Is Philly underestimating how many will come to see Pope Francis?

 (Photo via PlanPhilly)

(Photo via PlanPhilly)

Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of the Families, described Pope Francis as comforting during today’s press conference on public transportation options when the Holy Father visits on September 26th and 27th.

After listening to officials describe the massive transit disruptions, unprecedented crowds and complicated logistics appurtenant to the Papal Visit, Philadelphia may need all the comfort His Holiness can provide.

“This will be the largest event in the City of Philadelphia in modern history,” said Mayor Michael Nutter.

Emphasizing that today was just the first of numerous announcements and conferences in preparation for the Papal Visit, Mayor Michael Nutter focused on one unmistakable theme: getting around when the Pope’s in town will be tough.   

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Public transportation and charter buses alike will likely drop passengers off long distances from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass from the Art Museum steps.

Nutter warned travelers and residents alike to “be prepared to walk at least a few miles or more.”

“Private vehicles will really not be a viable option,” Nutter added. Travelers can expect numerous roads and highways to be closed during the Papal visit, and gridlock on those remaining open.

This isn’t the first time Philadelphia has played host to a Pope: John Paul II visited in 1979, drawing an estimated1.2 to 2 million visitors to the city. Catholics lined Broad Street just to catch a glimpse of the Polish Pontiff, and 400,000 crammed Logan Square for a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.


Mayor Nutter said that the city expects a similar influx of one to two million when Pope Francis arrives.

But John Paul II’s 1979 trip wasn’t limited to just Philadelphia. In addition to the Logan Square Mass, John Paul II celebrated Masses in Yankee and Shea Stadiums in New York City and at Grant Park in Chicago. He also made stops in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, Iowa.

Francis is currently scheduled to make just one major public appearance: Philadelphia. Earlier in the week he will visit Washington to address a joint session of Congress, and then New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. Unless the schedule changes, Philadelphia will be the only chance for the American public to see the first Jesuit Pope.

Pope Saint John Paul II, who was extremely popular, frequently set records for large crowds when he visited cities across the globe, drawing crowds of around 1 million in Rio De Janeiro and 4-5 million in Manila.

Pope Francis has consistently smashed those records since his election. A crowd of 3 million flooded Rio and 6 million overwhelmed Manila, causing Philippine authorities to require the police there to wear adult diapers due to the lack of toilets.

If Philadelphia follows this global trend, it could mean that the city’s population will temporarily triple, rather than merely double, over the Papal Visit weekend.

When asked about the risks of underestimating the crowds, Mayor Nutter acknowledged that, “there is no specific, scientific, documentable way to find out today… how many people will show up. It’s all an estimate.”

He added that regardless of whether the one million or three million show up, Philadelphia’s transportation systems will hit their maximum capacity, meaning residents should start making alternative commute arrangements now.

The Morning Call is reporting that an estimated 5,000 charter buses will carry pilgrims to Philadelphia for the papal visit. Assuming an average of 50 passengers per bus, an estimated 250,000 visitors will arrive via charter bus alone. At an average length of 45 feet per bus, lined end-to-end the buses would stretch 42.6 miles, roughly the distance from Center City to Princeton, New Jersey.*

World Meeting of Families Executive Director Farrell said after the conference that they are working with Go Ground, a private transportation company, to coordinate the charter buses, and that all charters will need to register to have access to official parking areas. Those parking areas have yet to be determined. In ’79, many charter bus riders were dropped off near the stadiums and forced to walk the four miles to the Mass at Logan Square.


While emphasizing that residents need to start making alternative arrangements in preparation for the throngs of parishioners and pilgrims, officials at the conference were unable to go into specifics on the specific disruptions planning for the safety of the Bishop of Rome and his fans.

Since Pope Francis’ visit was announced, multiple officials have likened the expected impact to the 2008 Phillies World Series parade.

While the 2008 Phillies certainly drew a large crowd – the Inquirer estimated that, at most, somewhere between 420,000 and 750,000 lined the route – it’s no where near the millions expected for Pope Francis.

But another 2008 event, Barack Obama’s inauguration, may provide a glimpse of what Philadelphia can expect.  An estimated 1.8 million people flooded the National Mall to see Chief Justice John Roberts screw up the oath of office during the largest public event in Washington D.C. history.

