Legacy is a funny thing — especially when lasting history becomes the occasional punchline.
SEPTA’s dead-and-gone slogan “We’re Getting There” long ago took on a life of its own, with mentions still on social media, at least one song written in its honor, and even a nod to the phrase on the transportation authority’s blog, all preserving its existence in the internet age.
But how did the ’80s-era “We’re Getting There” get there, exactly? While easy to use as a retort when a bus is delayed or two back-to-back Route 34 trolleys pass by, those with some knowledge of its beginnings suggest an earnest origin.
Rick Wooten, SEPTA’s manager of public affairs around the time the slogan was implemented, said “We’re Getting There” came at a time when the authority saw “a lot of ribbon cuttings.” Management wanted to “get people to notice” the changes it was making, such as new maintenance policies, improved service, and cleanup efforts.
“They used to call SEPTA ‘inepta,’” he said, “and you subject yourself to that kind of ridicule, but I think we were confident enough that we were really getting there.”
It’s not clear when SEPTA began using “We’re Getting There,” but Wooten’s best guess is the early- to mid-’80s. A 1988 Inquirer article said McAdams & Oong, a consultant firm, helped develop the slogan and advertising series.
Wooten said the phrase was more likely to be spotted on city transit than on Regional Rail, which SEPTA took over from Conrail in 1983. The campaign extended to TV, too. A 30-second commercial that ends with the slogan, but is “a little more confident” than the motto lets on, aired in 1987 and cost $80,000, The Inquirer reported at the time. In fiscal year 1987, SEPTA saw about 352 million trips — higher than the 302 million it saw in 2018.
“In 1981 or ’82, seeing a broken-down bus on Market Street at City Hall was not uncommon,” said Wooten, a longtime employee before going on to serve on SEPTA’s board. “Now it is.”
Wooten doesn’t remember a strong reaction to “We’re Getting There” when it was around, but said inconvenienced customers would sometimes “throw it back” at the transportation authority. Though if the goal of the slogan was to get people to notice SEPTA’s improvements, Wooten said it was successful — albeit “slowly.”
“The place didn’t shut down, it continued to improve, it had bumps, it had some accidents — it was far from perfect, but I still maintain that incrementally, it was improving,” he said.
“We’re Getting There” was a meme before there were memes.
In 1986, demonstrators donned satirical “We want to get there, too!” buttons, according to a Daily News article. And at a heated news conference on rail cutbacks in 1992, then-City Councilman Michael Nutter dug into the slogan by suggesting SEPTA change the phrase from “We’re Getting There” to “You Can’t Get There From Here.” The crowd ate the comment up, according to another Daily News archival article.
SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch doesn’t know exactly when “We’re Getting There” was phased out, but said it may have been around the time when the agency’s “Serious About Change” slogan was shuffled in around the late ’90s. In Philly vernacular, however, “We’re Getting There” has never been phased out.
SEPTA doesn’t have an “overarching” slogan now — Busch said the agency is focused on shorter-term campaigns, like its “Dude It’s Rude” signs — but spotting a lingering motto from the past might not be all that impossible. SEPTA once even held a “scavenger hunt” encouraging commuters to send in photos of the vintage signs.
“It’s ... not something we run away from, but hopefully folks are kind of looking at it in the context of the time it came out and the issues that it was addressing, and then also take a look at what we’re doing today,” Busch said.