Riders Union to SEPTA: Do More to Ease Crowding and Hellish Commutes on Lifeline Service

The Philly Transit Riders Union got comments from riders who now walk two miles or more — or endure packed buses — to reach their jobs. SEPTA, citing labor shortages, says it’s still figuring out how to best provide the service it promises now.

passengers boarding route k bus at chew and chelten

A Route K bus passed up about a dozen passengers waiting to board at a busy East Germantown intersection before this backup bus arrived about two minutes later. A rider advocacy group says there has to be a better way for SEPTA to handle continuing travel demand, social distancing requirements and complaints from vehicle operators and riders on its “Lifeline” service schedule. | Photo: Sandy Smith

Saying that serving the places where essential workers live is as important as serving the essential places where people shop and work, the Philly Transit Riders Union (TRU), a worker-rider activist alliance, has issued a call for SEPTA to increase the number of surface transit routes on which it operates “Lifeline” service and the frequency of service on those routes.

SEPTA, which is currently struggling to maintain consistent service on the routes now operating, says that may have to wait.

Nat Lownes, a member of the TRU’s coordinating committee, says that the union’s petition to SEPTA, issued April 22nd, came in response to two developments arising from the “Lifeline” service plan the agency adopted on April 9th: riders walking two miles or more to catch buses that could take them where they’re going, and overcrowding on the buses that were running.

Comments the TRU solicited from riders to submit to the SEPTA board reinforced members’s observations. “I have been walking 2.5 miles to work every day due to the buses not running in my neighborhood any more,” one rider wrote. “I am an essential worker who takes the bus to work every day. Due to decreased service, I have no choice but to stand in close quarters with other passengers, risking the health of myself and others,” wrote another. “Will the SEPTA board and management please run more transit service in response to the COVID-19 crisis?”

“We had noticed overcrowding while operators were waiting to start runs, and we also were seeing how other cities were dealing with the overcrowding,” says Lownes. For example, another member of the union’s coordinating committee who requested anonymity says New Jersey Transit ran more service in response to the overcrowding.

The member explained what he saw as the flaw in SEPTA’s logic in implementing the service cuts this way: “Because there are now neighborhoods that are served by only one bus route, or none at all, there are now people riding the routes still running who otherwise wouldn’t be. If you ran more of the routes, the buses running now wouldn’t be as crowded.”

In North Central Philadelphia, for instance, only one bus route is operating within the area bounded by Broad Street on the east, Fairmount Park/Ridge Avenue on the west, Cecil B. Moore Avenue on the south and Allegheny Avenue on the north. That route, Route 7, serves only this area’s southwest quarter, leaving all other riders to walk to those borders to board buses. In normal times, two east-west and four more north-south routes operate through this area. (One of the riders who submitted the comments quoted above lives close to Route 2, which serves this territory.)

Because SEPTA has cut both the total number of routes and the frequency of service, it should have personnel available to run service on more lines and reduce the need for backup buses on the lines that run, the member says.

Lownes points out that other cities that also cut back service in response to the falloff in ridership have since added service back in order to ease overcrowding and maintain social distance. “New Jersey Transit is now operating more service to deal with overcrowding,” he says, and added that the first agency to implement a dramatically scaled-back “lifeline” service plan, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, maintained weekday service levels on the routes still operating and added back some routes after conditions became more crowded.

The TRU’s petition calls for service to run at 20- to 30-minute intervals on all routes during the day and for all routes now operating to run 24 hours, with 30-minute intervals in the overnight hours, for the time being. In addition, it calls for the essential route network to be expanded to include 79 routes instead of the current 51 now running in the city and suburbs. It also recommends that buses operate with their emergency exit roof hatches open to allow for better air circulation, and for supervisors and vehicle operators to run overflow buses at their discretion.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch acknowledges that the agency does have operators available to fill in for those who are sidelined due to either their own illness or the need to care for sick relatives. But, he says, some downsizing was necessary because many operators have called out from work.

“On an average day, about one-third of our operators are out, and it’s through no fault of their own,” says Busch. “They’re our frontline workers, and our top priority is their health and safety.

“We went to the Lifeline service when we saw the upward trend of absences continuing, and the adjustment we made this week to adopt headway-based service should free up more operators” to work on other runs. The headway-based plan Busch refers to has buses running at set intervals rather than at set times and calls for additional buses to run behind the scheduled ones to pick up passengers who the first bus may pass up once they hit their capacity limits. Currently, SEPTA limits 40-foot buses to 20 passengers and 60-foot articulated buses to 30.

Busch stresses the unprecedented nature of this service disruption. “This is an unprecedented situation, and we are providing as much service as possible under these extreme conditions,” he says. “We’re continually looking for ways to improve in the short and long term.

And if riders have problems getting where they’re going, or see issues like large gaps in service, Busch encourages them to get in touch with SEPTA and let them know. The current service plan, he says, “isn’t written in stone, and we want to hear feedback from people. Maybe there’s a fix we can put in place, but right now we’re constrained by the resources we have available to us.”

Lownes says that as of now, the TRU has had no response to its recommendations from SEPTA.

Updated May 1st, 4:48 p.m., to reflect an update in the petition changing the recommended headways.