How can Philadelphia save its struggling transit system?


SEPTA Chris Henry

As the pandemic becomes more part of the past, city centers and businesses are opening up more and more. But what if people don’t want to return to the city? 

An analysis by the Urban Institute found that Philadelphia lost more transit users since 1970 than any other metropolitan area. The city has lost more than 100,000 riders during that period, a troubling sign for an economy still in recovery from COVID-19. 

Some cities have begun to develop light-rail networks, offer lower fares, and invest in more accessible forms of transportation. With Philadelphia searching for solutions, we asked some experts what it can do to upgrade its infrastructure, attract transit users and boost economic recovery. 

We spoke with Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS); Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District; and Yonah Freemark, senior research associate of the Urban Institute. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Philadelphia has lost the most transit riders of any major city since 1970, according to the Urban Institute. What are some of the biggest factors affecting the population and transit trends? 

MC: The decline in Philadelphia transit ridership is due to a multitude of factors, but it is primarily tied to the growth of our suburban population and jobs, which were drawn and served by new highway infrastructure and housing subsidies, and the decline of population and jobs in the city. As the Urban Institute showed, older, industrial cities like Philadelphia all lost significant transit ridership to these factors.

PL: Philadelphia has a very strong hub and spokes transit system that provides both neighborhood residents and regional residents convenient access to 53% of Philadelphia’s jobs, a very diverse cross section of economic opportunities concentrated at the center of the regional transit system in Center City and University City. But unlike Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., which have surpassed the number of jobs they held in 1970, Philadelphia’s tax structure has made us one of the slowest growing of the major American cities with the highest poverty rate, due to the absence of sufficient jobs. Far more businesses and jobs are concentrated in this region in the suburbs, far less accessible by transit. As Philadelphia reduces its wage and businesses taxes and relies more on the real estate tax, jobs will grow throughout the city and transit ridership will increase.

YF: Philadelphia, like other cities in the Rust Belt, has been marked by decades of underinvestment and competition from other parts of the U.S. and the world. As a result, the city has had trouble maintaining its population and employment base. Moreover, the growth the Philadelphia region has experienced has been largely in the suburbs. Unfortunately, the transit system is poorly designed to serve suburban locales, and the transit system has suffered as a consequence.

How much will the city's economic recovery rely on its ability to attract transit users and upgrade its infrastructure?

MC: Transit is very important to the city’s economic recovery. This is something we discussed in the Philadelphia Transit Plan, a document we released this February. Our extensive transit infrastructure is one of our main competitive advantages. While cities in the sunbelt and on the west coast are spending billions of dollars a year on expanding their transit infrastructure, when they’re finished, they will still only have a fraction of the fixed rail network that we have in Philadelphia.

PL: Pre-pandemic, 70% of downtown workers did not rely on a car to get to work. They relied on transit – subways, buses and trains – and they walked and biked. SEPTA has done a great job keeping their system clean and safe and ridership is steadily increasing. Just after Labor Day, we expect a significant jump in the number of commuters. Federal funding will help enable capital improvements to the system, but fundamentally, transit’s recovery will be driven by the decisions of employers and workers to come back to work.

YF: A good question, but we don't know yet. Good transit systems have historically been helpful in ensuring that people have options when it comes to mobility, and the same will likely be true into the future. But the ways in which transit and infrastructure upgrades will contribute to the city's recovery specifically are not yet obvious.

What does the city need to prioritize as it looks to bring back commuters and how can it develop transportation infrastructure with a focus on equity and sustainability?

MC: As we return to normalcy, with the numbers of commuters growing each week and attractions reopening daily, we are focused on developing infrastructure for a range of modes. Most of Philadelphia was laid out and built before the automobile. We simply cannot get everyone into and out of the city every day in a car. There is not enough space, and if there was, we would not have the beautiful city that we all love. This means that we must have a menu of options that appeal to everyone – while some people will drive, we need to make transit, walking and biking attractive options to many others. By prioritizing multimodal infrastructure, we’re not only positively benefiting equity and sustainability, we’re also creating a transportation system that can move people into, through and out of the city every day.

PL: Offer clean, safe and competitive transit options.

YF: Philadelphia needs to ensure that its transit system is designed with frequency and speed in mind. That means people throughout the region should be able to rely on bus and train service that shows up often and moves reliably. Several ways to achieve that goal include dedicated lanes for buses on major streets to create bus rapid transit service and upgrading the regional rail system so that trains come every 10 minutes throughout the day.

What are the lessons learned from the pandemic that the city must consider while looking to improve the transit system and attract more users?

MC: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us did our part by staying home and staying safe. But many Philadelphians had to get up every day and travel to the essential jobs that kept our society functioning. When this happened, we saw transit ridership plummet, dropping to historic lows. But this drop did not happen evenly – throughout the pandemic, ridership on buses and subways dropped, but not nearly as much as modes like Regional Rail. This showed us the role that transit, particularly our bus and subway system, has in keeping our city moving every day. This is a lesson we want to carry into the SEPTA Bus Revolution project, where we’ll be working with SEPTA to design bus routes and schedules that do a better job of connecting Philadelphians to work, school and the many other opportunities our city has to offer. 

Also, enhancing cleanliness and safety on transit vehicles and at transit stops or stations is something we want to continue to build on the progress made during the pandemic. Most recently, the authority has initiated station cleaning and maintenance blitzes at stations along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines. 

PL: A strong federal commitment to public transit has been essential to keeping the system functioning safely. But Philadelphia can not count on those funds forever. What we need is for the Commonwealth to enable Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other major cities with transit systems to raise new operating funds on a regional basis, in cooperation with our surrounding counties.

YF: The pandemic has reminded us that the transit system plays an essential role in moving a large share of our essential workers to and from jobs. We need to ensure that their needs are accounted for as we identify paths to improved transportation options in the future.