SEPTA plans late-night locomotion


Conrad Benner’s petition, entitled “Run the Market-Frankford El and Broad Street Line Subway 24/7,” is almost to 2,600 signatures. The web signature-collecting site allows for comments, and they’re all pretty similar: The Night Owl buses aren’t good enough, it’s not safe waiting for them, and anyone waiting late at night, either after socializing or working, is a target.

Luckily, Benner’s petition didn’t even need to get delivered. Because as word of the 2,000-plus signatures reached local media sources, they, in turn, went to SEPTA and asked the questions that Benner had hoped his petition would produce: Why can’t SEPTA run trains 24 hours a day, at least during the weekend? The answer, right from SEPTA was essentially, ‘Actually, we’re talking about it and planning to give it a try.’

Benner’s a photographer, blogger and social media manager with Center City-based Quaker City Mercantile. The Fishtown native and Philadelphia lifer’s been taking the train his entire life, including as a teen to Central High School near the Olney stop on the Market-Frankford line.

“Anytime we would go to a museum I’d say ‘Don’t drive! Let’s take SEPTA,’” he recalled of his youth.

But he wasn’t as fond of SEPTA’s night buses, which replace train service after midnight, after working Old Navy shifts as a teen or after barista shifts at Capogiro in his early 20s.

“They were always crowded and super-late – they’re just a poor excuse for what the trains offer,” he explained.

A few months ago he started pushing an easy-to-spread catchphrase or hashtag: #SEPTA247. He got T-shirts made up by Print Liberation with the phrase and Philadelphians started expressing their desire for more trains.

“Bars and restaurants are a huge part of our economy right now, not to mention the arts and music and the people who work in hospitals and cafes,” Benner commented. “There’s a new generation here and people would rather spend money on art and shoes and not on cars.”

As SEPTA begins presenting its 2014-15 budget at public hearings, it will include approximately $300,000 to staff and run trains all night long on Friday and Saturday nights. Normally, trains cease shortly after midnight and start again close to 5 a.m. Beginning at a to-be-determined start date in June and running through to Labor Day, SEPTA will experiment by running the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines through to Sunday at midnight and keep Night Owl buses at rest.

“We had been working on a plan for this since the later part of last year,” SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said. “We do feel like there’s an increased interest and enthusiasm for transit, and we absolutely welcome that. And we’re always open to discussions and suggestions.”

A looming strike last month worried Benner, both that buzz about extended service would lose steam and that budget talks would hurt the #SEPTA247 cause. But he ended up getting his answer with an April Fool’s prank. He contacted Wash Cycle Laundry, 1611 South St., who had just implemented new bikes and hauling power, to jokingly cart late-night transit seekers when the Owl Bus just won’t do. A TV media outlet picked up the story, and after they realized it was a stunt, asked Benner if he had one question to ask SEPTA, what would it be?

“I would ask if their pending strike would affect them potentially rolling out late-night El service?” Benner said.

The answer was simply ‘No.’

The Broad Street service will greatly service South Philadelphia, with both homeownership and businesses booming near the Ellsworth-Federal, Tasker-Morris, and Snyder stops.

Busch reports “Average daily ridership on the BSL is in the neighborhood of over 120,000 to 123,000 rides a day,” while the Market-Frankford line, “the busiest line we have, that’s about 190,000 and that’s just train service during the day.”

He shared optimism on the latest transit trends, as well: “Ridership on those subway lines and all of the transit services have, for the better part of the last six or seven years, seen a very steady increase of one to three percent, which we consider significant.”

There is also a popular notion that it behooves SEPTA to pay attention to its market and give service adjustments and improvements a try. Andrew Stober, at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, agrees.

“It’s really good to see SEPTA willing to try something,” he said. “They’re being smart and they’re going to get a lot of bang for their buck.”

There are also arguments that the service extension is a sign of the times, that neighborhoods are evolving and transit is impacted.

“I see it in a larger context of the city changing,” Stober said. “Particularly South Philadelphia but also part of North Philadelphia along the BSL, and SEPTA is evolving to meet transportation needs. And those needs are about more and more residents who want to travel and are choosing to travel by foot and transit and bike.”

The budget that will be up for scrutiny at many area public hearings is nearly $1.3 billion, making the $300,000 necessary for service extension seem pretty slight. But is it possible that the 15-member SEPTA board will shoot it down? Unlikely.

“We hope this will be well-received,” Busch said.

When pushed if there’s a chance for the budget to fail, he replied “I couldn’t even remember the last time something like that has happened.”

Even if Benner never got to deliver his signatures, the buzz he created resulted in local media covering it and beating down SEPTA’s door for answers. And in a way, Benner is representative of the market that’s growing in Philadelphia: young, transit-friendly, car-unfriendly, and interested in the arts. He may not have single-handedly caused extended service, but his campaign came just as SEPTA says it was investigating the matter.

“It ended up being the perfect timing to do something like this,” Benner said. “SEPTA’s thankfully looking toward the future and realizing that they have a city that’s really on the cusp of a renaissance, and it feels like, for once, they get to be the good guy.”

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