Interview: Can SEPTA Provide 24/7 Subway Service?

Conrad Benner hopes so.

FVHUDPefXXVirbf-172x172-croppedConrad Benner is probably best known to the Philadelphia public as the man behind Streets Dept, a funky photo blog that chronicles the city in all its found-art and destruction-porn glory. Lately, the 28-year-old native has taken on a new role: Activist. He’s the man behind a petition asking SEPTA to provide 24/7 service along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines. He’s not sure what to expect: “Hopefully putting this out there will get answers,” he said.

Benner talked to Philly Mag about his campaign, which had gathered nearly 1,000 signatures by mid-morning today. Some excerpts:

Why do we need 24/7 service on SEPTA? I’ve been out and about at 4 a.m. in Center City before, Philly doesn’t necessarily strike me as a 24/7 city for the most part.

When I was in high school, I worked at Old Navy at the Gallery. And we would have to stay until sometimes, 1:30, 2 in the morning over the weekend. That’s how I met the night owl shift, sort of. It was just a horrible experience, it felt very unsafe standing on the corner, the bus itself was packed. I had to do this for a year-and-a-half. So this wasn’t one instance, it was years of experience. And it just felt really, kind of shitty. And it was when I was a little bit older that I started going to New York and Chicago. I saw that these other cities have many of their metro lines open 24/7 and it just felt a lot safer. I think a lot of people use it, it’s more convenient, you didn’t have to wait on the corner for a bus that might not come.

I also know people who are friends and people I live with who work in the restaurant industry. It’s a real pain in the butt to have to spend 20, 30 bucks taking a cab home every night. … Especially people who [might] have 400 bucks in their pocket. They’re not gonna stand on the corner just waiting for a bus to potentially come.

You want the Broad Street Line and the El to be open 24/7. But they don’t necessarily reach out into certain pockets of the city. Would those two lines be enough?

No, I understand there are other buses that are 24/7. I am saying the Broad Street Line and the Market Street Line because they are the two crucial points of connection for a lot of those buses. Honestly [they] run right down the two major roads of the city and up one of the major corridors to the Northeast. They don’t reach a lot of the pockets, but they do connect a lot of the bus lines, which do run 24/7. And they do connect major parts of the city.

SEPTA has been notably short of funds to do this kind of maintenance. Do you think they can afford to expand service in the way you propose?

I’m not starting a petition with all the answers. From what I’ve read in the past few days, which is that SEPTA ridership is at a 20 year high, that would make me think they’re getting more money than they’ve gotten in the past 20 years, so they would potentially increase services. If that’s something they were interested in doing, I think this is one of the services that they could spend for.

Another thing that I read recently — I think also on the same article — was that on the board of people that make these decisions about what service to extend and what to offer, how to spend SEPTA’s money, only two people on that board actually represent transportation for the city itself, within the city limits. The majority of that board are people representing the R lines, the transportation in the suburbs.

The Boston Transit Authority recently decided to extend the hours on some of their lines, just more incrementally, until 3 a.m. Would just going to later hours solve the problem that you’re proposing to solve?

Yeah, well listen. I started the petition sort of how I would start the negotiation for a salary raise. You start with what you want, and then you negotiate down. I would love to see a 24-hour system, but ultimately, if we got out of it extended service on the weekends, or just until bars close every single night until 3 a.m., I think that would be a fantastic step. Absolutely.

You’re doing this on, are there any other ways you’re gonna try to build support for your proposal?

I looked around, and a lot of people have been using recently, including the woman who just started the petition to turn the Divine Lorraine into an art museum, which seems like it’s not gonna happen. But I just like the mechanics of Could I have done something else? Potentially, but I thought this was really the best way to gather steam on the issue. And to make it seem like there was a force behind it. Not just one blogger spouting my mouth off, but actually hundreds of people.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

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  • DTurner

    While I am not convinced by Benner’s argument that 24/7 rapid transit service is a good way to spend meager transit funds (did he totally miss the dire financial straits SEPTA has been in over the past few years); I think that his petition and Inga’s Inky article on improving bus service really do highlight a growing frustration on the part of new choice riders in Philadelphia that SEPTA’s funding is disproportionately slanted to providing regional rail service to the suburbs. I’m guessing that this frustration is just going to grow as most (but not all) of the improvements to SEPTA over the next decade or so are focused on improving RR service.

    • LexS

      “Disproportionately slanted to providing Regional Rail service to the suburbs” because all of the lines run every 10 minutes well into the night.

      A lot of reason that “so much funding” is going into the Regional Rail lines is because most if not all these lines are over 100 years old with 100 year infrastructure. Catenary wires and substations in critical locations of the network literally date back to the 1930s. The bulk of the train fleet date back to the 1970s…and still run 7 days a week. Breakdowns on the electric locomotives, dating back to the 80s, are frequent and line-crippling.

      Don’t forget that a large number of city residents reverse commute to the suburbs and rely on a decent regional rail network.

      The need for this region is not to put the growing city against the growing inner suburbs to fight over table scraps of funding for transportation. The focus needs to be to improve local service everywhere to address the needs of a 21st Century Metro Philadelphia Region rather than routes that run the same way they did in the streetcar days.

