Notes on Long Transit and Diagonal Streets

Between school, Passover, and life, I’ve been extremely short on time and (especially) focus to write recently (though I did do a Twitter series about Amtrak reform, Storified here), but I do want to get something up.

Jake Blumgart has a post in the Philly Voice about SEPTA’s fabled Route 23,  the former-trolley-now-bus that connects tony Chestnut Hill in the city’s Northwest with Center City and South Philadelphia. Route 23 has been acclaimed as the world’s longest trolley route, a claim I’m skeptical of, if only because Chicago’s Route 49 (Western Ave.) has run up to 20 miles at times. It’s also a flashpoint of the bus-trolley wars, with some romantics consistently calling for the return of the trolleys that were taken off the route in 1992 (much of the rail infrastructure remains in place). The problem is that, as Blumgart notes in his piece, “When trolleys rumbled along the 23, an end-to-end ride took more than three hours; the bus takes about half of that time.” (I believe that number is somewhat exaggerated–Blumgart got it from long-time riders of the route–but there’s little doubt that the trolleys were indeed slower than buses that can pull into and out of traffic)

Route 23 intrigues me because it combines two particular challenges of urban transportation planning: super-long mixed-traffic transit routes and diagonal streets that cut across the city grid.

Route 23 map from SEPTA's schedule packet--so long it needed to be split into two images!

Route 23 map from SEPTA’s schedule packet–so long it needed to be split into two images!

As you can see from the map, Route 23 runs largely in a two-way pairing on 11th and 12th Streets from its terminus in South Philadelphia through Center City, then switches onto the diagonal Germantown Avenue, running northwest to the tony Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The route is also very long for a local bus, almost 14 miles. As a result of the length and Philly’s notoriously narrow and congested streets, Route 23’s on-time performance in 2012 was only 64%, fairly atrocious by transit standards. As a result, SEPTA is considering splitting the historic route in two, with one branch running from Center City to Chestnut Hill and the other from Center City south. Since–as Blumgart documents–virtually no riders use the whole route, there seems to be little opposition to this change.

And that leads me to thinking about the viability of super-long local bus routes in other places. I used to commute on the Chicago Transit Authority’s #49 bus, the core service on Chicago’s uber-long (24ish miles) Western Avenue. Where Route 23 is scheduled to cover its 13.8 miles in about 1:15, for an average speed of roughly 11 mph, CTA’s 49 is even slower, scheduled to cover its 15.7 or so miles in 1:30, for an average speed just under 10.5 mph. Aside: this means that the CTA 49–which has, in the past, extended past its current terminal at Berwyn all the way to the Evanston Line, about 3 more miles–is both longer and slower than the much-maligned Route 23. Unsurprisingly, the 49 is a massively unreliable route, with bunching common. Since the cancellation of the former X49 limited a few years ago, it is the only transit option in the corridor, and one of the most popular routes in the city, carrying even more people than the 23.

The problem with the 49 is that, unlike the 23, there is no especially convenient place to split the route in the middle. I’m sure relatively few people ride the route from end to end, but there’s no point where the entire bus empties out and exits, as happens to the 23 in Center City. Additionally, I will personally testify that having more splits in the route would be a massive pain in the ass, since having to transfer from the 49A and 49B extensions to the core route in order to continue a linear journey is already a major problem. The 49’s reliability problems can’t be dealt with by cutting the route in half, so what options are left for the CTA and other operators faced with similar long-route challenges? (that’s a genuine question!)

The other thing that’s intriguing about Route 23, of course, is that its northern half runs along Germantown Avenue, a diagonal street that once connected that neighborhood to the Philly waterfront. Though Philly’s grid isn’t as regular as, say, Chicago’s, Germantown Ave. still stands out as an oddity on its generally northwest-southeast path.

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave.’s odd alignment–and its Phillyish narrowness–makes it a challenge for fast, efficient transit–but an opportunity for other things, as James Kennedy of Transport Providence, a Philly native, pointed out:

This is a question that intrigues me, since Chicago’s notorious diagonal streets have proven to be a major challenge for traffic of all types in that city. Of course, Chicago’s diagonals are more regular, such that they often cross two other arterials in a nightmarish six-way intersection. Witness Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park:

Or Lincoln, Ashland, and Belmont:

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

These intersections are horrible for pedestrians, create massive traffic jams, and just generally suck. And there’s not too much the city can do about them. The problems at the intersection of Damen, Fullerton, and Elston are so bad that the city is spending millions to realign the intersection, but low-value industrial land isn’t usually available to do that.

