Route 23 Split Goes Into Effect Sunday

The onetime "longest streetcar line in the world," now a bus route, is being split in order to better serve its different constituencies.

Photo: Courtesy of SEPTA

Photo: Courtesy of SEPTA

Anyone who has used Route 23, the busiest of SEPTA’s surface bus routes, knows that the schedule is often an approximation. Heavy traffic, both in the form of riders and other vehicles in the buses’ path, causes frequent delays and bunching on the line.

SEPTA has had a fix for this problem on its To-Do list for several years now. This Sunday, the fix takes effect when new Route 45 officially begins service. (And no, the Nos. 23 and 45 do not reference Michael Jordan’s old numbers.

The 45 will take over the southern third of the 23’s old route, operating between Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philly and 12th and Noble streets in Callowhill (or the Eraserhood, as it’s also known). The 23 will continue to operate from the Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike loop in Chestnut Hill down Germantown Avenue, then 11th and 12th streets, to Chestnut Street in Center City. Northbound Route 23 buses will lay over at the main northbound transfer point between the two lines on 11th Street between Market and Filbert.

Dan Nemeroff in SEPTA’s Operations Planning department says it took so long to implement the split because first, the agency had to figure out the best place to split the route, then it had to figure out where to put the layover point for drivers.

“The natural inclination would have been to split the route at Broad and Erie,” Nemeroff said. This makes some sense as the intersection is where many 23 riders coming from Northwest Philadelphia transfer to the Broad Street Subway for the trip into Center City, and it’s the southern end of the segment of the line that runs 24/7. “But it’s only been recently that we’ve had good passenger counts” thanks to automatic passenger counters installed on the buses. “We now know where people board and where they get off, so we have the detailed data we need to perform this analysis.”

What that data showed is that the point where the greatest number of riders end their journeys is within a block or two of Market Street. “Even though we have significant ridership passing that point, we estimate that on average only four passengers per trip will have to transfer between the routes at Market Street.”

That’s because the southern third of the current 23 carries mostly South Philadelphia residents commuting to Center City. Traffic on the northern two-thirds is more diverse, consisting of a mix of commuters and residents making shorter local trips.

“We’re splitting two major markets apart, and we think this will improve service for everyone,” Nemeroff said.

Once the decision was made to split the line around Market Street, suitable layover points in or near Center City were needed for each route. The 45 will use a block of Noble Street that had been used as a turnaround for a short-lived Center City streetcar loop. “That was the easier of the two,” said Nemeroff’s colleague, Steve D’Antonio. Because the new 23’s route is still long, he continued, “we needed to find a place where operators could rest that had bathrooms they can use.” That turned out to be the first block of North 11th Street, where bathrooms can be found in Jefferson Station. SEPTA and the Philadelphia Parking Authority worked together to set up a 200-foot-long clear strip in the right lane to allow northbound 23 buses to park and northbound 45 buses to drop off and pick up passengers. This was possible, he said, because SEPTA’s relationship with the Parking Authority had improved over the last several years.

“We’ve done a very extensive campaign to inform riders about the coming change,” said Nemeroff. “It includes flyers, bus wraps, billboards, ads in the media, ads on the subway, and people handing out flyers.”

Which brings up the third reason the change is happening now: Pope Francis. The SEPTA Board had approved the split as part of the agency’s Annual Service Plan, which was adopted in June, but the operations staff believed it would be better to wait until after Francis’ visit in order to have everyone’s attention at SEPTA focused on implementing the split smoothly.

Riders headed through rather than to Center City will have to transfer from the 23 to the 45 or vice versa at Market Street. The transfer is free. Pass holders will simply swipe their pass again; cash and token-using passengers must ask for an emergency transfer from the bus driver as they get off the bus. When SEPTA Key goes live, the software will recognize that a rider is switching between the 23 and 45 and not charge a separate fare for the second trip.

More information about the split can be found on SEPTA’s website.