🇺🇸 Future of Movement - Interview Series - PART 3
👋 Greetings America!
After two weeks in DC, we started to get itchy feet, so we decided to take a short train trip north to visit the historic city of Philadelphia.
In our first week here, we are hanging out with William Clark, who is schooling us on all things transit and Philly.
William is a transit connoisseur and an advocate of quality urbanism. Spending all but three of his 25 years of life in the Philadelphia area, the built environment of Philadelphia continues to mystify and inspire him.
When he was growing up in the Haddington section of West Philadelphia, he took solace in sitting in the front seat of the Market-Frankford Line (El while looking down at the passing buildings and people along Market Street. He seeks to improve the symbiotic relationship between the urban fabric and transit system of Philadelphia through activism and advocacy. 💪
William received his BBA in Finance from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where he will also be pursuing his MS in Financial Analysis starting in August. When he is not working, you can find him supporting Philly’s local business scene, drinking craft beers, singing karaoke (during non-pandemic times), hiking, running, spending quality time with his girlfriend, and moderating the 215,000+ strong Facebook transit group, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOT).
🥁🥁🥁 Here's what William had to say on the future of movement in Philly.
In light of Black History Month, we wanted to ask you: from funding, planning and infrastructure, to design and policing, how do we build a more equitable transit system in Philadelphia?
Unfortunately, Philadelphia is the poorest of the top 10 most populous US cities. Philly also has high rates of deep poverty and child poverty. Due to the way that history manifested itself in American cities during the 20th Century, Philadelphia's poorest residents are typically black. As bleak as things look, one positive aspect of this history is that Philly has one of the highest rates of minority homeownership in the US, with many of these homes being accessible to transit.
The access to the SEPTA system is there, but the system itself isn't fully equitable. 🚆💸 The Regional Rail could serve as the key to unlocking a far more equitable Philadelphia area. Before reaching wealthier suburban destinations, several lines pass through lower-income minority neighborhoods that could use a stop. The best example of this scenario is the Paoli/Thorndale Line. Before reaching the posh Main Line suburbs west of the Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood, this train passes through the comparatively less-wealthy neighborhoods of Mantua, Belmont, and Hestonville. 52nd Street, the main commercial corridor of West Philadelphia, passes under the tracks, yet this thoroughfare lacks a stop. Like other Regional Rail lines, a stop used to exist at that location, but was shuttered over the years.
SEPTA could craft a more equitable system by opening new Regional Rail stations, lowering the fare to match that of busses/subways/trolleys in the city, and increasing the frequencies of certain routes. This would require a concerted effort by the city, state, and federal government, but the results of the boost in accessibility would be recognized immediately. Such an effort may also reduce the rate of COVID transmission, which is much worse in minority communities. 😷💡 By moving people off of crowded buses and onto roomier trains, people will be able to distance themselves from others more effectively.
Tell us about the current state of public transit in Philly
In my opinion, the state of public transit in Philadelphia is a lot better than some people would initially convey. I have had the opportunity to travel to many cities across the United States, along with a few international destinations, such as Paris and Toronto. Certain aspects of our system, such as 24-hour service on select routes (including overnight service on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines on weekends during non-pandemic times) and a through-routed Regional Rail system, simply do not exist in other areas of the United States. 🌇
Conversely, there is much room for improvement for the Philadelphia area’s primary transit system. For example, I briefly mentioned the Regional Rail system, which is through-routed, fully electrified, and contains many stops within Philadelphia County. Despite its capacity, this asset is highly underutilized. 🚎 ⚡️ Fare integration with City Transit (buses, trolleys, and subways) at all stops within Philadelphia County would go a long way to improve the quality of transportation within the city and region. Furthermore, our bus system leaves a lot to be desired. Several routes lack the capacity (ex. 40’ buses vs 60’ articulated buses) to meet ridership demand, some high-ridership routes do not have adequate frequencies, and opportunities to establish connections between routes are often missed.