That estimate included many inauguration ticketholders who never made it to the Mall, though, due to long security lines and other unexpected delays. At least 4,000 ticketholders, many of whom traveled across the country to witness history, were left frustrated and disappointed.

As with the inauguration, the United States Secret Service is leading the planning and security for the Pope’s visit. The Secret Service oversees all visits by foreign heads of state and the Pope, as leader of the Vatican and the Holy See, counts.

When asked by a reporter, Nutter declined to say at this time which roads and highways would be closed during the Papal Mass.

For the 2008 Inauguration, all roads in a two-block radius around the National Mall and the Capitol were closed and restricted, and a wider 4-5 block radius was restricted to residents and vehicles conducting essential business. I-395, which runs as a tunnel under the National Mall – not unlike how I-676 runs underneath the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – was also closed. Most bridges over the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers were also closed.

Will Philadelphia be ready to handle that kind of disruption to its daily schedule?

At times during today’s press conference, Francis sounded more like a hurricane than a Pope.

If District residents can handle their transportation networks essentially shutting down for two days every four years – or pretty much whenever it snows – then one hopes that Philadelphians will be able to work around a single, slightly cramped weekend this fall.  


During the week of the World Meeting of Families on September 22-25, most of the area’s transportation will operate as usual. An estimated 20,000 people are expected for the triennial conference.

But during the Papal Visit, services on SEPTA, PATCO, Amtrak and NJ Transit will be radically altered to accommodate the expected throngs of worshipers. Regular weekend riders will need to adjust their commutes for that weekend.

World Meeting of the Families’ Farrell announced two public information campaigns, called “Know Before You Go” and “The Papal Visit Playbook.” The first, aimed primarily at visitors from outside the region, will provide mass transit schedules, maps and guidance on navigating Philadelphia. The latter, the Papal Visit Playbook, will offer guidance and advice for residents. Both of the forthcoming guides will be available at


SEPTA will double its usual workday capacity of 300,000 passengers to 600,000 for the Papal Visit. To accomplish that, SEPTA will reduce the number of stations on its Regional Rail, Market Frankford Line, Broad Street Line, trolley lines and Norristown High Speed Line from the usual 282 to just 31, plus a few to-be-determined drop-off locations in Center City. 

SEPTA stations providing service during Papal visit


SEPTA will offer a special $10, three-day transit pass valid from Saturday, September 26 through Monday, September 28 for travel on subways, buses and trolleys. Regular SEPTA fare passes and tokens will also work on transit.

On Regional Rail, however, all riders will need to purchase a special daily pass, which will be $10 per day. Trail passes and other regular fares will be invalid over the weekend. SEPTA is limiting the number of the special event passes available, and they will need to be purchased in advance.

The special passes will go on sale July 15th and will be available only on SEPTA’s website


As PlanPhilly reported earlier, PATCO will also run express, non-stop service over the weekend and will offer passengers one or two day passes, which will cost $5 and $10 respectively. FREEDOM cardholders will be able to pay $2.50 for a one-way single ride.

PATCO will only have four of its New Jersey stations open over the weekend: Lindenwold, Woodcrest, Ferry Avenue and the Broadway/Camden/Walter Rand Transportation Center. In Philadelphia, just the 9th/10th & Locust Street station will be open.


NJ Transit’s regular weekend services on the Atlantic City Rail Line and the River Line will be replaced with Papal Visit specific services requiring special tickets. Details on those services, the ticket prices are still forthcoming.

NJ Transit also did not provide any information regarding the dozen or so bus lines that service Philadelphia, although its safe to assume at this time that these will be impacted as well.


Amtrak held off on announcing any plans to change services, but Rina Cutler, Director of Major Station Planning & Development at Amtrak, noted that coaches will be added to trains stopping in Philadelphia and, as needed, additional trains may be added. 

Cutler also noted that only reserved tickets would be valid over the weekend, citing safety and operational issues. On-board purchases will not be allowed.

Would-be Amtrak passengers were encouraged to purchase tickets as soon as possible.


SEPTA and PATCO officials both warned riders that parking at their stations will be difficult. The transit authorities both said they are looking for additional parking and are working with local authorities around the rail stations that will remain open for the Papal Visit. 


Mark Gale, Philadelphia International Airport’s CEO, said that PHL expects a modest bump in air travellers on par with a Thanksgiving rush.

*CORRECTION: This sentence originally said Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is actually about 30 miiles away Center City, not 42. Princeton is closer to that distance. 


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