Why the Rush to Revive 24-Hour SEPTA Subway Service?

At least Market-Frankford and Broad Street riders can get home in the wee smalls. Live in the Far Northeast? Good luck.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Lots of Philadelphians, particularly more recent arrivals, are excited about the prospect of the return of 24-hour rapid transit service. Restoring overnight service on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines, which SEPTA has announced it will do on weekends on a trial basis starting this summer, would return this city to a very select club of cities where one can catch a rapid transit train at any hour of the day. In North America, those cities currently number two: New York and Chicago.* Most other subways worldwide take the overnight hours off, though reports are that in Berlin, one can ride the U-Bahn all night on weekends as is being proposed here.

Although SEPTA spokesperson Jerria Williams recently told Metro that SEPTA has been considering this move for a while, there had been no inklings of this prior to the surfacing of an online petition urging the agency to make the change that garnered more than 25,000 signatures in a matter of about a month earlier this year.

I wonder how many of those signers actually live here, let alone ride SEPTA. Especially when a look through the agency’s own records shows that its own procedure for adding or modifying existing services produces no other evidence of any demand for this.

Last week, SEPTA wrapped up a series of public hearings on something called the Annual Service Plan. This document, the 17th edition of which is now in draft form (PDF), is SEPTA’s main tool for assessing system performance and the cost-effectiveness of changes in service.

The Annual Service Plan review process involves a nearly year-long series of proposals, reviews, assessments, announcements, and public meetings, all intended to make sure that riders and other community members have input into shaping the service SEPTA provides. Both agency staff and the general public may recommend adding, altering, or deleting routes. SEPTA then applies a formula, explained in the front of each Annual Service Plan, to determine the costs and benefits of each suggestion, then recommends adoption or non-adoption of changes based on several different criteria. The most common reason for rejecting a suggestion is “Insufficient Operational or Financial Resources.” Last year (PDF), for instance, 45 of 65 outside suggestions for new or changed service were rejected for at least this reason.

There is, however, a provision in SEPTA’s service planning policy that allows the agency to operate service on an experimental or pilot-project basis for up to one year before it must be subjected to Annual Service Plan evaluation. Williams explained that SEPTA is running overnight rapid transit service from late June through Labor Day, with a possible three-month extension  if the results warrant it, under the terms of this provision.

Given the number of signatures on that petition, it may well be a good move on SEPTA’s part to start the 24-hour rapid transit experiment now. It does show a responsiveness to popular demand. But this experiment also falls into another category of suggestions that get rejected: “Duplicative Service.” Last year, SEPTA turned down 14 suggestions for new or altered routes, including a new route that would have provided a one-seat ride (meaning no transfers) down Roosevelt Boulevard into Center City, for that reason.

SEPTA also has service criteria that are intended to ensure that City of Philadelphia residents have access to round-the-clock transit service within a reasonable distance. But large chunks of the city, including almost all of the Northeast west of the Boulevard, Roxborough and Manayunk, have no overnight transit service of any kind.

Broad Street and Market-Frankford riders at least have round-the-clock service already. It’s just not a train. Instead, it’s a bus that operates in place of the trains from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Some have made arguments that this service is actually safer for riders because SEPTA policy also requires bus drivers to let off passengers wherever they wish to get off in the late night and overnight hours — even on the routes that are supposed to mimic rapid transit operations with limited stops.

Meanwhile, a number of service changes that the agency had in past years said were either worth implementing or warranted further study, including all-day express service on Route 14, the Roosevelt Boulevard spine line, and a new bus route that would provide service along Cheltenham Avenue between Olney and Cedarbrook Mall that was recommended in fiscal 2010 and 2011, remain unimplemented and unexamined.

Of course, both the Annual Service Plan and the pilot projects involve setting priorities. Some communities will see benefits while others may find their wishes ignored.  And I, too, would rather take a train than a bus home from Center City when I’m out late. But at least I can still get home. Others living elsewhere in the city cannot. And there seems to me to be something a little unseemly about the speed with which SEPTA is making this a priority while other parts of the city are still waiting for services they want — and have even been promised.

Follow @MarketStEl on Twitter.

*Actually, if you want to be technical about it, metropolitan Philadelphia never left this club — but the only residents who enjoy 24/7 rapid transit are the South Jerseyites fortunate enough to live near PATCO stations.

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  • NateFried

    Let them do the experiment and see what happens. If ridership doesn’t increase during the summer months for 24 hours, then I think they should scrap it. Its a neat experiment to test whether it would actually increase ridership or be used more often than the night owl. What I think they REALLY should do, is to turn the regional rails on until 3am. But its also serves well for Philly tourism or simply the restaurant/theater/nightlife business which is beneficial to the city. …. and if we are wondering about why they are doing this on a subway line that mostly benefits center city, well, center city is really the only part of Philly that is seeing a rapid growth in population at the moment.

