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BRT on the SEPTA Route 65

By JAMES KENNEDY

As part of my soon-to-end holiday hiatus from Providence in Philadelphia, I'd like to talk about how some of SEPTA's bus routes could be made much more useful if they became Bus Rapid Transit lines, focusing on City Line Avenue*. I hope the articles from my home city have been as interesting and relevant as the ones I do about the Biggest Little.

Bus Rapid Transit is this:



It takes bus lines and makes them fast, frequent, and efficient, at much lower cost than putting in a trolley/streetcar line, but with greater mobility for users. The buses get their own rights of way and often have stations to help the comfort and speed of loading onto the line.

Why You Gettin' All Excited About This Stupid Bus Jawn?
It's funny how you don't notice certain things about the place you grew up until you leave and come back. The 65 is a bus that my cousin used to take to St. Joe's University when he was a student, and my aunt still takes it to work each day near the TV stations ("I get off at Channel 6 but get back on at Channel 10". --They're on opposite sides of the street). I've taken it a handful of times because it's the most direct way from the western suburbs to Germantown, where I have some friends. But overall, the 65 is a backwater of the SEPTA system. I would highly doubt that anyone bothers to write essays about very much.

The Subjectivity of Terms Like "Suburb"

The 23 trolley is currently a bus, but you can see why NW
Philadelphia might seem less like a "suburb" if you're
not from the area.
If you're from Philadelphia, you think of the places this bus serves as suburbs. I mean, I had a few friends who grew up in Mount Airy, and I would chide them that they were more from the suburbs than me (I'm from Upper Darby). But I would maintain that these places are all exceptional for the opportunities they have for transit, compared to much of the country.
Upper Darby, Home of Tina Fey and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

The bus starts in Upper Darby, goes through the Philadelphia neighborhood of Overbrook, and then straddles the Philadelphia-Montgomery County (Bala Cynwyd/Overbrook) line down City Line Avenue until it crosses the Schuylkill into Northwest Philly (Manayunk, Roxborough, Germantown, Mount Airy). None of these are though of as "urban". I think I've mentioned how I always thought that my trolley served suburb was the thing people were talking about when they mentioned suburban sprawl, but actually it was populated at 14,000 per square mile, which is quite a bit denser than Providence. Some parts of each of these suburbs-within-the-city have huge, old-style single family homes, originally for the rich, but now often for cops or teachers. But much of the housing in any of these areas is apartments and the traditional Philly rowhouse, as well as some twins. There are intact "main street" types of shopping districts. The most overtly pro-car area on this line, in Bala Cynwyd near the TV stations, is full of surface parking, but is basically of a Le Corbusier style--but as ugly and pedestrian unfriendly as it is (says my aunt, "I asked them for a pedestrian signal and they said 'it doesn't have the foot traffic'. Well, I think my life is worth the output of money."), the towers still mean that there's a huge density of people who could take transit. The appropriate zoning, to get infill on those lots, could even bring more business to the area.


The Potential & The Problems
When you ride the route, it mostly feels straight and logical. It veers off of City Line Avenue for a time to meet the end of the 10 trolley, but it doesn't do any of the shenanigans you'd expect of a RIPTA bus--the wild turns into parking lots, zig-zags to meet this or that state assembly person's grandmother, etc. 

Route 10

Philly doesn't have the problem of its transit system not being anywhere to anywhere in the extreme way that 1970s Portland or present-day Rhode Island do. The fact that the 65 exists, with so many potential interactions with other lines, is proof of this. It occurred to me only after returning how crazy it is that this bus crosses so many train stations. It starts out at 69th Street, where one can take the El, the 100, 101, or 102, in addition to a plethora of buses, it goes past the 10 trolley, R5 (the "Main Line" of the Pennsylvania Railroad, hence the upper-crust term "Main Line" for the posh suburban neighborhoods it sprung), the R6, the R7 & R8. The 65 kind of acts as a connector for what would otherwise be a hub & spoke commuter rail system. Wow! I mean, if you lived in Ohio or even Oregon, wouldn't you give your left arm to have such potential?! In all honesty, even the high ridership of a system like LIRR, which mostly serves 1950s style suburbs (podcast), is a miracle compared to this, because the neighborhoods served by these routes are some of the most multi-use places in the country.


