Should Philly Ban Smoking at Bus Shelters?

Bus shelters are one of the last publicly-owned refuges for city smokers.

An academic study found that waiting for the bus is so awful that it can actually compel your mind to lie to you. Every minute that you wait for the bus feels the same as 4.4 minutes actually riding the bus.

That got us thinking: Should Philadelphia ban smoking at bus shelters? After all, being hot-boxed by cigarette fumes must make the wait feel even longer (unless you’re the person lighting up), right? If Philadelphia can make the wait more pleasant by banning smoking at bus shelters, maybe SEPTA will attract more riders.

The bigger potential benefit, of course, is that the measure could discourage smoking just a little bit more. Philadelphia’s smoking rate fell to an all-time low in 2014-15, in part, health officials believe, because of the city’s ban on smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces, parks and several other locations.

“Looking at the robust literature on the issue, smoking bans not only protect people from secondhand smoke, but also give smokers an additional reason to quit,” said Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health.

There are a handful of policy arguments to be made against an expanded smoking ban, though. For one thing, it could be difficult to enforce. It’s already illegal in Philadelphia to smoke at subway stations, and anyone who takes SEPTA knows that plenty of people flout that law.

However, SEPTA has stepped up its enforcement in recent years, showing that it can be tough: It issued 1,497 citations for unlawful smoking in 2014, which is up from 345 in 2012.

At the same time, a smoking ban at bus shelters could disproportionately impact the city’s poor and minorities, like so many laws in big cities do. But if Philadelphia wanted to avoid aggressively cracking down on violators, it could rely on PSAs to spread the word and on brave/foolhardy SEPTA riders to remind waiting passengers about to light up about the ban.

So, if Philadelphia decided that banning smoking at bus shelters was the right thing to do, how would it get done? Citified thought that it might be as easy as having Mayor Michael Nutter sign an executive order. After all, that’s how he ended smoking at municipal parks last year.

However, when we asked the public health department’s Mallya if Nutter could make bus shelters smoke-free with the stroke of a pen, he said he couldn’t because they are owned by SEPTA. Then he went to SEPTA … where a spokesman told us the exact opposite was true.

“SEPTA doesn’t own bus shelters or the property on which the stops are located,” said Andrew Busch, a public information manager for SEPTA. “That is mostly city property.”

Well, okay then.

That means that the most straightforward way to ban smoking at bus shelters, apparently, is for City Council to pass legislation to do that. Other cities (and even countries) have.

Is there an appetite among Philadelphia’s political leaders for a smoking ban? Not at the moment, it seems, but there may be room for that to change.

A spokesman for Nutter did not respond to a question about whether he would support a smoking ban in bus shelters. A spokesman for Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, an early supporter of Philadelphia’s current smoking ban in restaurants and bars, said, “She is curious to know how other cities are dealing with the issue, and particularly what the impact is on children.” Meanwhile, Lauren Hitt, a spokesman for Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney, said, “He’s committed to finding ways to reduce smoking in Philadelphia and he believes this idea is worthy of further study.”

A spokeswoman for Republican mayoral nominee Melissa Murray Bailey did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

What do you think? Should Philly ban smoking at bus shelters?