      • DTurner

        I don’t disagree, I just think that there is a rising level of anger with the quality of SEPTA transit services vs. regional rail service. If anything, I think this debate just highlights the need for more local funding solutions for SEPTA that would reduce suburb-city tensions and would stop the near-annual begging for funds from Harrisburg. We should be looking at obtaining legislation that actually allows SEPTA to collect sales tax and/or value capture revenues.

  • thegreengrass

    Staying open til after bars and restaurants close would be great. PATCO is very well used on weekends after the bars close. You can’t tell me the people who patronize city bars, clubs, and restaurants wouldn’t love to use the El and Subway instead of driving drunk or paying cab fares. You do it, it’ll happen. Run a pilot program in the summer or something.

    Also, it’s the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, not the “Boston Transit Authority”. Unlike Pennsylvania, Massachusetts knows how to treat Boston as an integrated region, instead of pitting city and suburbs against each other.

  • Nina

    Having a 24-7 train system makes more sense, imo. Even if they don’t run as often, I feel like it would be more efficient than running a bunch of buses that never show up on time. Plus, like the article says – the trains STILL run after hours.

  • Glomarization

    Increased ridership doesn’t raise SEPTA’s income as much as one might think. My understanding (and I don’t have a source in front of me, sorry, Joel) is that fares constitute less than half of SEPTA’s income. Then if they raise fares, they risk losing ridership; and I’m sure a policy wonk could weigh in and tell us that it’s not the best idea to have a transit system rely too heavily on fares for its livelihood.

    The bottom line, if I can put my public transit boosterism hat on, is that SEPTA — like public transit in any other state — needs dedicated funding from the capital. But the General Assembly refuses to fund SEPTA at the level it needs. So every year SEPTA ends up balancing its budget on the backs of its ridership, the majority (or at least plurality) of whom are in Philadelphia and can least afford it. In the end, of course, strangling Philadelphia via SEPTA will be to the detriment of the Commonwealth as a whole, but try telling that to Assembly members from central Pennsylvania, who will understand the need for funding public transit only when their counties are full of little old lady baby boomers who can no longer drive.

    As for decisionmaking on SEPTA’s board, yes: it’s made up more like a “senate” than a “house of representatives.” Each county is equally represented, rather than having representation weighted by ridership. I don’t know the whole history, but it has to do with how SEPTA was cobbled together from the transit services and agencies that it replaced back in the day. Maybe it seemed like a better idea to do it that way in 1965, I dunno. I think it’s inequitable, but since I’m a Philadelphian, and a Center City resident no less, I’m sure I’d be seen as biased.

    • You’re in fact a bit low about how much SEPTA’s transit division recovers from the farebox. By comparison with other transit agencies SEPTA has a fare recovery rate (between 55 and 60%) that puts it well above average, even when the comparison is limited to similar systems. That’s a higher recovery rate than highway transportation which, despite the myth that it “pays its own way” through gas taxes and fees, currently hovers at 50% and is dropping due to inflation.

      SEPTA’s overall fare recovery is dragged down by its Regional Rail operations, but even they do better than many other commuter rail systems.

      The simple facts are that no form of transportation – commuter rail, light rail, bus, intercity rail, airlines, or highways – operates without subsidies. Various political and business groups have managed to codify the Big Lie that public transit, alone among those forms, should be forced to turn a profit or shut down. Sadly, they’ve been so successful that it may be years, if ever, before the playing field is more level.

  • IRideTheBus

    I like Conrad. He is an amazing photographer, but he is not a city planner or business person. 24/7 subway is not the answer, except for people going to and from certain parts of the city who refuse to take a bus. Subways staying open would require WAY more security. I would never take a subway at 3am. I’d feel so much safer on a bus. Most of the people whining about the need for this would probably not wait drunkenly on a subway platform for 25-30 minutes anyway. They would take a cab back from the bar either way. Not worth the cost for the few people it would add to ridership.

    Also, please stop comparing our transit to NYC for so many reasons. One, their bars and stuff are open till 4am, so 24/7 transit makes more sense. NYC has things to do past 1/2am. Philly really doesn’t for the most part. Drinking is basically it after 11pm and having a 24/7 subway is just pooling drunk targets. Not all transit routes are 24/7 in NYC. For example, trains to CT suburbs of the city run their last trip out at 1:30am even on weekends. How many more people live in the NYC area? What percentage have cars/commute?

  • matthew brandley

    It will not happen . The time the el and bss are shut down now is the only times of the day SEPTA has to get in and do the maintenance that needs to be done on the tracks and get out without interfering with the trains

  • LexS

    While I agree that at least on weekends, there should be 24 hour service, you should not dismiss the fact that doing the maintenance in the overnight hours when there is no service prevents SEPTA from having to do service shut downs and special schedules every weekend like they do in the New York City Subway and PATCO.

    SEPTA was once featured on World’s Toughest Fixes, and there was a segment where the crew had to repair a broken rail on the El. They did all of this work overnight when the trains weren’t running.

    I really don’t think SEPTA’s suburban service have anything to do with the fact that the trains do not run all night long. At least we have the buses instead of nothing like most other cities. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for the city to give SEPTA specific dedicated funding to run the trains all night long at least as a pilot project.

    Finally, all of these articles about service in the city keep coming up. Always note that you can submit reasonable service suggestions (that save SEPTA money or at least don’t cost any money) to SEPTA via the customer service site or even at

    • DTurner

      FYI, I think Inga was working with SEPTA on the bus service article, so SEPTA is aware and actively working with these suggestions.