The route comes to the head of the Schuykill River Trail and Wissihickon Park as well, meaning that there are major bike connections through the region.

Add to that that Saint Joe's is one of the regions major research institutions, that two of the three TV networks are on the route, that there are major hotels and department stores ad nauseum, and you see why this route could be very important.


I'm not sure who this weird young guy is, but the shorter guy is
Dave Roberts, who delivered the weather to Philly with
ugly City Line Ave. behind him for decades. 
The problem with this route is that City Line Avenue is a cesspool of traffic. As you may have gathered from my aunt's experience, this is not a fun place to be a pedestrian, and especially if you're anything but in perfect shape. (I once tried to ride my bike on City Line Avenue, and I would chalk this up to a karmic rebound on the fact that I never did stupid youthful things like keg stands. I would seem to me that what I did that day was probably much more likely to lead to instant and premature death. I got away with it. I don't know how).

Bottlenecks: A Key to Transit

The 65 intersects with Wissihickon Park, which spans 7 miles of NW Philly, is a major biking corridor, but can only be crossed by car in a few places.
Says Jarrett Walker of Human Transit Blog:
[T]he history of transportation, since the industrial revolution, has been about circular communities and places feeling attacked by the straight lines that any useful form transportation must draw.  In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau recognized the community-piercing and place-destroying role of railroads as clearly as Jane Jacobs did of freeways a century later.  The transportation technology didn't matter: what mattered was that something that had to be linear was piercing something that's naturally round: the place, at any scale. 
And so, today, we have an urbanist discourse that is all about somehow taming the straight line, bending it into a circle.  A long strain of urbanism, epitomized by Darrin Nordahl's work, imagines that transit planning could be based on the tourist experience, even though tourist travel is unlike destination-motivated in this exact respect:  The tourist'sdesire really is a circle: the loop shape of the tour.  But all other transport is motivated straight-line desires, the need to be there so that we can do something.  
This idea has come up in the fact that Providence keeps talking about the need for a "downtown loop" that would help "circulate" people from place to place. Walker argues that this shape doesn't work for transit. If you're at 12 o'clock on a clockwise loop, getting to 3 is fine, but to 9 takes longer than just to walk. The route is useless.

The good news is that in Philadelphia, the 65 is met by all sorts of natural and unnatural barriers that make it the perfect solution to the region's traffic. It crosses Cobb's Creek, the Schuylkill River and I-76, and Wissihickon, none of which have many potential ways to get across. It's these barriers that make an otherwise gridded city face so much congestion. But the limitations, because they create such linearity, mean that the bus route can thrive. 

BRT Saves Money & Works for Drivers

Lots of people may continue to drive to work in this area, but the real key is allowing those who don't have to a real option of getting around. Right now, the 65 is a route of necessity for those who must take it. But with the development of BRT, it could be a real rapid line. We have to keep in mind, too, that in developed countries the cost of running a bus is very much tied to high labor costs. It should meet both the needs of people like me who like transit unions and want transit workers to have power, as well as those who would rather bust unions and save money, to start thinking about how BRT can save on these costs. When you get a bus route to run faster, it's not just about that trip. It also means the bus can turn around and service the same route more often, without additional labor cost (people are paid by the hour, not the mile). 

When a bus has its own right-of-way, all of a sudden, all the incidental connections it makes between so many other rail and trolley lines become more useful. Alongside improvements to other stroads like the Roosevelt Boulevard, reforming City Line Avenue could put SEPTA on new footing.

BRT will mean that those who drive don't face as much traffic. It may take a lane in each direction away from cars, but it will also takes lots of cars off the road. Philadelphians should be aware from experience that so many of their streets work without unnecessary traffic, precisely because transit is a real option.

~~~~

*City Line Avenue is officially called City Avenue, but just as if you call South County "Washington County" everyone knows you're an outsider in Rhode Island, no Philadelphian I have ever met adheres to the street's official name.

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