    • Actually, Nate, according to the City Planning Commission, the fastest-growing part of the city since 2000 is the Lower Northeast: Juniata Park, Lawndale, Crescentville, Oxford Circle, Castor Gardens.* Those neighborhoods are dense with recent arrivals from abroad, most notably the Caribbean, Latin America and East Asia, and they’re apparently having kids – the commission says births account for most of the increase.

      Only two SEPTA routes I’m aware of run through this area overnight: the 18 along its western edge and the R down the Boulevard from Pratt Street, skirting its southern edge. The 14 brushes up against it when it turns from Bustleton onto the Boulevard. Aside from those, there’s no overnight bus service at all. I’d say it could use it, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t lived there for 18 months.

      *I’ve maintained for some time now that there are two futures being written for this city: one in its center and the other in the Northeast. Back in the 1980s, the first signs of an end to the city’s population slide came with figures from Center CIty *and Juniata Park* showing population growth in those neighborhoods.

      • NateFried

        hmm… i didn’t realize that. And as I see things growing and changing, it’s definitely exciting to be a part of greater center city renaissance, but you are completely right that there is almost two Philadelphias being formed at the moment. One in which when violence occurs, the mayor deplores it… the other in which its just expected. One of which when its residents want to drink late, new septa service is installed… the other in which those who work third shift have to simply deal with it. I haven’t given this much thought, but I can definitely see what you say.

      • Marcus

        Route 59 had all night service until September of 2004.

        With that being said, I do believe that there needs to be some sort of funding to provide a better skeletal night owl network. Possible candidates to add to the network to ensure decent coverage areas would include the 16 (north of Olney Trans Ctr), 26, 39, 59, 61( with an overnight service extension to Ridge and Summit), 65, 70, H/XH & K.

        • While the 59 serves a more densely developed corridor, the 58 goes further north, so I’d either nominate it or run the overnight service on the 59 with diesels and extend it along the upper portion of the 58’s route.

          This, by the way, would in essence restore the original routing of the Bustleton High-Speed Trolley Line the Department of City Transit built upon completion of the Frankford Elevated in 1922.

          • Marcus

            Can’t do that Sandy. Two different operating districts and modes and it’s not that simple. I’d just run both lines all night

          • What does SEPTA do now when it runs diesels on the 59 during the regular service day? It does happen every now and then.

            Overnight, there should be plenty of spare buses at Frankford District to run an extended version of the 59.

          • Marcus

            Well when buses run on the 59, it’s because no coaches are available. Route 58 doesn’t operate out of Frankford District; it operates out of Comly. What are you trying to do…start a holy war!? Haha.

            All jokes aside, technically you could run the 58 all night. Castor Ave is close enough to Bustleton Avenue that you wouldn’t be out of the service requirement. They’re only four to five blocks away from each other.

  • blahhhh1

    why are you such a naysayer about this? Have you ever been on the night owl? Surely you haven’t. Once, I rode it, and a person with a stab wound got on, and then got off at the hospital. Another time, we missed the last EL accidentally and had to take the bus from Frankford into center city. The bus was crammed and took FOREVER to get downtown. It also didn’t feel particularly safe. One of my worries is that the city tends to be less populated during the summer… bars are less crowded and streets are less crowded as the college kids go home and people take vacations. I hope this is taken into account. I would love for them to see what the results are when school is in session.

    • My trip home after a night on the town takes me up the Broad Street Line from City Hall to Olney, and I used to live about a mile from Frankford Transportation Center.

      I agree that the Market-Frankford Night Owl bus especially is slow – slower than the El service it replaces, definitely – and the buses can be a zoo. But once I got to Frankford, if I didn’t get there by 1:55 a.m., my 10-minute bus ride home turned into a half-hour walk. As I said, at least I could ride to FTC – and I can ride to Broad and Olney now. (And the Broad Street night owls are almost as fast as the trains, and the patrons are better behaved.)

      Would I prefer to ride a train rather than a bus? You bet. But were I making the choice which service to offer first, it would be the service for those that have none.

  • Northeaster

    Yea, sure, we need more transit in the northeast, but that doesn’t mean we should treat the 24 hour thing as a negative.

  • matthew brandley

    They should consider implenting service to parts of the city that currently have no 24 hour service. the R bus is the only one that even comes close to the roxborough area

    • My point exactly, Matthew. Thanks for the comment.

  • kclo3

    I don’t recall seeing any proposed service changes, recommended or non-recommended, for rail transit or Regional Rail on the ASP report, and SEPTA probably doesn’t consider them during the hearings. It has probably become de facto rule that rail transit/RR service is above public review and only SEPTA has the authority to modify them. Which makes it exceptionally weird that they would only now act upon a 24-hour subway online petition that had been informally expressed for years.

    • As far as I know, rail transit services are subject to the same evaluation and analysis procedures that bus routes are. Jerria Williams told me that this pilot project would be subject to Annual Service Plan review after one year if it continues that long.

      But you do have a point: the last change in rail service I’m aware of, the addition of later runs on the (R5) Paoli and (R6) Manayunk/Norristown lines on Friday and Saturday nights, also never appeared on an Annual Service Plan.