SEPTA’s locked gates in Center City frustrate riders — and even trap some in concourse
Since summer 2020, the transit authority has been locking stairwells and restricting access to the concourse between Jefferson and Suburban Stations. Riders have been confused, and stuck, as a result.
Richard Furstein is a professional tour guide. Getting around Philly is kind of his thing.
So imagine his surprise when he found himself trapped between locked gates inside SEPTA’s maze-like Center City concourse one afternoon in January.
Furstein got off the subway at the City Hall station, and after finding one stairwell closed, walked farther down the concourse to another exit. But after pushing through a floor-to-ceiling turnstile, he and another rider found themselves staring at a bolted gate.
They were stuck, unable to get to the street or return to the station. He used a nearby emergency call box and waited.
“He was pretty upset and I was pretty upset,” Furstein said. “At the 10-minute mark, we were both getting kind of stressed.”
After 20 minutes, a SEPTA cashier was finally able to remotely unlock the turnstile and let them back down to the subway platform, in search of yet another exit.
These locked gates and doors are a common sight in the highly trafficked SEPTA concourses — and Furstein’s saga was hardly the first time riders found themselves trapped in recent months.
In the summer of 2020, the transit authority began locking stairwells and restricting access to the concourse between Jefferson and Suburban Stations. According to transit officials, the lockdown was driven by low ridership, public safety concerns, and staffing issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The transit agency confirmed 10 other riders like Furstein have gotten trapped in the concourse since then. Meanwhile, riders say the simple frustration of encountering locked entrances is driving away passengers at a time when SEPTA is desperately trying to lure people back to mass transit.
SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said the Center City closures help ensure safety for both transit personnel and riders on platforms, stairwells, pathways, and corridors.
“Adjustments have been made during the pandemic to help SEPTA manage these spaces and keep them safe, clean and secure for riders, employees and the public,” Busch said. “Despite this, SEPTA has never stopped operating, even during the worst days of the pandemic.”
A full accounting of closed entrances and stairwells remains unclear, which adds to the confusion.
Some riders say the closures make the concourse less accessible, delaying travelers as they search for an open entrance or exit.
“I see people pulling at the doors, walking with suitcases, or getting out of cars thinking the entrance is open,” said Damon Mastandrea, who lives near Jefferson Station. “The signs have no map with arrows, so if you don’t know the nearby streets, it’s confusing.”
Last year, SEPTA transit ridership sat at 40% of pre-pandemic levels, and just 20% for Regional Rail service.
At the same time, riders flood the agency’s social media account with complaints about the entrance schedules. One stairwell to Suburban from 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard is only open for three hours in the morning and three hours again in the afternoon, according to SEPTA. Part of the concourse hallway near Jefferson closes at 7 p.m., while the connecting hall to Suburban closes at 11 p.m. Other concourse entry points — like the Municipal Services Building — remain indefinitely shut down.
So confusion abounds, for out-of-towners and daily riders alike.
In early February, Brandon Tubby, a public housing finance consultant, was trying to catch a train at Jefferson. He and another rider tried an entrance on Market Street. Locked. A sign directed them to an entrance on 10th Street. Also locked.
He only made his train to go visit family that day because the train was running late. Getting into Jefferson Station “felt like breaking out of an escape room,” he recalled saying to the other rider.
“I said to him: ‘Sometimes I get the feeling that SEPTA hates its customers. What kind of business would want their customers to feel this way?’” Tubby said.
Busch, of SEPTA, apologized for the inconvenience. He encouraged riders to check SEPTA.org for potential changes. However, the spokesperson did not offer a timeline on reopening closed entryways and other parts of the concourse.
Riders say the agency needs to take more accountability.
The problems driving the lockdown — particularly issues around homelessness — extend beyond the city’s core.
In March 2021, SEPTA’s short-lived shutdown of the Somerset El stop in Kensington erupted into a controversy over accessibility issues and quality-of-life concerns on the train lines.
Meanwhile, the restricted access downtown is viewed by transit officials and business interests as an orchestrated attempt to prevent vagrancy in the city’s underused concourse, especially during the cold winter months.
In a February 2021 email, SEPTA assistant general manager Kim Scott Heinle told SEPTA officials that quality-of-life complaints on the Market-Frankford Line had skyrocketed from 15 a month to nearly 165 a month during the pandemic, even with a third of its usual number of riders.
Problems bled into the downtown concourse, Heinle said, with widespread smoking, drug use, and public defecation.
“We are in crisis mode in regards to the [Market-Frankford Line],” Heinle wrote. “Our customers are fearful and engaging us daily to do something to restore security and order.”
Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, which manages part of the concourse under Dilworth Park, commended SEPTA for staying open throughout the pandemic. He said public safety concerns are paramount for the riders as Center City struggles to bring back commuters to downtown offices — and there’s no easy solution.
“For the person who encounters that locked gate, it’s a significant challenge and interruption,” Levy said. “On the other hand, for the person who goes underground and encounters a situation that feels dangerous, that’s a different challenge.”
SEPTA said it has a number of outreach efforts underway, including hiring more transit police, boosting surveillance, and employing a fleet of 88 “ambassadors” to help guide riders along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines.
Furstein questioned whether the restricted access plan was effective. In the stairwell where he was trapped, he also saw a person experiencing homelessness sleeping.
“So as much as this strategy was about public safety, it created all of these catchments that are reinforcing the problem,” he said.