Six Design Ideas SEPTA Should Steal Now

The system’s transit stations and bus shelters could look as nice as its new Regional Rail stations … and without much effort.


A recent article on The Atlantic Cities website made a point that is at once obvious and rarely made: Good design and strong imagery can attract more riders to mass transit.

Call it “branding” if you must, but the point remains: Easy-to-identify symbols and attractive stations and shelters make transit systems easier to spot and more pleasant to use. And a system that’s easier to spot and more pleasant to use will end up with more people using it.

This was the main point of my recent commentary elsewhere on how design does matter in transit, too. In it, I argued that SEPTA could stand improvement in that department, especially on its subway-elevated system and signage. Some readers agreed strongly with that argument, while others disagreed vehemently.

To give credit where it’s due, SEPTA has many examples of attractive design in place already. Rebuilt Regional Rail stations at Fort Washington, Ambler and North Wales, for instance, won a prestigious international award for their quality, and the reconstruction of Wayne Junction is being carried out with care and sensitivity to the station’s historic charm. (The same could be said for its reconstruction of Queen Lane.) Frankford Transportation Center, for all its problems from a functionality standpoint, is a very nice place to wait for a train or bus, and let’s not forget Market East with its woodland mosaics.

The problem is, SEPTA doesn’t have a consistent, systemwide commitment to good design and strong branding. Its most successful graphics, for instance, were a gift to it from another agency: the Center City District, whose affiliated Transportation Management Association developed the green bullseye signs and wayfinder graphics that make Center City transit stations so easy to spot and navigate now. The agency has over a period of years undone a number of attractive subway station facelifts undertaken in the 1980s. And how about those bus shelters?

Fortunately, there are several examples of transit systems that have made that systemwide commitment — and most of them enjoy strong reputations among riders.

There are other examples out there, from the simple to the ornate. And many don’t cost a lot of money either, which means SEPTA could continue its do-more-with-less ways yet still elevate the subway- and bus-riding experience in the same way it is doing bit by bit with Regional Rail.

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  • DTurner

    No mention of Montreal’s butterfly-type doors?

    • Niel McDowell

      I have to say I found those kind of confusing.

      • DTurner

        Really? They seem much more effective than the doors at the major regional rail stations.

        • Niel McDowell

          I think it’s because I wasn’t used to them. In time, and with regular use, they probably would be fairly efficient.

          • DTurner

            That’s fair

  • Niel McDowell

    I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion that SEPTA doesn’t want more riders. I think they’re so used to viewing themselves as a commuter service and, off-peak, as transportation of last resort for those who can’t afford a car that they haven’t seen improving the experience as necessary. If you have to ride, you’ll ride, even if it’s ugly & filthy. If you don’t have to ride, they’re not interested in you anyway. Would love to be proven wrong, though.

    • DTurner

      I kind of agree, particularly on the city transit side of things, although I would say that there is a newer generation of SEPTA employees that has much bigger ideas for the organization.

      Frankly, the best way to improve SEPTA is probably to create a competitor, such as a Center City/University City circulator bus network that would be owned by the city and managed by the improvement districts.

  • kclo3

    You’re conflating graphic design and station infrastructure. SEPTA’s stations are okay as it stands given their relative age; I only hope that future renovations to stations such as City Hall won’t suffer from the same problems as the BSL over-overhauls with falling tiles. What can be done for much less money is establishing a codified graphic design that will rid SEPTA of its hodgepodge mixture of signs from every decade and create a stronger visual identity on the level of MTA and CTA. MBTA’s graphic identity might be strong, but all-caps Helvetica looks too cold and staid. I would look into CTA’s design as an example.

  • Joe Clark

    Sandy is correct. As I pointed out the Regional Rail portion of the Fern Rock Transportation Center is ugly, painted in gray. Temple University is actually painted in some drab colors, but the wall mural which was done by kids living in the housing project and located just below the station proper turns what would be a very drab antiseptic looking station into something very nice. I also like Cecil B. Moore nee Columbia on the BSS particularly when I can listen to either Ride of the Vulkerye and Night Train. Again I would give anything if the Trolleys, Buses, Subways etc were designed as nice as the LRV’s on LA’s Metro are.