A Picture is Worth a Thousand Reasons American Public Transit Embarrasses Me.

An entrance to a Philadelphia subway station on the Avenue of the Arts.

Last week, Philadelphia got some shocking news. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) declared that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known around here as SEPTA, was the “best of the best” in American public transit. This fall, SEPTA will receive APTA’s coveted Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award.

Many SEPTA riders are speechless with surprise.

According to a press release on the SEPTA website, APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy received a tour of SEPTA’s control center and called it “amazing”.

“SEPTA and its many accomplishments and achievements are models for the rest of the public transit industry,” he said.

Whether or not Melaniphy visited any of SEPTA’s subways, trolleys, buses or trains remains unclear.

People say that Philadelphians love to hate their transit system. But SEPTA’s not all bad.

Philadelphia’s Suburban Station, in the heart of Center City.

The three major city stations, Market East (next to the famous Reading Terminal Market), Suburban (next to City Hall) and 30th Street (of Witness fame), aren’t bad.

Another view of Suburban Station.

But starting just a block or two away from these central stations, it’s a different world. I can’t tell it better than these pictures can. I took all of these within about two hours, passing through a couple transit stations in the course of a normal evening on the job.

After brief rainstorm, water puddles everywhere in a subway station one stop south of City Hall.

On the way up to the street:

Roaches may be able to survive a nuclear disaster, but a thunderstorm over the SEPTA subway apparently does this one in.

Here’s the ceiling of the main concourse between Suburban Station and the north-south subway line.

The Broad Street Line subway.

Here is the ceiling of a Suburban Station entrance one block from City Hall.

Don’t look up.
I usually just hustle through, but when I take the time to look, it reminds me of an abandoned building.

Forget a trip to the caverns. SEPTA has all the stalactites you could want.

There are smooth, white lumps on the floor where the lime has dripped for decades.
Here’s the whole picture of that entrance.

If you come down into the subway, here’s how you can pay for your ride.

Get some change.
Buy your tokens. No, there are no smart cards and you can’t use a credit card.
Need help? Don’t have cash? Go to the ticket booth. Or not.

Informational signage.

Renovations are under way at the 15th Street trolley stop; here is an example of the signage to help riders find their way.

There are a lot of things to be proud of in my home city. But I’m embarrassed by the state of its public transit. Now, I can’t even say what I feel upon learning that these pictures show North America’s best public transit system.

Do you live in Philadelphia? Do you think SEPTA deserves the award? If you’re not from Philly, what is public transit like in your city?




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  1. First, I am sure the SEPTA public relations department worked hard to get this “award.”

    Second, between the goofballs in Harrisburgh and the Republican Congress, SEPTA’s not getting infrastructure money to make repairs.

    So, we have to live with until a major collapse kills people and the public opinion forces the money holders to give up the funds.

    • Alas, I think you’re right on all counts. I ride so many trains per day that if a SEPTA bridge collapses, statistically I have a pretty good chance of being on it.

      Are the “goofballs in Harrisburg” you refer to a separate body from the Republican Congress? Thanks for stopping by, Fred.

  2. These pictures definitely show areas where Septa needs improvement. It does get you where you need to be, but not in fashion!

    • I’d say that needing improvement is an understatement. And yes, Septa does get me where I need to be…barring “weather-related-problems”, “signal problems”, “track work”, or, in the case of one of my trains this week, an engineer who mysteriously disappeared from his train after pulling into Suburban Station. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment – I will not abandon SEPTA anytime soon.

  3. In the US, I’m most familiar with the NYC system, but I’ve been on SEPTA enough to understand that cheap thrills take on a different meaning in those bunkers. That there’s still a paper transfer to the bus is also irritating, particularly when it’s humid and everything (including greenbacks) melt in your pocket (where you might have forgotten them). Though, I do like that you just drop in a token and don’t need to fumble for something upon exit (of course, it might be the exit that does the fumbling). That the change machine exists solely for the subway is pathetic (adding a step), but it’s convenient to be able to buy tokens at a 7-11.

    Do you reckon that SEPTA trains are infrequent even during peak times? Are there now digitized displays showing when the next trains are to arrive (if the officials are ignorant, they’d only place them BY the track. But if an ounce of thought went into their incorporation, they’d be placed in non-paying areas too, to help potential riders, as opposed to potentially “duped” riders. The last thing SEPTA would want is a drop in ridership because of this, but taxis and alternatives aren’t as plentiful in Philly as in NYC, hey?

    • I had an interesting run-in with Septa ticket staff today. At the ticket booths, all tokens are sold in pre-measured plastic packs (two tokens, ten tokens, etc). I asked for two tokens, and the clerk said they were “out of two tokens”, and I’d have to buy a ten-token pack for over $7. There he is, holding ten tokens in his hand, and telling me that I can’t buy two of them. Classic Septa.

      Some lines run pretty frequently, others are ridiculously spaced (on the main line there’s a gap of about an hour and half between trains on one line to center city in the middle of the weekday afternoon).

      There are signs at the tracks that tell you what time the next train is arriving (and, usually, how many minutes late they claim it is). 30th Street has a bank of TV screens that show the schedules just before you step into the Septa area.

      Not sure how Philly taxis compare to NYC, don’t ride taxis much in either city. Probably there’s less in Philly. All I know is that I came within inches of death by Philly taxi once, even though I was up on the curb, when a driver took a city corner at ridiculous speed.

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comment.

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