It’s not that Philadelphia’s Tioga and Nicetown neighborhood lacks access to public transportation.
Bus routes run through, the Broad Street Line is within walking distance, and the recently refurbished Wayne Junction Regional Rail station sits in the middle of the neighborhood. But despite the transit options, recently released census data show almost half of Tioga’s working people get to their jobs by car, compared to 42 percent who use some form of public transit.
Throughout many Philadelphia neighborhoods, cars are the most common commuting choice, but that is particularly the case in some of Philadelphia’s lower-income neighborhoods, like Tioga and Nicetown. Its zip code, which also includes Hunting Park, has a median household income of $18,557, one of the lowest in the city, according to the census.
In Fairhill, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood, almost 57 percent of commuters use cars, as do residents in North Philadelphia East and North Philadelphia West. Of the five poorest neighborhoods in the city, only Powelton has a majority of commuters who use public transportation, and that neighborhood is within earshot of the transit hub 30th Street Station.
The recently released U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) Five-Year Estimate for 2013 through 2017 offers detailed data down to the city’s census tracts and suggests that these poorer communities are moving toward more car use over time, although experts warn the methodology creates significant margins of error when trying to compare the most recent results with past studies.
There is other evidence, though, that more people are turning to cars. SEPTA reported losing 18 million bus trips between 2016 and 2017, a decline that mirrors a national trend, said Evelyn Blumenberg, an urban planning professor at University of California Los Angeles.
“Even among population groups where transit ridership and transit use has been highest — low-income, immigrants, recent immigrants, in particular — we found a growth in driving,” she said, citing a recent study of falling public-transit ridership in Southern California.
The reasons include the affordability of automobiles, the hours lower-income jobs require, the demands of parenthood, and concerns about safety, according to experts and people who live in the communities.
“I got a car when she was 2,” said Teeyrah Thomas, whose daughter, Jordyn, is now 5. “I just have a lot of drop-offs and pickups where the bus wouldn’t be as quick for me.”
Thomas was among parents picking up their children one afternoon last week from Mercy Neighborhood Ministries of Philadelphia, which offers day care in Tioga and Nicetown. Students from throughout North Philadelphia come to the center on Venango Street, but even some parents who live nearby arrive in cars.
Thomas works in special education at Thomas M. Peirce Elementary School, only a few minutes drive from her home. But every morning, she makes four stops in her 2016 Chevrolet Cruze: She drops her grandmother off at a bus stop, takes her daughter to school, takes her infant to day care, and finally goes to work. The stops aren’t far from each other, but relying on public transportation would be a project, she said.
Many of the community’s workers don’t travel far to work, though very few have jobs in the neighborhood, where the most common jobs are office and administrative work, the census found, along with education, health care and maintenance. About 65 percent of Tioga and Nicetown’s workers work within Philadelphia, according to census data.
“We have a lot of young parents,” said Sister Ann Provost, executive director of Mercy Neighborhood Ministries. “Some of them, a lot of them, are health-care people. They may work in nursing homes, or they may work in home health care.”
The jobs often don’t have a 9-to-5 schedule and may require mobility. And the frequency of buses declines after rush hour, an inconvenience for people who work later.
Officials from both the city and SEPTA have cited the latest census data as evidence that Philadelphia needs better bus service. SEPTA is in a multi-year process of designing an improved bus network. Priorities include creating more frequent service during off-peak travel hours, where SEPTA officials have seen the biggest decline in ridership.
Just improving transit service, though, won’t compensate for all the reasons people prefer to own cars. Jobs are dispersed, and fixed-route systems can’t get everyone exactly where they need to be.
“We’ve created urban environments that privilege the automobile that make it difficult no matter what transit does,” Blumenberg said. “If jobs are dispersing and things are spread out in metropolitan areas, transit is going to have an increasingly hard time meeting those travel needs.”
One parent at the day care commutes by bus and subway. It makes sense for him because he works in a hotel in Center City near robust transit and dense development, he said.
“It literally takes me 10 minutes to get to work,” said Dominic Antonio, who was picking up two of his sons.
He doesn’t own a car, he said, but if he did, he would likely still use transit to get to work. He notices the lack of a vehicle, though, when it comes to parenting. Without a car, he said, he has fewer options for activities with his children.
“Right now when it’s cold, we don’t really do much compared to when I had a car,” he said.
Financially, car ownership makes sense even for people who aren’t earning a lot. Modern cars are reliable and used vehicles can be bought relatively inexpensively. Plus, street parking in Tioga and Nicetown is easy to find.
“If you’re just looking at the cost of gasoline, if you get 15 miles to the gallon, you can go 15 miles,” said Erick Guerra, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “You can’t go 15 miles for $3 on transit.”
That’s the experience of another parent waiting amid Christmas decorations and crafty art projects for her daughter, Jaelyn Jones, 10.
“If you think about all the ways you would spend on Ubers, tokens, transfers,” said Dóris Merritt, a hair-dresser, “your car payment kind of evens out.”
Merritt said she could take a bus to her salon job at 21st and Somerset Streets but would rather not risk being late, or not being able to get somewhere quickly if her daughter needs her. She also doesn’t feel comfortable standing outside waiting for a bus.
“It’s freezing cold,” she said, then listed things she’d be worried about. “It might be a pit bull. It might be a shooter.”
In neighborhoods with poor transit access, Guerra said, cars will likely remain the commuting mode of choice. In a place like Tioga, though, where there is robust transit, it may take very little to convert a driver into a rider.
“Improvements to the quality of service have the potential to have a big effect on the margins there,” he said. “If gas price goes up, maybe they switch to transit, someone who’s really close to making that kind of choice.”
There are intangible factors, though, that may continue to make cars the preferred mode of travel in neighborhoods like Tioga.
“When you work all your life and you did everything you needed to do,” Merritt said, “having your car is one thing for yourself.”