Easily the most telling thing to be reported last week along with the news of SEPTA being awarded best transit agency in the US–say what?–is that ridership continues to increase, now all the way to the level of 1989.
It so happens that in the summer of 1989 I was working as an intern at SEPTA (third cubicle on the left near the windows), helping to develop a coalition of environmental groups to support dedicated funding for transit in Pennsylvania (a dream that didn’t become an insufficient reality until 2007). That summer SEPTA enacted a cash fare increase, and though at the time only 25 percent of riders paid that fare (the vast majority using tokens or a Transpass), there were protests in front of headquarters at 714 Market. I recall looking down from the window and seeing a casket being hoisted: was this to symbolize the death of the transit rider, the agency, or the city itself?
That was a census-taking year and it would in fact show the city continuing to shrink precipitously; likewise the fare increase would send ridership into a decline not to be fully reversed until now, 23 years later.
I’m certain there is a logarithm that would have anticipated this reversal (rising city population+high gas prices+improvement of service), but the truth is that none of us who thought seriously about the city in the 1980s and 1990s were prepared to predict that the city’s intrinsic value would begin to rise. We imagined at best only small pockets of urban vitality amidst a nation otherwise overwhelmingly and contentedly suburban.
Philadelphia, of course, is still retarded by myriad structural disadvantages, terrifyingly hostile state politics, and internal leadership that loves to reward mediocrity–and its transit system is still woefully insufficient. And yet rising transit ridership is a singularly important vital sign, for it tells us about the health of our public life and the increasingly dynamic ways we immerse ourselves in the body of the city.
The impetus now is to translate growing ridership into system expansion, which will surely (for the logarithms tell us) lead to further reversals of fortune.
About the author
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.