Post-pandemic public transit: A new look from the bottom up

by Walt Maguire
Posted 2/25/21

A petition to restore service on the Chestnut Hill West drew local attention to the 5th Square PAC, but the local organization’s main focus is a complete redesign of Philadelphia’s entire public transit system.

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Post-pandemic public transit: A new look from the bottom up

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A petition to restore service on the Chestnut Hill West drew local attention to the 5th Square PAC, but the local organization’s main focus is a complete redesign of Philadelphia’s entire public transit system.

 At its February meeting, William Tung, a 5th Square volunteer organizer, spoke briefly about regional rail: their petition to restore Chestnut Hill West service collected 1,400 signatures, and a partial regional rail schedule will return on March 7. It’s unclear how much impact the group’s effort had on SEPTA’s decision, but members consider it part of their broader aim.

Tung then moved swiftly to introduce Charles Krueger, another committee member, with an overview of some of the city’s knottier cross-town bus routes. Yasha Zarrinkelk, Coalition Organizer at Transit Forward Philadelphia, spoke about his coalition's Better Buses Platform of priorities for a bus network redesign.

5th Square is named for Centre Square, the original park where City Hall now stands. It has been around since 2014, but the enormous disruptions to work, school and transit raised the group’s profile. It recently added its 250th member. 5th Square is interested in more than improvements to the existing system: It’s goal is to re-think the entire grid.

The group’s priorities include more logical bus routes; trolley modernization; regional rail fare equity and restructuring; ADA and senior accessibility; safe bike lanes; and finding and supporting candidates for local and state office based on their voting records, campaign positions, and support for urbanist policy goals. 

The group, co-chaired by Jake Liefer and Dena Driscoll, coordinates with SEPTA where possible, and has avoided an adversarial relationship. Their prodding has been slow but successful: For instance, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) recently announced they will conduct a study of regional rail fare equity and restructuring.  Some of 5th Sqaure’s concerns aren’t with the vehicles at all; at the meeting, members discussed the height of curbs at trolley stops, for instance, but were satisfied with accessibility of the trolleys.

SEPTA recently hired Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates to prepare a study on the full transit system, to aid in planning and design in 2022. 5th Square and Transit Forward Philadelphia will be conducting their own rider surveys this spring, and tracking SEPTA’s progress.

In January, SEPTA received an additional $252 million in federal aid to cover shortfalls from the pandemic. This is in addition to an earlier $664 million relief in 2020. While SEPTA’s impulse has been to reduce service during the crisis, 5th Square has been advocating for the opposite. “I think that just highlights the importance of a better bus network, so that there isn’t overcrowding on buses,” said Zarrinkelk. “The more buses you have running through the system…the less overcrowding you’re going to have. The safer riders will be, the safe operators are going to be.”

“With the COVID money that they did receive from the federal government, we’re going to be advocating to have them leverage that funding to create a better bus network, so that our riders are safe,” added Zarrinkelk. “And so they can instill the trust back into using transit.”

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