5 October 07: No other way

by Nathaniel Popkin
October 5, 2007

I sat on jury duty last week, spending four days with twelve other Philadelphians (one alternate was dismissed), and of course we talked about everything, from the cleanliness of restaurant kitchens to grandchildren-grandparent relations to Septa. In those four days we talked more about Septa than the Phillies -- and I never raised the subject once.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me. While Septa reports about 600,000 trips per day, the conventional wisdom is that to get anywhere in Philadelphia you drive (then complain about the parking); It's always seemed to me that we Philadelphians, as we are about certain other factors of big city life, are ambivalent about transit. Look at listings for events, movies, restaurants, shows: there's never a transit route(s) included to tell you how to go. From Bucharest to San Francisco that's standard practice.

But no articulation of the Possible City is worth a $.75 transfer without considering a new vision for transit. These days, and in this political climate, it is also the moral and economic imperative of state and local government to respond to the crisis of global warming. Here's what we are told today by the UN, this from Julian Borger at the Guardian.

As a measure of the worsening situation, Ocha, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- part of the UN secretariat that employs Sir John -- has issued 13 emergency "flash" appeals so far this year. The number is three more than in 2005, which held the previous record.

Two years ago only half the international disasters dealt with by Ocha had anything to do with the climate; this year all but one of the 13 emergency appeals is climate-related. "And 2007 is not finished. We will certainly have more by the end of the year, I fear," added Sir John, who is in charge of channelling international relief efforts to disaster areas.

More appeals were likely in the coming weeks, as floods hit west Africa. "All these events on their own didn't have massive death tolls, but if you add all these little disasters together you get a mega disaster," he said.

The only one of this year's emergency appeals not connected to the climate was an earthquake in Peru, in August. The others arose after an unprecedented string of catastrophic floods across much of Africa, south Asia and North Korea, and followed severe drought in southern Africa, Nicaragua's category-five hurricane, and extreme climate conditions in Bolivia, which brought both drought and floods.
Washington wishes to ignore the crisis; so we are forced to pick up the pieces. So far the courts are giving a green light to far-reaching policy changes intended to drastically reduce carbon emissions. In this regard, in the perfect world of all perfect worlds, a Governor Rendell, who has proven his credibility in energy policy and who went to bat for transit earlier this year, would be our champion and together we would do everything possible to remove automobiles from the road. But it is not clear that Septa management is able to see such a big picture.

I should be clear: if Septa were smart enough it would hitch its political future to the drive for energy sustainability. But all we want is a transit system so good it transforms the very nature of city life.

But the transit agency's near-sightedness may be understandable. One look through Septa's operating reports (available at septa.org) indicates the complexity of this system, cobbled together from private transportation companies of yesteryear, with several semi-autonomous divisions, 280 stations, 16,000 bus stops, 142 routes, antiquated systems, crumbling bridges, and steadily declining federal subsidy. It's no easy business; maintenance, overhaul of vehicles, and new bus purchases take much of the capital budget; the poorly conceived Market Street Elevated reconstruction takes a whole lot more. And then? What?

Let's return to our premise. Cities, in reinventing themselves, are obliged to think for themselves, think big, and turn liabilities into assets. That takes force of political will -- the payoff being growth, recognition, new fortunes. So we're going to have to ignore the voices that say, "Septa has trouble getting its shoes on, let alone tying them," and imagine that a new mayor creates a cabinet-level Transportation Secretary and that City Council populates its dormant Transportation Committee and that these folks coordinate with 1234 Market and with Harrisburg and with Washington to create and implement a transportation plan for Philadelphia.

With dedicated funding in hand, the time for excuses has passed.

Most people intuitively know what's wrong with Septa. B Love, with his two recent simmering rants, hits on some of the problems. Certainly there are talented policy-makers who have some solutions, including transforming regional rail into a Riverline-like light rail system, extending the Broad Street subway to the Navy Yard and to the El in the Northeast, integrating all divisions onto one system clock, installing a new fare card system, etc. There's much to be done; Septa has already considered some of these critical changes. But the capital budget is long on time and light on impact and so the Broad Street extension, which solves long-term problems for existing riders and which would result in a large number of new riders, is shunted for the fabled Schuylkill Valley Metro.

Since we're inventing possibilities here, we're going to make some assumptions and then propose a bold change. Let's assume that moral imperative and economic reality combine to put transportation at the head of the sustainability agenda. Septa management achieves adequate yearly progress; service improves, ridership inches up. This will be a noticeable change but it won't be enough to transform the experience of city life, which is our considerable goal.

Now let's imagine that Septa's -- and Philadelphia's generally -- learned obsolescence works in our favor. We've gotten so set in our ways, so old-fashioned that we've skipped two or three generations of policy (like poor countries who went straight from no telephone service to cell phones). To skip incremental change is freedom (in my best imaginings this is what happens on the waterfront, where through the grace of God we don't build a Festival Marketplace or a casino, but by waiting so long to do something, build an organic extension up to the rivers edge, as Herbert Muschamp says below, "Philadelphia now breaks ranks with cities that have regressed toward infinite infantilism in the quest to revitalize their downtowns."), is time to think, is time to take hold of new ideas and technology.

