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.