How to Make the El Less Crowded

During rush hour on the Market-Frankford Line, the air is so thick and opaque.

Jockeying for centimeters of space and sandwiched between messenger bags and puffy coats, riders on the El constantly feel squeezed. The crunch rivals the worst of a Midtown Manhattan subway. And it’s bound to get even more jam-packed: The El gained 15,000 daily riders since 2000 and, as residential developments continue to crop up along the line, those numbers are trending upwards. 

Increasing capacity is a vexing problem, and one potential solution — buying new, longer subway cars — is out of the question right now. For one, the capital cost would be astronomical. When the current fleet of 220 cars was purchased in 1997, they collectively cost more than $400 million in 2016 dollars. Secondly, the length of the subway platforms at many stops can’t support longer trains, even if the money was there to purchase them. Lastly, running additional trains at peak hours — when one train arrives every four minutes as of now — is a dubious idea, given it would likely result in slower speeds and a higher inefficiency of service.

So SEPTA is left with just one choice, really, at least for the time being: It must readjust the seating on the El to generate more room. Read more »

Why SEPTA Transfers Should be Free

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Without a doubt, the most influential transportation project in Philadelphia over the last 40 years has been the Center City Commuter Connection. The tunnel, completed in 1984, made an unparalleled structural impact on travel in the region — unifying our regional rail system, pumping life into Market East, and transforming Suburban Station and Reading Terminal into the bustling hubs they are today. But, according to historian Jacob Kobrick, there was also a less jubilant outcome: “This project, more than anything else, helped to create the perception that Philadelphia’s mass transportation planning was biased strongly in favor of affluent, white suburbanites while paying inadequate attention to the needs of the inner-city poor.”

That’s because the trench was carved through Philadelphia’s downtown largely for suburban commuters — at a cost of $1.2 billion in 2016 dollars — while the poorest sections of the city were being serviced by oft-delayed buses and rickety trolleys. But this perception of inequality in the city’s transit system wasn’t only founded on infrastructure improvements. The price of inner-city traveling was also relatively regressive at the time. In 1987, the Inquirer found that the base fare on SEPTA was higher than the fares on transit systems in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s base fare now stands as the lowest among that same cohort — except for anyone who has to pay an additional $1 transfer. For these riders, the promise of cheap fares remains a mirage.

Once you incorporate the transfer fee into the cost of each city’s public-transit trip, Philly regains the unflattering title of being the most expensive of the bunch. (For the record, that’s $2.80 with a token or $3.25 with cash; a price increase of roughly 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively.) And there’s a simple reason why: None of the other agencies charge more than 25 cents for a transfer. Even better, in cities like New York, Houston and San Francisco, transfers are free.

Over time, critics of SEPTA’s fare structure have called on the agency to make transfers free. (For one quality take on the matter, read Jake Blumgart’s argument in Axis Philly from 2013.) It’s worth revisiting in 2016 for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the rollout of next-gen technology SEPTA Key is set for April (and we really, really hope it’s for real this time), which would make transfers so much easier to use. Plus, this spring also marks SEPTA’s triennial meeting on fare adjustment — where a free-transfer policy would need to be vetted. Read more »

Can This New Plan Finally Fix Philly’s Decrepit Sidewalks?

A big tripping hazard on 24th Street. | Photo courtesy of reader @philavore.

A big tripping hazard on 24th Street. | Photo courtesy of reader @philavore.

[Updated 6:50 p.m.] Philadelphia might be ranked the fourth most-walkable city in the country, but the on-the-ground reality for pedestrians in many neighborhoods suggests otherwise: The city’s sidewalks are warped, disintegrating, disreputable blocks of concrete and brick that you can hardly step on, let alone maneuver a bicycle, stroller, or — dare I say it — hoverboard across.

Sidewalks are the responsibility of property owners — not the city — in Philadelphia. But other cities with a similar setup — New York, Minneapolis and Memphis among them — have developed innovative strategies to incentivize owners to repair their sidewalks. Conversely, Philly lacks any sort of stick or carrot to nudge property owners toward being good stewards. Last year, the city’s streets department issued 909 notices to property owners for failing to maintain the condition of their sidewalks. As a result of those notices, said miscreants paid a grand total of zero dollars in penalties. That’s an enforcement arm as flimsy as a hall monitor.

But with a new mayoral administration arrives hope for a change. The idea of returning luster to our woebegone sidewalks is being spearheaded by David Perri, who was recently appointed as head of the city’s Licenses and Inspections department by Mayor Jim Kenney. Perri believes that if the city transferred sidewalk enforcement to his department and allowed municipal employees to issue tickets to violators, a whole lot more repairs would get done.  Read more »

The Case for Public Drinking Fountains



Quick question: where is the closest public drinking fountain to you at this very moment? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It took me awhile to ponder, too. Within walking distance from this office at 19th and Market, the nearest bubbler I’m aware of is right in the middle of Rittenhouse Square — jutting out of the pool in the center of the park — roughly four blocks away. And it doesn’t even work.

