Better SEPTA routes would unlock Philadelphia and could reduce crime

    While getting places on time is a legitimate concern for SEPTA riders, I’d argue that one of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is where public transit connects rather than how long it takes.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    I moved to Philadelphia from Michigan for a three-month summer internship with just what I could fit in my silver Chevy Malibu. That was over a year ago. And I don’t think I’ll leave, because I fell hopelessly in love with the city.

    As much as I enjoyed exploring Philadelphia, I realized that something was keeping me from completely knowing, loving and learning about this wondrous place: public transit — or lack thereof.

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    I’ve never lived anywhere but my hometown of East Lansing, Mich., and Philadelphia, but I have ridden public transit all over the country: New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco. I found Philly to be by far the least convenient, clean and safe.

    I moved from Northeast Philadelphia, where I had to drive absolutely everywhere, to walkable Chestnut Hill. I loved the coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants and parks, but I felt cut off from the rest of the city.

    One of the worst parts was regional rail. The time I spent on the train was fine — I like to settle down with a good book or listen to NPR on my iPhone — but it was difficult to go out to Center City or Old City at night. The last Friday night Chestnut Hill West train departs from Market East at 11:47 and the last Saturday train is 10:05 p.m.

    And forget about visiting my friends in Manayunk without using my car. No train goes there, no bus goes directly there, and cabs are expensive.

    Not enough SEPTA connections

    Now I live in the Art Museum neighborhood. I can take buses to Center City and get a $10 cab ride home if it gets too late. I can, for the most part, leave my car untouched and parked in front of my house (if I’m lucky) for a few days at a time, but it’s still not as easy to get around as I’d like.

    No doubt, everyone has grievances with SEPTA. Maybe that’s why 59 percent of 1.5 million Philadelphians drive to work, over half of which say they’re alone in their car. Only 25 percent of those who live in the city use public transit to get to work — and the mean average travel time for those folks is 31 minutes. This is all according to the 2010 Census.

    While getting places on time is a legitimate concern, I’d argue that one of Philadelphia’s biggest problems is where public transit connects rather than how long it takes.

    First off, all regional rail routes — the only train system in the city, seemingly designed for commuters — connect in Center City. To travel without a car from somewhere like Northwest Philadelphia to Northeast Philadelphia, it’s necessary to take an hour-long trip going around — rather than directly to — the destination.

    Although buses do cross the entire city and have an easy transfer system, traffic jams undoubtedly affect their efficiency. It’s the same with the few-and-far-between trolleys. Trains, at least, are generally impervious to street traffic, though a jam-packed train is another problem.

    Of course, Center City is the business-oriented part of town, so the setup makes sense for commuters on the outskirts of the city. But Center City is not the only worthwhile place to go. Our rail system doesn’t promote spending time — or money — in other parts of town.

    More to Philly than Center City

    Neighborhoods with higher numbers of impoverished residents, like Germantown, which has 15 historical sites, such as the Johnson House Underground Railroad stop, are left largely ignored while tourists stampede all over Old City and Independence Hall.

    Barbara Hogue, the executive director of the Germantown Historical Society, said she’s been trying to get better public transit to the neighborhood’s historical sites for three or four years.

    “Our problem is basically that the only way to get people up and down Germantown Avenue is … the 23 bus,” she said. “It takes about an hour and 15 minutes from Center City and runs through worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”

    Hogue said the GHS couldn’t get SEPTA to accommodate them and have been having problems finding funding for a trolley system. And she doesn’t see any other good options.

    Hogue also said she thinks more foot traffic would help businesses stay afloat in the area.

    “These businesses won’t be around unless we can spur people walking around the street,” she said.

    Meanwhile, a Philadelphia Magazine article about gun violence in the city got me thinking. It stated that between January 2001 and May 2012 there was the equivalent of at least one shooting every six hours. I write crime blotters in the Northwest, and I regularly check in with my own district police precinct, but that is not the extent I thought, nor is it the Philadelphia I know.

    I can assume that gun violence and more serious crime stick to specific areas. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer murder map, most victims and murderers were typically from North Philadelphia I’m not saying North Philadelphia is full of murderers, but perhaps the economic disparity and lack of foot traffic — which a good public transit system could help solve — are among the reasons for more crime.

    Until this changes, I suppose I’ll have to get to know my city from behind the windows of my Malibu.

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