I live car-free by choice. 🌱🌍 Overall, the SEPTA system makes it easy for me to traverse the region and reach the destinations that are most important to me. This is not to say that our transit system doesn’t have its shortcomings, and I do have to acknowledge the immense privilege I have to be able to live in the Francisville/Fairmount section of the city—approximately one mile to the north of Center City, highly walkable, and robustly served by high-frequency transit routes. Some of the outlying and often poorer neighborhoods do not enjoy the same level of transit access. If SEPTA were to address its shortcomings, then all Philadelphians might hold the same disposition that I do.
What are the three most important actions that Philly can take in order to improve public transport across the city?
- Fare restructuring and integration. If SEPTA could integrate the Regional Rail’s fare system with that of the City Transit Division at all stops within Philadelphia County, then more Philadelphians would have high-quality transit options. 😌
- Take steps to utilize the capacity of the Regional Rail to its fullest extent. The Regional Rail could be ran in a similar manner to the S-Bahn system in Berlin. ⚡️🚉 With a through-routed and fully-electrified system, SEPTA should aim to reduce headways on all Regional Rail trains (typically every hour on most routes during non-pandemic times. Certain routes have 30-minute headways, while others have 90-minute headways).
- Make meaningful extensions, connections, and capacity improvements on City Transit Routes. 🤝 As a dense Northeastern city, Philadelphia is relatively underserved by high-frequency transit. Bus routes should be evaluated for opportunities to increase capacity and headways, there should be a plan in place for high-frequency bus routes to eventually be converted into trolley/light rail routes, and federal funding should be sought for heavy rail expansions.
Citymapper has recently launched features and partnerships that empower active travel (walking, cycling, scootering). How do you see these modes changing (or evolving) in a post-COVID era in Philadelphia?
I believe that active travel will absolutely flourish in a post-Covid area. 🤩 👟 Personally, I have found it easier to walk, bike, or skateboard to many of my destinations within the city, especially during the times of Covid.
I am guessing that many other people have come to this conclusion after experiencing the unfortunate reality of being crammed onto packed buses full of people who may or may not be compliant with the mask mandate. 🛴 🚲 Luckily, walkability and bikeability are written into Philadelphia’s DNA, going back to our original City Plan based on the Grid System. 🙌
In a world where we're successfully coming out of the pandemic, what needs to be done to encourage residents of Philly to ride public transit without worrying?
We need an increase of frequency across all modes of transit. People would rather hop onto a crowded bus than wait for the next one, which may or may not show up. 🤔 🚌 This becomes a problem when buses reach capacity, especially when some people are less than compliant with the mask mandate. Increasing the frequency of routes across the city will allow ridership demand to be more efficiently spread out, keeping Operators and the riding public safer.
Additionally, SEPTA temporarily shuttered two Regional Rail routes—the Chestnut Hill West and Cynwyd Lines—at the beginning of the pandemic. Restarting these routes will be crucial, as it will assist in keeping riders off lower-capacity transit modes.
At the federal level, what types of actions can the Biden administration take to transform the state of public transit in Philadelphia?
The best thing that the Biden Administration could do to transform public transit in Philadelphia, is provide an increase of both Operating and Capital funding. Additional allocations of Operating funds will allow SEPTA to restore frequencies of all modes of transit to pre-pandemic levels at a faster rate, and even increase frequencies to the levels at which I dream. 🤩
On the other hand, increased Capital funding allocations will allow us to not only bring our centuries-old system (some pieces of infrastructure date back to the 1830s!) up to a state of good repair, but also make crucial system expansions a reality.
Are there any lessons, case studies, innovations that other American cities can learn from Philadelphia?
Philadelphia’s Indego bikesharing system has been a smashing success since its 2015 debut. 🚲 🚲 It has been consistently expanding and adding capacity to its relatively new system. Due to the placement of new bikesharing stations in historically disinvested neighborhoods, one can also infer that attaining equity within the system is a huge goal. 💪
How can Citymapper support the future of transit / movement in Philadelphia?