Such is the state of public drinking fountains, not just in Philadelphia, but nationwide. Outside of parks and recreational areas like the Schuylkill Banks, fountains are few and far between these days. What were once ubiquitous fixtures of our grandparents’ cityscapes have largely disappeared.

What killed the public water fountain? A confluence of factors: the rise of bottled water, wrongheaded perceptions that big city water is dirty (pristine water-quality reports prove otherwise, not to mention the studies showing bottled is no safer than tap), and the unseemly notion that water fountains are somehow “low class” (recall the symbolic role water fountains played in Jim Crow-era segregation). And then there’s the high cost of maintenance. For cities that struggle to keep schools operating, water fountains can seem like expendable pieces of infrastructure.

But are drinking fountains primed for a comeback? Just maybe. Read more »

State Bill Would Require Bicyclists to Wear Reflective Clothing at Night



A bill has been introduced to the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee which would require bicyclists to wear highly visible reflective clothing at nighttime under all circumstances. But the safety-minded legislation, sponsored by Allegheny County Representative Anthony DeLuca, is being harshly rebuffed by cycling groups.

Bike Pittsburgh thinks it’s crap, for one. In a blog post referring to the legislation as a “bicycle fashion bill,” the group lambasted DeLuca’s efforts (while noting that his bill was “most likely well-intentioned”), saying this change would force bicyclists to carry around special clothing in the event they’re caught riding when the sun goes down. Further, the group notes, the state vehicle code already requires headlamps and rear lighting on bicycles. Read more »

The Incredible Potential of Philadelphia’s Neglected Public Pools

Lounge Deck

The public pool in Francisville. | Photo Credit: Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel

This would be a great pool day. I’ve heard it uttered a dozen times this summer, probably more, by friends wallowing in sweat-stained misery or baking on city concrete. Sure, it would be nice if everyone could afford the Lombard Swim Club or had an uncle in Ardmore doling out guess passes to his private pool. But those aren’t the only chances Philadelphians have to take a dip. Within walking distance of most people’s home are a multitude of free public pools, run by the City of Philadelphia.

And yet, they’re an afterthought, if that, for many Philadelphians. Why? Read more »

The Urban Pontificate

It’s easy to forget that the Pope wears many hats (or, should I say many miters?). In addition to heading up the richest institution in the world, he moonlights as de facto mayor of Vatican City and head of the local Catholic diocese. So while he’s the head of a global religion, he’s also a big fish in the urban pond of Rome.

Until Pope Francis, the Vatican’s secondary role as a major civic institution flew under the radar of the non-Italian public. But Francis has gone out of his way to incorporate urban issues into his advocacy — and not just when speaking to local Italian audiences.

Just this week he hosted 60 mayors from around the world — including New York’s Bill de Blasio, Boston’s Marty Walsh, and Paris’s Anne Hidalgo (no sign of Mayor Nutter, who will of course host the pope at the end of September) — for a two-day conference on modern slavery and climate change. Read more »

The Tragic Last Days of The Voice’s Anthony Riley

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley at the Reading Terminal Market in February, one day after leaving rehab. Photograph by Robby Parsons

Anthony Riley had been off the map for weeks when, by some random act of providence, I bumped into him outside a greasy-slice pizza joint at Broad and South. It was one of those unseasonably chilly April evenings, the kind you complain about in spring and dream about in summer. Anthony was dressed in an olive green jacket that melted into his dark skin; his cheeks rose into a handsome smile when I said hello.

I might not even have remembered our encounter, except that it would be the second-to-last time we ever spoke. Read more »

London Tube Now Accepting Apple Pay



Apple Pay made its London debut earlier this week, which means that travelers and Brits alike can purchase merchandise at over 250,000 shops with a simple tap-and-go of their smartphone. One of the biggest operations accepting Apply Pay? The London Underground. Here’s how it works: you simply hold up your device  — linked to your credit card or bank account with Apple Pay— to a sensor upon entering the metro, zip through the turnstile, then tap a sensor upon exiting which determines your fare. Read more »

Slowing Gentrification By Building Up


According to a recent story in Governing, the city of Miami might have found an interesting deterrent against gentrification: Height restrictions on development. Not the creation of regulations, but the absence of them.

Miami doesn’t control building heights as strictly as most major cities, and the result has been a residential tower building boom in recent years. Out of the 64 buildings that are 400 feet or taller in the city, 53 have been erected since 2000. And according to the story, there’s been virtually no gentrification spillover into the the residential areas bordering the business district — named Brickell — where most of the tall buildings have been raised. Areas like Little Havana and Overtown — two minority-majority, middle-class neighborhoods — have not witnessed the kind of displacement that’s familiar to, say, parts of Point Breeze in Philly. As Governing reports:

According to the real estate site Zillow, median home values in both neighborhoods are about half of what they are citywide and about one-third of Brickell’s. While both areas have some new condos, they are still predominately historic and low-slung. Most important, people there have stayed put. Both Little Havana and Overtown remain 95 percent non-Anglo, with median incomes below $24,000.

Read more »

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