Chicago DOT's graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Chicago DOT’s graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Perhaps the boldest initiative Chicago has ever undertaken to tame one of its diagonals was the 1978 pedestrianization of a short stretch of Lincoln Avenue (no, not all of the horrible intersections involve Lincoln, but it does have many of them) southwest of the intersection with Lawrence and Western, creating the Lincoln Square (mostly) pedestrian mall, the core of one of the city’s hottest real estate markets:

western lawrence

Perhaps the Lincoln Square mall has been buoyed (and to tell the truth, it hasn’t exactly been a smashing success) by being next to the busy Western Brown Line station. But it might also represent the potential of a new approach to those problematic diagonal streets. The luxury of a grid is that it often works best without diagonal streets cutting through it at angles that are either random (Germantown) or too regular (most of Chicago’s diagonals). Surely, the idea of making these streets into a transit, bike, and pedestrian mall is radical. But it may be a really good idea.

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to present here.

In a kind of appendix to the paper, Voith presents two charts (modified here for readability). SEPTA refers to the Regional Rail (commuter) division ONLY, not the urban rail subway or trolley lines or bus operations. Remember, this is 1994 data; I’m sure the numbers have changed since then:

Fare $3.25 $1.60
Trains per Line 7 33
Annual Ridership per Mile of Railroad 75,312 785,261


Cost per Rider $7.32 $2.26
Subsidy per Rider $4.37 $0.89
Annual subsidy per mile of railroad $329, 698 $699,225

As Sunny Zheng pointed out on Twitter, these numbers don’t capture absolutely everything; SEPTA has (and presumably had) pass products that would have lowered the average fare charged to most riders. I don’t know whether the subsidy numbers account for those lowered fares; the SEPTA fares quoted are peak, Zone-2 (a distance that roughly corresponds to PATCO’s length).  Still, the numbers say a lot. As Voith wrote:

As shown in the figure, PATCO’s fare is less than half of SEPTA’s. PATCO runs almost five times as many rush-hour trains on its single 14-mile line as SEPTA runs on its average commuter line. PATCO also runs much more frequent off-peak service. The net effect of the lower-price, higher-quality service is that PATCO carries over 10 times more people per mile of railroad than SEPTA does.[b] Thus, for very similar suburban markets and the same destination, ridership levels are dramatically different. The level of current SEPTA ridership doesn’t necessarily reflect transit’s potential.

I see three possible contributing factors to the ridership differences. One, and likely the most powerful factor, is frequency. As Jarrett Walker has repeatedly stressed, frequency is the single best way to attract riders to a transit service. Another is the low fare, which was well below that of SEPTA. A third is that transit demand from South Jersey to Philly is relatively inelastic, because driving a car into the city requires paying a toll on one of only a few congested bridges.

It’s possible that the low fare helped to attract riders to PATCO, and the pricing of car access to Philadelphia closer to true cost certainly helped the situation. But, especially accounting for the passes, SEPTA fares in Zone 2 were’t really that much higher than those of PATCO. I think it’s pretty clear that this data validates everything Jarrett Walker has ever said about frequency. In fact, ridership on PATCO was so high that had the agency been willing to raise fares $.89–$1.43 today, arguably a raise that a relatively wealthy suburban clientele could have afforded–it could have eliminated subsidies altogether.

There were downsides to the frequency with which PATCO was blessed, of course. The subsidies per mile of railroad were more than double those of SEPTA’s regional rail. But one thing is very clear:

When you invest in frequent transit, you get what you pay for.

Ridership follows investment in operations. We can argue about the necessity of subsidies; I’m guessing that the value to Philadelphia of keeping all of the cars used by PATCO commuters in 1994 out of Center City was far greater than the $.89/passenger subsidy. This is yet another argument for the rapid-transitization of the SEPTA Regional Rail network (and others!), a case that has been made repeatedly by transit advocates and some professionals. Frequency is expensive in absolute and per-mile-of-rail terms, and probably unworkable without reworking of the labor agreements that American commuter rail systems currently operate under. But in terms of “buying” passengers, frequency is cheap–almost certainly cheaper than anything else transit agencies can do.

