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SEPTA will use in-house talent to remake Philadelphia’s bus network

A plan to keep a bus service revamp in-house could save money and speed up the process.

SEPTA bus Route 23, the longest bus route in Philadelphia, is backed up on a Wednesday afternoon in Center City — two buses in a row because the first one was so off schedule.
SEPTA bus Route 23, the longest bus route in Philadelphia, is backed up on a Wednesday afternoon in Center City — two buses in a row because the first one was so off schedule.Read moreSamantha Melamed / Staff

SEPTA is taking a new approach to changing bus service in the region, with its goals shifting toward a better version of the network that exists rather than a wholesale redesign.

“We’re now calling it an optimization,” Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA’s general manager, said Tuesday during a budget hearing before Philadelphia City Council.

The transit agency’s bus ridership has declined for the last four years, and SEPTA and Philadelphia officials acknowledge that change is needed to bring riders back. As recently as mid-March, SEPTA planned to seek a design firm to manage a bus network redesign, but recently the agency changed course and now will do much of the work in-house.

“It’s really going to be an internally driven process,” Knueppel said.

>>READ MORE: SEPTA keeps bleeding bus riders. It may take years to stanch the losses.

Consultants still will be hired for specific tasks, with a national firm potentially brought in to provide oversight. A report released last June on the bus network found that 70 percent of the existing routes were well designed to serve the city. That led officials to believe a less dramatic change in service would be needed.

The news on the future of the bus service came after SEPTA officials fielded questions from Council in a hearing about the city’s $87.6 million contribution to the agency, about 6 percent of SEPTA’s almost $1.5 billion operating budget.

Improving bus service is a priority for the city. Better service could help mitigate problems, such as job access for the poor and heavy congestion in the city’s core. The goal, SEPTA and city officials said, is to stanch the ridership loss and start reversing that trend.

Among the likely advantages of keeping more work in-house are cost and time. The new plan could shave a year off what had been anticipated as a two- to three-year process, Knueppel said. Work could begin in July.

Among recommendations for SEPTA’s bus service in last June’s report were all-door boarding, more frequent service, fewer bus stops, and an end to the $1 transfer fee, which experts say discourages ridership.

The transfer fees in particular drew the attention of Councilwoman Helen Gym during the budget hearing. During his testimony, Knueppel said the agency would consider whether to keep the transfer fees next year, when a fare increase is scheduled to go into effect.

>>READ MORE: SEPTA’s vision for a new bus network: faster, fewer stops, no transfer fees

“We understand that transfers are an issue," Knueppel said. “We have to figure out how to make it neutral in revenue."

Knueppel noted after the meeting that SEPTA’s losses have tracked with a national trend of declining bus ridership and that SEPTA had a ridership increase between 1998 and 2012 that exceeded the national trend in that direction. Recent data show, though, that SEPTA is losing riders at a faster pace than other transit agencies. Heavy traffic, use of ride-share vehicles, and the explosion of deliveries in the city are all playing a role, while riders complain about increasingly slow and late buses.

Transfer fees aren’t just a disincentive to ride, Gym said. They are an unfair burden on the poor. She expressed concern about the city’s lack of a definitive study on the relationship between ridership declines and affordability, and SEPTA’s requirements that children more than 4 years old pay full fares on city transit.

“We don’t need additional studies,” she said. “I will make sure there’s urgency around it.”

Safety issues also came up during the hearings. Councilwoman Cindy Bass asked about bus drivers, who, SEPTA officials said, have been increasingly the target of minor assaults and harassment, including being spit on or having liquids thrown at them. In 2017 and 2018, SEPTA has had almost 100 reports of these encounters. There have been 26 such incidents this year, as of March.

SEPTA has installed adjustable screens around bus drivers on 569 buses so far, with the goal of having 80 percent of its 1,457 buses equipped this year. There have been no harassment incidents in the buses with screens, Knueppel said.