Citymapper can support the future of transit and movement within the City of Philadelphia through increased publicization of its app. Certain features within the app—such as walking distance, the availability of alternate modes of transportation, and the ease of pulling up the SEPTA system map—could prove to be invaluable for newly or recently transplanted Philadelphians. 💚 😉 It could also go a long way in showing native Philadelphians the mobility options that exist around them.
Tell us about your favorite journey in Philly and what makes it so special
My favorite journey remains taking the Market-Frankford Line (we locals refer to it as “the El”) into West Philly from 69th Street. Sitting in the front seat of the El while gazing out of the window brings me back to countless journeys taken with my mom and little brother. My little brother and I have been transit geeks for as far back as I can remember. We have always loved trains, and, back when we were little boys, we would often convince our mom to do whatever she could to ensure that we would have a front-row view as we whizzed past all the beautiful brick buildings. 👌
Admittedly, I still do what I can to sit on the front seat of the El, though I ride it significantly less than I did as a little boy. Nowadays, all I can think about is how much the city has changed as I peer through the window, gazing at a taller skyline, once-vacant lots that are now filled in with modern apartment buildings, and stations that are more crowded than I ever remember them being!
Do you have public transit envy of any city in the US? If so, why?
Truthfully, there are few US cities that I have public transit envy towards. For each occasion where I dream of Philadelphia’s subway system being as expansive as that of New York City’s, I also recall how dirty, chaotic, and untimely that system can be relative to SEPTA. Whenever I think of the superior coverage that the T provides Boston with, I remember that the subway lines shut down as early as 1AM on weekends. As an extrovert who enjoys nightlife, that’s simply unacceptable for me!
If anything, I am envious of the fact that some states provide much better funding packages to their transit agencies in comparison to the level of funding that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provides to SEPTA. If SEPTA had the overall budget that New Jersey Transit has, then fewer people would be complaining about the level of service and coverage that our system provides.
First city you're going to visit post-pandemic?
Chicago! 😗💨 I have always dreamed of riding through The Loop on the El, taking Metra Electric and the South Shore Line, trying out their signature deep dish pizza, and exploring the vast array of neighborhoods contained within that city. I see many similarities between Philadelphia and Chicago, from the passion of our sports fans, to our shared histories of innovative architecture, to our food scenes.🏀
My girlfriend is also looking forward to showing me around a city that I have never set foot in before. As a Phoenix-area native who had been living in Philadelphia for approximately eight months when we started dating, I introduced her to countless new places and experiences in my native city. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign and has spent a good amount of time in Chicago, so she is looking forward to returning the favor!
Chicago is also the hometown of my favorite band: Smashing Pumpkins! 🙌 I am looking forward to taking Metra out to Highland Park and trying out Madame Zuzu’s café, a creation of Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer, Billy Corgan.
Favorite transit meme of all time? Which one is the goat?
Pizza Rat! 🍕🐀 Pizza Rat was one of the cutest, funniest transit memes that I’ve ever seen, and I help run a transit meme group of nearly 215,000 people—New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. For a while, Pizza Rat was referred to as the “lord and savior” of our group!
Favorite Citymapper feature?
I LOVE the Citymapper Mobility Index (CMI) feature! As someone who works with numbers throughout the day, I always appreciate a detailed graph featuring analytical research of topics that I am interested in. During these pandemic times, it has been fascinating to scroll back up to 46 weeks ago and observe the change in mobility over time. 🤩 💚
Thank you, William! Wow that was some serious learning. 👏👏👏 Can we stay in Philly forever, please?
At the very least, we'll be here for a few more days. Tune in same time next week for two very badass guests!!
The Citymapper crew
📚 P.S.S. Late to the party? Catch up on the rest of our U.S. Future of Movement interview series below: