
Even though the city was mainly interested in simulating a suburban shopping experience, the corridor was still a transit-rider’s dream. In its original incarnation, buses cruised in both directions. Maybe the most futuristic thing about the Transitway was that you could get from one end of Center City to the other in under 15 minutes.
Yet, within a few years of its creation, merchants turned against the project. The Transitway was blamed for everything from dirty sidewalks to unruly teenage behavior, especially after the Easter Parade got out of hand in 1985 and shop windows were broken. Based on news clips from the time, it’s striking how much the complaints resemble those that would be leveled later against the Gallery, another disgraced ‘70s retail experiment.
Part of the problem was that the city began dumbing down the Transitway only six years after it opened.
First cars were allowed back on Chestnut Street in the evenings. When that modification didn’t stop the shops and movie theaters from closing, the city had the Transitway’s street furniture ripped out. By the late ‘90s, policymakers like former Councilmen Frank DiCicco and the Center City’s District’s Paul Levy were arguing that only more cars and curbside parking could save Chestnut Street.
Sure enough, the street has bounced back since the Transitway was abolished in 2000. But then, so has the rest of Center City, where the population has ballooned by 30 percent since 2000.
The Transitway’s life span happened to coincide with what were probably the worst three decades in Philadelphia’s history. Between 1970 and 2000, the city lost 430,000 residents — 22 percent of its population. Some 140,000 jobs vanished in the ‘70s alone. As the city emptied out, Chestnut Street’s department stores and movie house lost their customers and shut down. Given that Philadelphia was in demographic free fall, it’s hard to believe that the bus corridor was the main cause of the street’s demise. Philadelphia didn’t reverse its population slide until 2007.
The last decade has been good to Philadelphia, so good that we are now worried more about congestion than the lack of foot traffic in Center City. The sidewalks are thronged with people. As my colleague Jason Laughlin has detailed, congestion is becoming an existential crisis for SEPTA, as more people abandon city buses for more nimble ride-hailing services. In September, the city enlisted the police department to step up traffic enforcement on Chestnut and Market Streets. As first steps go, it’s barely enough.
The city and SEPTA have issued several reports recently offering strategies for getting people back on the buses, but for a working example they should look to that big city 90 miles north.
Like SEPTA, New York’s bus city system has been losing riders. In response, the city’s transit authority created 16 new, bus-only corridors, which it has branded Select Bus Service. They make Chestnut Street’s existing bus lane — the surviving remnant of the Transitway — look like Windows 1.0.
What makes New York’s bus-only lanes work is that buses really do rule. Eric Beaton, New York’s deputy transportation commissioner, told me that the city has installed pole-mounted enforcement cameras to keep motorists from encroaching on the lane, as they do in Philadelphia.
The main goal is to keep the buses moving. On many Select Bus routes, passengers validate their fares at sidewalk kiosks before the bus arrives, reducing the amount of time it takes riders to enter the bus. This has opened the way for all-door boarding, which means the bus spends less time at each stop. New York also has begun synchronizing its traffic lights so buses don’t get stopped at every intersection.
Average bus speeds on these Select routes have increased 10 to 30 percent, Beaton said. As people gain confidence that the bus will stick to its schedule, ridership has increased, too, by about 10 percent on those routes. “When bus speeds fall, people are much less likely to use them,” he explained.
The model for all this? Brooklyn’s ‘70s-era Fulton Street Mall, New York’s answer to the Chestnut Street Transitway. Today it has some of the highest retail rents in New York, Beaton said.
Of course, transit riders are different in Philadelphia. Along with cracking down on motorists who linger in the Chestnut Street bus lane, SEPTA could try to change the habits of its riders, who are used to buses that stop at every corner. It could speed things up significantly if the buses skipped a block.
Dick Voith, a former SEPTA board member, takes the idea a step further: He argues that SEPTA should eliminate stops at right-turn corners, where pedestrian congestion keeps motorists and buses backed up. That would allow buses to whiz through the intersection in the left lane, instead of waiting for cars to turn right.
Speeding up the buses is crucial for Philadelphia’s low-wage workers, who form the core of SEPTA’s ridership, said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s transportation office. “If they can’t get to work because of someone is blocking the lane, they’re in big trouble.”
Ironically, the Center City District, which was a leading proponent of restoring cars and right turns on Chestnut Street, just issued a report suggesting remedies for downtown’s gridlock. “You’ve got to centralize policy-making,” Levy argues.
Although the report is filled with lots of good suggestions, one key idea is missing: How about bringing back an updated version of the Chestnut Street Transitway?