Investing in better bus service is the quickest and cheapest way public transit can improve the lives of Philadelphia residents, particularly those with low incomes, says a new city study of transportation priorities for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Among the ideas are bus lanes, boarding islands and transit traffic signals to slash delays, as well as more frequent service. Such improvements should be targeted to bus routes with high pre-pandemic ridership and those serving low-income people, the report says.
Mayor Jim Kenney and Leslie S. Richards, the SEPTA general manager, introduced the 192-page city transit plan in a Monday afternoon news conference.
“We cannot fully address systemic racial disparities, recover from the current economic crisis, and fight the climate crisis without investing in public transportation,” Kenney said.
“We have to keep in mind our customer base — they are hardworking people, some of them poor,” he said.
Though the pandemic has complicated budgeting for both the city and SEPTA and some of the ideas in the report are more expensive, long-range goals, “we still need to be thinking about the future,” Richards said.
“For all those other big issues Philadelphia faces, transit is part of the solution: equitable development, climate change, health and education equity,” said Christopher M. Puchalsky, policy director for the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, which led the study.
In the city, 52% of SEPTA transit trips are by bus, compared to 26% in New York and 33% in Boston. And low-wage people are 17 times more likely to use the bus than Regional Rail, the report says.
Planning, design, and community engagement are already underway for proposed bus priority corridors on Roosevelt Boulevard, Market Street, and JFK Boulevard between 15th and 20th Streets, and on Chestnut and Walnut Streets, among other places.
Bus-speeding traffic design would cost about $500,000 to $1 million per mile, the report estimates. It would cost about $45 million for 10 bus corridors and 600 bus stop upgrades, including better lighting.
By contrast, SEPTA’s planned modernization of the trolley system, which the city report endorses, will cost an estimated $1.8 billion. The trolleys carry about 14% of the system’s ridership, and the fleet is 40 years old. Modern cars will increase capacity.
“We at 5th Square are thrilled to see the city come out with such progressive goals and solid ideas to improve our region’s transit system,” said Dena Driscoll, cochair of the political action committee, which advocates for investment in mass transit and other urbanist public policies.
The group cheered the plan’s emphasis on improving bus corridors. Driscoll said dedicated bus corridors to reduce travel time will support SEPTA’s bus-network redesign, which gets going this year.
Other ideas in the report include establishing low-income fares and more frequent Regional Rail service to provide travel options beyond the traditional commuting pattern between suburbs and Center City.
The city plan comes as SEPTA faces a funding crisis, aggravated by slumping ridership during the pandemic and the looming loss next year of hundreds of millions in state money, as it will no longer receive its yearly share of Pennsylvania Turnpike income. The agency also receives less regional funding than many peer transit systems in the U.S.
SEPTA has received infusions of operating money from federal pandemic-relief packages and hopes to get a share of the cash reserved for public transit in the Biden administration’s current proposal.
Officials also see opportunity in the Biden administration’s developing infrastructure spending plan, which the White House says will be built around goals of combating climate change and achieving racial equity.
“We’re not going to be passive and just wait to hear what they deliver. We really want to get to the table and try to influence, and as much as anything, see where our goals and ideals align with theirs,” said Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for transportation.
“We’re pretty confident there’s a lot of good alignment,” he said.
The value of the report will be as a “road map, the compact, if you will, to organize everyone’s investment to get to a common goal,” Carroll said. Making bigger investments and changes in public transit will require cooperation among an array of agencies and governments including the city, Harrisburg, SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit.