Independence Pass 2014: Chris Dougherty

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Getting there?: SEPTA and mobility across our regional divides — an update

The day after our second installment of the Independence Pass, locomotive engineers, conductors and electricians serving the Regional Rail struck, as advertised. For a day, I missed the rhythmic metallic whoosh on the hour, that audible reassurance of easy connection to the urban core. My mind thought of carpools and the bikeability of Wissahickon Avenue, of the route of the “H” bus and its sleek express version, the “XH”. Of course, we all would survive–perhaps even enjoy it as a kind of adventure of alternative mobility.

Quietly, though, I also recalled the 50-something African-American woman getting on the 118 bus after her shift at the Baltimore Pike McDonalds just outside of Media. It was close to 3pm, the end of a shift starting at 7am, probably. The bus was going to Chester, where she ultimately got off.

I wondered how she would wend her way through the leafy ravines of affluent Delaware County to her shift during a strike. Recalling my trip the day before, I thought about the home healthcare nurses and caregivers wearily boarding the 66 at Frankford Transportation Center. Perhaps behind them was a long hot day in the Kensington, Harrowgate, Port Richmond rowhomes of their elderly patients. What would they all do?

If you have the occasion to ride the modes of SEPTA in the second decade of the 21st Century, it can be just as much physical travel as a mode of inquiry. Now in the second installment of the Independence Pass series, I’m heartened to know that my compatriots prioritize seeing through and outside the windows of transit vehicles perhaps more than the nuts-and-bolts. (Ed. note: Chris’ 2009 Independence Pass essay is HERE.)

Site of Chris' grandfather's former cooperage shop is now SEPTA's Elmwood carhouse | Photo: Christopher Dougherty
Site of Chris’ grandfather’s former cooperage shop is now SEPTA’s Elmwood carhouse | Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Riding SEPTA is, as the geographer Reyner Banham said of his learning to drive a car in Los Angeles, a means of reading the Delaware Valley in its original tongue. Much of the region is a landscape of legacies; its transportation system a microcosm of the accretive form of growth. It is a landscape punctuated by brief accumulations of capital and people around possibility and promise. But fixed capital, of course, bounds and flees across the planet, sometimes leaving these communities to reknit themselves back into the the fluid geography of opportunity.

The palpable character of each of the modes has much to say of the original geographies and cultures they sought to link. Many of the current City Transit Division buses and trackless trolley routes remained unchanged since the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). These vehicles efficiently and compactly traversed narrow city streets to mills, factories, shops and were feeders for the terminals: 69th and Frankford. These routes relished and were sustained by the city’s density. Even up to the end, they ran a profit.

Regional rail and trolleys were sometimes escapist in their conception. They began and sustained suburban development schemes, their wealthy parent railroad companies using them as real estate playthings. The old Red Arrow division suburban buses, the last great chunk of the private mass transit to be assumed by SEPTA in 1970, have found new lives as reverse commute lifelines connecting the bereft populations of the industrial riverfronts to suburban hamlets, mall complexes, and other job centers embedded in the sprawl.

In pursuit of this, I was interested in exploring and assessing how SEPTA knits together a region still deeply furrowed by race and class. I wanted to explore the weird cross section of Delaware County–from Media, a DVRPC “Classic Town” with a buzzing lunchtime sidewalk culture and speakers playing pop music on every streetpole to Chester, the perennial sick man of Delaware County whose agonizing poverty needs no further elaboration.

Chester Transportation Center | Photo: Christopher Dougherty
Chester Transportation Center | Photo: Christopher Dougherty

I wanted to explore Eastwick as a suburban dream deferred, the city’s postwar vision for a car-centric city-within-a-city seeming hollow now, slightly unfinished and too ambitious. New transportation preferences are emerging that the planners of Eastwick never envisioned. That I saw 2 cars on the vastly overbuilt 100’ cross section of Mario Lanza Boulevard and 40 parked at the bare-bones Eastwick Station suggests residents are embracing a new kind of post-auto independence.

All across the lines, I observed a newly awakened orientation of the built environment to mass transit. I observed numerous cars at Eastwick, the new context-sensitve Paschall Village PHA complex fronting the 11 Trolley, passengers on the 118 cooing happily about the new Bottom Dollar grocery store in Chester on Edgmont Avenue. There are other examples throughout the system: Paseo Verde, Nicetown Court II at Wayne Junction, even in Ambler with residential clustered around its rail stop. Increasingly, SEPTA’s managers get that land uses around stations matter and that facilities must creatively integrate with private development for the benefit of both.

Like a penny on the rail, the strike was short-lived. Obama quickly interceded, an act recalling the one-time importance of the railroad in American life, the President’s power an odd legal vestige of the days of vicious railroad labor-management enmity. The component of SEPTA moving the fewest, most affluent, usually suburban riders was spared a grueling strike. In my last intro essay five years ago I described the Authority in recent years as “a great organism that through great effort has become greater than the sum of its seemingly disjointed parts.”

Five years down the line, SEPTA continues to solder the systems together while increasingly supporting denser land uses that reinforce transit ridership. Yet while the system may be fusing together physically, unity evades SEPTA’s laborers and operators and the poorest it serves. In the intervening years we’ve seen TWU stoppages hurting the less mobile poor while affluent riders have service restored by Presidential fiat over a weekend.

It’s a sign of our persistent ideological fragmentation as a region: the people who ride and operate SEPTA share neither faith in common economic outcomes nor consensus on how we’re all getting there.

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