The efficient movement of people is currency nowadays. We are each of us one of six billion needing to go about life with the least intrusion to each other -- and resources are scarce. The Internet is the best way to solve this problem, but it still leaves us wanting more. We need to be in each other's presence. Can you think of anything else so important? So transportation is a public good, not a luxury, not a last option. Clean water, clean air, and the capacity to move around freely (without doing harm).

Microchip technology advances as time flies, or so I'm told. It is possible, I imagine, on one little piece of plastic to place a lot of information. So let's invent a special Philadelphia card, which can be used for transit, museums, libraries, school lunches, gas bills, taxes, rec department summer camp, parking, welfare, etc. We'll call it the Card of the Availabilities, the city in your pocket.

Around the world, transit ridership decreases 3.8% for every ten percent increase in fares. This means that when Septa raises fares, as it did this week, it loses riders, but gains revenue (a 3.8% decrease in ridership on a 10% increase in fares results in a 5.8% revenue increase). But increased revenue isn't the goal of transit. Increased riders is, the more the better. So in this case, Septa remains financially stable but fails in its mission. The need to collect fares is forcing the agency to undermine its very charter.

A few years ago, I suggested in the City Paper that Septa should eliminate fares altogether ("Let's forget about all this fare nonsense."). I cited the economic and societal cost of automobile accidents and pollution as rationale. Surely, eliminating fares would reduce auto use, and save us all a lot of money, enough to offset the annual lost of $300+million in farebox revenue. Well the crisis of global warming didn't seem as urgent then; nor did I factor in the cost of maintaining and building roadways, the $24 million budgeted to upgrade fare collections, the cost of collecting fares (about $60 million based on industry average). Now eliminating fares seems like the most powerful way to increase the number of riders, massively alter people's experience of Philadelphia, and also reduce carbon emissions from automobiles.

It turns out there is some precedent for a fare-free approach to transit. Transit was free for a year in Austin, Texas; it is free in the medium-sized Hasselt, Belgium, where the bold move transformed the city; it is free on certain high-smog days in San Francisco. And SF officials are seriously considering extending the program.

The Austin experiment failed. One of the effects was to increase ridership among rowdy kids, drunks, and other unrulies, thereby making the system less pleasant for regular users. It increased lines, waiting time, and made buses more crowded. Vandals did regular damage. Ridership, which did increase, began to level off.

One of the fears of eliminating fares is that it won't get people out of their cars but will attract people who would otherwise walk or ride a bicycle and children and youth who may be improperly behaved. The other is that if a fare-free program is implemented without having made other system-wide improvements, for example without a substantial increase in service, you'll end up with lines of cursing people.

This leads us back to the Card of the Availabilities (with a picture of Lou Kahn on one side and City Hall on the other). Assuming Septa has already improved the system enough, the Card of Availabilities would be your entrance to subway stations, buses, trolleys, etc. It's a free pass; you go anywhere. Don't have a card, you don't go in.

But would it be free? I think it would be very inexpensive -- say $100 for the year, or $200, covering some of the other services available around the city. It could hold a certain amount of money and act like a debit card or it could simply cost $100 to purchase (depending on the services you access with it). It's a nominal amount that would eliminate the severe effects felt in Austin. A certain amount of foresight and a small amount of money would be required to get a card. Once you have card, you just go, under the radical assumption that the city is yours to access, enjoy, and explore. This just might begin to change the way we live.

There is the question of funding. Eliminating all but a nominal rider-revenue stream while substantially increasing service might cost Septa $400-500 million a year, which sounds like a lot. In fact it's 13% of the City budget. Factoring in savings from reduced traffic and increases in tax revenue because the city with free transit is healthier, let's say it's really 10%. But let's assume the city covers $100 million of this missing revenue, the suburbs, who would love to reduce traffic on some roads and the cost of road construction and maintenance, together another $75 million (they get off cheap, as usual), and another $50 million is saved by not having to collect and process fares. That leaves $275 million. I say a Clinton administration with Ed Rendell as Secretary of Energy or Transportation finds a way to make it happen.

Of course I punted on this last question. It is nearly impossible to make the case that massive increases in transit use would substantially decrease costs associated with car accidents, air pollution, road-wear, and the construction of new highways. You can't say, Well, the money comes from X. So the very real problem remains of replacing the revenue. I can punt again by saying it's all about societal priorities; a fairer, more equitable, and less war-like society would easily have $275 million extra for good transit. But what about education, job training, infrastructure? you ask. So that's a never-ending argument, there's always something to do with it. (I can't wait to stop writing checks to Blackwater and Halliburton and start writing them to Amtrak, etc.) Septa's direct Washington funding has dwindled from $18 million in 1980 to some $3 million today, but even returning to that level would amount to a drop in the bucket.

I wonder, though, if ever Washington got serious about using the nation's endless wealth to build great cities, if all of a sudden it didn't seem normal to raise $275 million to provide infinite free rides. Spending $2.5B a week in Iraq for no credible return has made us believe that nothing imaginative here is really possible. We travel to countless European-Far Eastern anywheres and say, My God, it's amazing what they're doing, I wish we do could that.

Why don't we do that?

–Nathaniel Popkin


• 21 Sept 07: Here is the Possible City