Friday, March 26, 2010

Sprawlternatives: Philadelphia (Part 2)

Philadelphia rail transit map
Source: SEPTA Website


As promised I'm back with a second post about Philadelphia's transportation. I spent a lot of time riding the rails around to get a feel for them and the city while I was there. I also saw a decent number of people on bikes around downtown so I'll have some comments on that.

First off, the transit fare structure for most of the transit in the area is $2/ride or $1.45/ride if you buy tokens. There's also a day pass for $6, but it's not a true day pass since you can only use it eight times in a day. It works by punching holes in it, so there's an attendant at every train station. I liked the price of this pass but hated the hole punch thing, which seemed to waste a lot of everyone's time.

The city has two grade-separated heavy rail lines, the Market Frankford line (in blue on the map) and the Broad St. Line (in orange on the map). I managed to ride the Market line end to end. It's elevated on the outskirts and underground in the city center. Some of the houses right next to the elevated sections looked dilapidated and/or abandoned. I can't imagine that would be a fun place to live and I think it really calls for sound walls. Some of the buildings had huge murals on them which were clearly oriented towards the transit riders. Overall, this line seems fast and convenient.

I rode parts of the Broad St. line, especially to the north and a bit south of downtown. This one seems reasonably fast as well and every part of it I saw was underground.

Those green lines on the transit map are trolleys. I rode these once. They work like buses. They are about the length of a standard 12 meter (40 foot) bus and you pay when you get on and indicate to the driver when you want to stop. There is an extensive network of these not shown in all its detail above especially west of downtown in the university area. It seems like these are largely underground.

I also got a chance to ride that purple line which is called the Norristown High Speed Line. This line goes through suburubs, has really comfortable bench seating, and also has a system where you have to indicate your stop. Interestingly, you pay the driver here as well. Norristown is an interesting little place that seems just as enthusiastic about rowhouses and historic buildings as Philadelphia, but on a smaller scale.

I rode the bus three times when I was in the area. One in the northern part of the city was an electric trolleybus powered by overhead wires. This is very exciting in the sense that the electricity could eventually come from clean renewable energy. On the minus side though, having those overhead wires could preclude street trees. On another bus trip I took I noticed that the schedule was posted at the stop, which is very helpful to people who aren't familiar with the route (and temporarily don't have Internet :).

I also took that red line into Camden, New Jersey. The part I saw was completely grade separated, either subway or elevated. On this line you pay by distance traveled. You go over the Delaware and get a neat view from the bridge. The parts of Camden I walked through seemed a bit down on their luck. I explored the downtown and areas to the east a bit. The downtown has way too much land wasted for parking, so accessing some of the neat stuff like an aquarium on the river was a bit of a hike with nothing to look at on either side. There's also a one-car (at least when I saw it) diesel powered light rail train that runs through the downtown at street level.

The lines marked R_ are commuter rail. I took the R1 to the airport (yes, it goes directly into the airport), or rather, I tried to but it was operating as a bus bridge that day, which worked out reasonably well, although I would have liked to see more of the commuter rail experience.

Bike lanes in and around central Philadelphia
Source: PhillyMap


With regard to bicycles I didn't rent one while I was in Philly, but I did notice a lot of people on them, particularly during one of my walks through downtown during the afternoon rush, when they were definitely moving faster than cars. You can see above that there is a good start at a bike lane network, especially in the university area. Obviously though, there should be many more bike lanes if the city wants to treat all modes of transportation equally. Many of the streets of central Philly are one way with car parking on either side. The best bike lanes I saw took the parking from one side of the street and gave it over to a lane. Some of the bike lanes were clearly in the door impact zone, which is problematic.

On an unrelated but interesting note, central Philly has a ton of solar trash compactors next to recycle bins. This is just excellent environmental policy and LA would do well to follow this lead.

Overall I was very impressed with what I saw in the city and I hope Los Angeles takes some of these lessons to heart. Philadelphia has a human-scale density that saves habitat and makes alternatives to driving possible in conjunction with a variety of interesting investments in transit and bike infrastructure.

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