SEPTA's vision for a new bus network: faster, fewer stops, no transfer fees

SEPTA issued a blueprint Thursday for revitalizing its bus network in Philadelphia, which is struggling with slow service, shrinking ridership, and increasing competition from ride-share businesses.

A redesigned bus network could be “different from anything Philadelphia has seen in anybody’s memory,” said Jarrett Walker, a nationally recognized transit expert from Portland, Ore., whose report is expected to shape the priorities for city transit.

Changes SEPTA could consider, his 100-page report concluded, include:

  • Elimination of transfer fees.

  • All-door boarding.

  • Stops every other block, rather than at every intersection in Center City, and stops beyond traffic lights rather than before them.

  • Converting the Route 15 trolley on Girard Avenue to a bus route.

  • Beefing up bus service to transportation centers and Regional Rail stations.

  • More direct, easier-to-understand routes.

“Don’t let me pretend this is all easy,” Walker said Wednesday. “This is all difficult.”

Walker, who helped Houston’s major redesign of its bus service, said Philadelphia didn’t need as extensive an overhaul as that Texas city. Most of the routes would likely not change, he said. About 70 percent of the current network was effectively designed to serve the needs of riders.

SEPTA should commit to more frequent service during more of the day, Walker said, so riders can expect a bus to arrive after only a short wait at virtually any time. There is also duplication in SEPTA’s system, he said, where bus routes overlap, as several routes do on Roosevelt Boulevard, or with trolleys and subway service. And buses are less full during peak hours than at midday, he said.

While routes might not change wholesale across the city, the way bus service operates needs an overhaul, said Walker, whose firm received $250,000 for the review.

The report did not delve into the specifics of how routes could be restructured but instead identified topics that Philadelphia should consider to make a bus network more effective. Critical to that effort, Walker said, was the need to reach out to the com munity to discuss the benefits of a changed bus network, and commitment from the city to lead in the effort, saying SEPTA doesn’t have the political clout to make necessary changes.The report earned positive reviews from regional transportation experts.

"It looks really smart to me,” said Jon Orcutt, spokesman for New York City’s public transit advocacy group TransitCenter. “It’s trying to figure out what SEPTA can do within its powers and its capacities.”

SEPTA’s bus system is by far the region’s most widely used mode of public transportation, with 18 percent of working Philadelphians and 7 percent of workers region wide using it for commuting, according to census data. But service has been slowly worsening over the last five years. Speeds have declined almost 1 percent a year since 2014 and now average less than 12 mph most of the time. Fifty-four of the 83 city bus routes don’t meet SEPTA’s standard on-time rate of 80 percent punctuality.

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