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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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CLICK HERE TO LAUNCH CHRIS DOUGHERTY’S INDEPENDENCE PASS 2014 PHOTO ESSAY.

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DOUGHERTY • IVES • MAULE • WEINIK

Independence Pass 2014: The Intro

We're legit now.
We’re legit now.

DOUGHERTYIVES • MAULE • WEINIK

In June 2009, Chris Dougherty, Steve Ives, Steve Weinik, and I put in a full shift riding SEPTA. The transit agency had recently released its Independence Pass, a bigger, better version of its all-day pass, one that now allowed for unlimited rides on regional rail (with the lone exception being a $5 surcharge to travel into New Jersey, as though anyone would pay $5 extra to travel into New Jersey). Our goal was simple: start and stop at the same place, and in between each man rides for himself, wherever SEPTA carries him, photographing the journey along the way.

Five years later, June 2014, we did it again. Last time, we began and ended our Saturday at Market East Station (Starbucks in the morning, Field House pub in the evening). We represented South Philly, West Philly, G-Ho, and Fishtown, respectively. This time, Friday the 13th with a full moon and SEPTA strike looming, our base was 30th Street Station (Così for morning coffee, Bridgewaters Pub for evening ales), and all of us but Steve Ives were coming from Mt Airy.

Also this time, SEPTA was onboard, so to speak. Where in 2009 we just did it, in 2014, we each carried a letter of permission signed by SEPTA Public Information Manager Heather Redfern, in the event that anyone give us guff. It authorized permission to photograph SEPTA vehicles and stations, but forbade anything “that would interfere with the safe movement of people or operation of vehicles.” It also cautioned the use of common sense and courtesy of others, which only presented a challenge for Ives. None of us had to use the letter.

BOOP BOOP. Doors closing.
BOOP BOOP. Doors closing.

Additionally, SEPTA’s Sales Director Tom Kelly shared some stats on the Independence Pass with us. The pass comes in two forms: the individual for $12 and the family for $29, providing all-day service for a family of up to five riding together to, say, the Zoo or a Phillies game. The Independence Pass differs from SEPTA’s One-Day Convenience Pass, which costs $8 and allows for up to eight rides on any bus, trolley, or subway/el, but NOT regional rail. It’s more city-oriented than the regional Independence Pass, and as such, it sells better. “We see a lot of use for Convenience Passes in the city where people don’t need the train,” Kelly says. “Plus it’s accepted on specialty routes like the King of Prussia Mall buses, and it’s cheaper than a weekly pass.”

Nevertheless, for only $4 more and unlimited rides (as opposed to just eight) that also include regional rail, the Independence Pass seems far more convenient than the Convenience Pass. It makes me scratch my head a little that, for the current fiscal year, SEPTA has sold 650,000 Convenience Passes to only 185,000 individual Independence Passes. The family Independence Pass has sold 12,000.

Kelly also says that the “Indie Passes,” as they’re dubbed at SEPTA’s 1234 Market headquarters, will be part of the fare structure and incorporated into the New Payment Technology, which will arrive some day.

Friday the 13th of June, 2014.

Spirit of Transportation, Karl Bitter, 1894 (relocated from Broad Street Station)
Spirit of Transportation, Karl Bitter, 1894 (relocated from Broad Street Station)

It was hot—so hot—and humid, and then the sky opened up on us. When Dougherty, Ives, Maule, and Weinik reconvened at 30th Street, we were all dirty and sweaty and just a little busted except Ives. Dougherty fell into Poquessing Creek. Weinik ripped his pants. Maule was so paranoid about poison ivy that he tiptoed through a dirty thicket and bathed his hands and arms in Wissahickon Creek just in case. And Ives? He went home to West Philly for a UPS delivery that never came, but he got to change into clothes so fresh and so clean clean.

In spite of the dirt, sweat, rain, and the rigors of eight consecutive hours riding public transit, we all quite enjoyed ourselves. It was a pleasant experience, the SEPTA weekday schedule accommodated us, and we all got to see things we didn’t see before. And it’s a good thing we got it in when we did, because the regional rail employees went on strike that midnight—to come back a day later, fortunately.

Slowly but surely, SEPTA is doing things. The New Payment Technology is coming—test installs exist at 13th Street Station and some trolleys, and a kiosk stands in the concourse at Walnut-Locust Station. Conrad Benner pretty much single handedly got SEPTA to run the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines 24 hours on the weekends, and hopefully soon seven days a week. I wish he could convince them to run the Chestnut Hill West Line out of Center City past, I dunno, 10pm on a Saturday. It’s a real drag to live just eight miles from the heart of the city when my only options home are a 10:05pm departure from Market East, the longest bus ride in the entire world on the 23, or a $40 cab. But one thing at a time. We’re getting there, after all.

DOUGHERTYIVES • MAULE • WEINIK

Independence Pass 2014 | Chris Dougherty
Independence Pass 2014 | Chris Dougherty
Independence Pass 2014 | Steve Ives
Independence Pass 2014 | Steve Ives
Independence Pass 2014 | Brad Maule
Independence Pass 2014 | Brad Maule
Independence Pass 2014 | Steve Weinik
Independence Pass 2014 | Steve Weinik