Despite the fact that the City is once again requiring masking indoors, Philadelphians are on the move—or at least they are trying. In theory, remote work and online retail should have reduced the need for travel; however, for those who are still navigating around the city, there are serious challenges.
Automotive congestion feels at least as bad – if not worse – than pre-pandemic levels, even with less commuting. Any potential reduced congestion resulting from remote work and retail delivery has been offset by people shifting from public transit to cars, increased demand for curb space by logistics companies (Amazon, Fed Ex, etc.), and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. The automotive congestion problem is worsened by the blatant disregard for traffic and parking rules – which are necessary for efficient flow of people and cars – and inconveniences associated with ever-present construction and infrastructure maintenance. To add insult to injury, gas prices reached recording-breaking levels this spring.
Challenges to Transit
While transit is one of the most crucial sectors to the City of Philadelphia and its residents, it has also been one of the most adversely affected by pandemic. SEPTA has been persistent in trying to maintain service levels amid reduced ridership. And while the agency is ramping back up, it has not quite reached pre-pandemic levels of service.
Reduced use of transit has also impacted riders’ perceived feelings of personal safety on some parts of the system. Increases in crime and drug use in the city overall, along with a rising unhoused population, has adversely affected transit.
Transit service quality can also be threatened when buses find themselves stuck in congestion. ESI’s analysis has convincingly shown that increasing automotive congestion has more adverse time impacts on transit riders than it does on drivers.
SEPTA is simultaneously facing competition from new travel options, including motorized bicycles, scooters and ridesharing apps. Reduced transit use is one of the key reasons for increased automotive congestion. Without competitive and effective transit service, congestion will continue to worsen, with adverse impacts on the entire region’s economy. The largest of these negative impacts will likely fall on low- and modest-income families
Pre- and Post- Pandemic Shifts
Pre-pandemic, many of SEPTA’s services, especially Regional Rail lines, were appropriately designed to bring large numbers of people to and from work during the morning and evening rush hours. As we are now seeing, the slow return to in-person work has diminished these patterns. This reduction in transit use, however, runs deeper than simply reduced commuting. While no one knows the future, it is likely that in-person work, shopping, and social activities will rebound, but work schedules are likely to be considerably more flexible. Transit services and pricing need to be tailored to address these changes.
Just before the pandemic, SEPTA began rethinking important elements of its fare structure, resulting in significant improvements like the elimination of transfer fees,more child-friendly fares, and an overall more equitable approach to transit. Post-pandemic, SEPTA will likely have to consider larger structural changes. Pre-pandemic, a large share of transit riders purchased weekly or monthly passes, which were priced to be attractive to five-day-a-week commuters. These passes might no longer be competitively priced with more flexible work schedules. It is important to keep in mind that transit use is habitual (as is car travel), and the pandemic has broken the transit-use habit for many.
Those who expected mobility to greatly improve with the increase in remote work are likely disappointed. Addressing the region’s mobility challenges, which include rebuilding transit use and efficiently using both automotive and transit infrastructure simultaneously, is crucial to ensuring that the Greater Philadelphia economy is on a path of growth and improving the quality of life for its residents.
Looking Forward: SEPTA Initiatives and Efforts
Fortunately, SEPTA is embarking on an exciting new initiative called the Key Advantage program. Employers purchase all-access passes for all their employees, regardless of whether they are existing riders. For the pilot, participating organizations – Penn Medicine, Drexel University, and Wawa stores within city limits – are covering the full cost of the passes, allowing eligible employees to ride free of charge starting in May. These three institutional partners will collectively distribute up to 13,000 passes to their employees. The intention is to roll out the program to a wide spectrum of firms, schools, and other organizations this fall. Key Advantage is designed to rebuild the habit of using public transit, and to make people more comfortable commuting again.
Additionally, other key planning efforts employed by SEPTA, including the Bus Network Revolution and Reimagining Regional Rail, are working to further address transit-related issues. These issues include being less peak-focused and improving frequency on priority routes to name a few. Combined, all of SEPTA’s efforts work to address key issues affecting the sector and catalyze a more equitable reality for transit.
It is crucial for the region to continue to adapt and support its transit services in the continuously changing economy. The long-run consequences of failing to adapt would result in significant economic losses for the region, as infrastructure is inefficiently used, and congestion grows on roadways. Declining confidence in transit could result in more cars purchased, more greenspaces converted into low-density developments, and ultimately huge new infrastructure expenses to support a less-green form of development that will only exacerbate climate change challenges. Over the next few years, the agency will need to deliver quality service during both peak and off-peak hours, as well as quality service on weekends to adapt and meet flexible work and travel demands.
Richard Voith | [email protected]
Richard Voith Ph.D. is a Founding Principal of Econsult Solutions Inc. (ESI) and Research Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR). Dr. Voith is a widely published expert in real estate economics, transportation, and applied microeconomics. He oversees a wide variety of projects in the realm of housing, labor markets, transportation, and economic development. Just as importantly, he is involved in setting the strategic direction of organizations both large and small. Dr. Voith served on the board of directors of the SEPTA for 8 years and was Vice Chair for 3 years. He regularly provides analysis and testimony in support of litigation in real estate and transportation matters.