Why No Buses in the Pope “Traffic Zone?”

Private cars can drive about in the zone. Yet SEPTA says its buses won't.

One of the surprises to come out Wednesday’s City Hall press conference on the Pope visit was that private vehicles will be free to operate within the cordoned off Center City / University City “traffic zone.”

The going might not be easy. In sections of the traffic zone there’s certainly going to be a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists, and there’s no in-and-out. If you drive outside the zone, your car can’t come back in. But within the zone, theoretically at least, driving is permitted. On that, Mayor Michael Nutter was very clear.

So if private vehicles can operate within the zone, why not buses? Why not a temporary SEPTA route or routes, operating completely within the traffic zone? It would offer something to residents and visitors who struggle to travel by foot or bicycle. And while everyone expects the streets near the Parkway to be completely taken over by crowds, there’s a lot of roadway available in two square miles.

We wondered if SEPTA was rethinking its previously announced decision not to operate buses in Center City. The short answer? Nope.

“We won’t be operating buses within the green box, the traffic box,” said SEPTA spokeswoman Heather Redfern. “We expect the streets to be crowded with people and personal vehicle movement, and we wouldn’t be able to provide reliable service.”

Reliable? Probably not. But a lot of people would argue that unreliable service beats no service at all.

SEPTA seems not to agree.

Let’s be clear. This isn’t a safety decision. SEPTA acknowledges that. This is about logistics and crowd control. SEPTA bus service will stop way, way before the traffic box begins. In Center City, the traffic box extends from South Street up to a northern edge that runs west to east from Girard Avenue, down Ridge, and across Spring Garden to the Delaware River. SEPTA buses, though, won’t go below Cecil B. Moore, on the northern side of the city, and they won’t cross Washington Avenue on the south side.

That makes sense. Getting in and out of the zone, or even driving right up to it and attempting a u-turn, could well strand buses in paralyzing traffic, leaving patrons trying to get to the edges of Center City without service. We get it.

But will the road traffic actually be that crazy within the zone? Remember, cars outside the zone can’t come in. Presumably a lot of residents will have fled Philly for the weekend. Might it not actually be the case that vehicle traffic in the zone will be negligible?

In which case, SEPTA buses operating on loops or short routes could be a huge boon. Right? What are we missing here?