Late-night SEPTA subways a good start, but Philly deserves even more from public transit

    I am no starry-eyed idealist. I am too Philly for that. Even if SEPTA restores 24/7 subway service, SEPTA will still not be the world-class transit system that Philadelphia deserves.

    Where were you when I needed you, SEPTA?

    So SEPTA has gone ahead and announced that, starting this summer, it will return 24-hour service on Friday and Saturday nights for the Market-Frankford El and the Broad Street Line. It is just a pilot project for now. But I’m hopeful that 24-hour service will be extended to other days of the week and, once again, made permanent.

    It’s been 23 years since SEPTA ran overnight service.

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    And it’s been 15 years since I’ve needed overnight service.

    A night owl no longer

    Today, I am a 38-year-old dad. I work hard at my desk job during the day, pick up my daughter from child care after work, attend community meetings at night, and am usually in bed by midnight. I then wake up early the next morning and do it all over again.

    But there was a time when I did stay out all night. I would shut down bars. I would be there for last call. I would hang out with friends far into the night. I would, on occasion, watch the sun rise over Center City from my West Philly home to cap off my night. And then I would struggle to find a way home.

    Today, when I see the sun rise, it is because I have woken up early, not stayed up late.

    Sometimes I wish I needed overnight service again.

    For a while, I used to think a lot about SEPTA. Probably more than it was healthy to think about SEPTA. I wrote a daily blog called SEPTAWatch for almost three years, charting the adoration and disappointment, frustration and ecstasy that I felt for our beleaguered (and sometimes beloved) transit system. Then my daughter was born, and I had other things to do. (When she was three, we started a new blog together. This time, though, it was about playgrounds and not transit.)

    Symbolic of a great city

    SEPTA’s Nite Owl buses will do the job if there is no other option. A great city like Philadelphia, though, ought to have 24-hour subway service. (And, by the way, a great city ought to also spell Night correctly.) Nite Owl buses are a poor, infrequent substitute for 24-hour subway service. And they’re no fun at all.

    Having 24-hour subway service means something more than having easier all-night transportation. It means that Philadelphia is returning to its rightful place as one of the greatest cities in America. We’re the Cradle of Liberty. We’re the Workshop of the World. We’re the Home of the Philadelphia Sound. And yes, we’re the home of the once — and possibly? one day? perhaps? future? — World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

    I am no starry-eyed idealist. I am too Philly for that. Even if SEPTA restores 24/7 subway service, SEPTA will still not be the world-class transit system that Philadelphia deserves. We will still not have an electronic fare payment system in place. The regional rails will still stop running way too early in the evening. Many buses will still not run frequently enough, especially during rush hours. There will still be a few surly SEPTA station cashiers who will be unable to sell tokens or make change. We still need transit down to the Navy Yard, up the Roosevelt Boulevard, and out to King of Prussia, Reading, and beyond. The full renovation of City Hall Station will still be stalled. And we still need to do something with the South Broad Street concourse. But we will be on our way.

    Restoring all-night subway service is a big, grown-up step forward for our city. May it make the lives of Philadelphian workers pulling the late shift a little easier. May it make the lives of Philadelphians staying out late a little more fun. May it offer encouragement to others who thought their late-night adventuring was over, an incentive to stay out late and close down the bars like we used to do. And finally, may it give us a little more pride in this city of ours that deserves a subway that runs all night.

    Michael Froehlich is a legal aid lawyer living in the Cedar Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

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