I don’t want to shortchange the place that the bridge tolls hold in PATCO’s success; pairing realistic car pricing with high-quality transit is the future of American urban transportation policy. But driving into and parking in Center City is expensive regardless of where you’re coming from, and the success of PATCO’s high-frequency service is apparent. There are many, many places in the US where more-frequent regional rail service would be feasible; looking back 20 years, we can see the economic justification for what has become a popular idea among transit advocates.

The Uneven Experience of Affordability and Gentrification

Jonathan Geeting has a piece up at Next City that I think is one of the best takes I’ve ever read on the problem of housing affordability. The title of the piece is “Philly has an Income Problem, not a Housing Affordability Problem,” and that’s essentially the core of his argument–most of the article is taken up by data proving his point. As Geeting notes, Philly’s housing costs, whether renting or buying, are on the citywide level among if not THE lowest in the Northeast–and yet, the city has erupted in debates over gentrification as the city center has grown in recent years. It’s a paradox–it seems that affordable housing advocates fear for the viability of the city’s low-income population regardless of how cheap housing is on an objective scale. Geeting’s point is that driving down housing costs, by whatever method one may employ, isn’t going to solve a problem that entrenched. In other words, once housing is super cheap already–and in Philly, citywide rents haven’t gone up despite the recent influx of relatively wealthy, mainly white, newcomers–making it even cheaper isn’t going to help entrenched poverty; in fact, doing so can have all kinds of negative impacts on the city’s finances. In fact, there’s a definite floor to housing prices, below which absolutely nothing will ever get built. Philly doesn’t have a supply problem for affordable housing–if it did, prices would be higher. The problem is one of income, or really lack thereof, not one of affordability. Poverty advocates have taken up the banner of “affordable housing” because that’s a traditional way for government to help out the urban poor, but Geeting’s claim is that in the case of Philly that’s not the best tack they could be taking.

Geeting’s case resonated strongly with me. Aside from being emotionally wrought, the national discussion of gentrification tends to be colored by the experiences of certain cities–places like New York City, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and Washington, DC, where hordes of wealthy young and mostly white people have “reclaimed the city,” bringing new financial resources and excitement but also driving up housing costs and forcing lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods. In New York and San Francisco in particular (and increasingly in DC),  complaints about gentrification have been driven by a very real–and entirely fair–fear that people of lower income are not just being driven from their neighborhoods, but from the city entirely. Where the demand for housing of all kinds is for all intents and purposes infinite, it’s hard to imagine that competition for housing isn’t a zero-sum game. But Geeting’s piece is a useful reminder that even as it appears that the Millennial return to the city is a nationwide trend, the experience of every city is not going to be the same. The discussion about gentrification in Baltimore doesn’t have to be the same as in DC. Philly’s doesn’t have to be the same as New York’s.

Moreover, there are, in fact, very few cities where the zero-sum logic of gentrification as derived from NYC and San Francisco actually applies. In most of the country, urban housing prices are still very, very low–artificially so, the product of mistaken public policy that has and continues to subsidize suburban sprawl–and even as urban population numbers have stopped declining and in most areas begun to grow again since the turn of the Millennium, prices haven’t exactly skyrocketed. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Philly. There’s no lack of affordable housing in Baltimore. There’s definitely no lack of affordable housing in Detroit. There’s not even a true lack of affordable housing in Chicago, which (the conglomeration of sprawl that is Houston aside) may be the cheapest major city in the country. And there’s certainly no lack of affordable housing in many smaller cities, including Albany. What those cities lack isn’t housing–it’s wealth, income, stable neighborhoods, and local businesses at which to spend money. Certainly some neighborhoods have changed, but on a citywide level very few cities are experiencing the kind of crazy competition and upward-spiraling prices that characterize gentrifying New York and San Francisco. Very few cities will ever experience that kind of demand. And it’s worth remembering that while there are all sorts of banners for urban activists, particularly those on the Left, to be carrying forward, affordable housing isn’t, despite its emotional power, in most cases one of them.