Reason For Optimism

July 30, 2012 |  by  |  Possible City  |  ,

 

Photo: Bradley Maule

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

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



3 Comments


  1. Spot on analysis.

  2. My true hope is that people who usually like to defund public transportation (ie, Republicans) see that people are voting, in a very free-market kind of way, with their feet and wallets in favor of public transit. Not only are local systems like SEPTA seeing increases, but Amtrak has seen increases for most of the last decade. Especially in the Northeast, the population is only going to increase over the next decades, and the region is only going to get more urbanized, so we really need to be making investments in transportation right now.

    (By the way, I think you mean “algorithms”.)

  3. Harry Kyriakodis

    I recall seeing Willard Rouse speak about Philadelphia a few years before he died. He said “I wake up every day and say to myself in the mirror: I live in the best city in the United States.” He then recounted the reasons why he felt that way. One of those reasons was SEPTA: “Other cities would kill for a transit system like SEPTA.” I agree.

Recent Posts
A Look Inside Gilded Age Parkside

A Look Inside Gilded Age Parkside

April 18, 2014  |  Morning Blend

A tour of a nearly intact Victorian mansion in West Philly, two civics explore the possibility of creating improvement districts, Stotesbury Gateway to be remade, and cleaning up Clark Park > more

Widdy Dialect: The

Widdy Dialect: The “Hoagie” Of Darts

April 17, 2014  |  Makin' It

Under the rumbling El and amidst the hustle and bustle at Kensington and Somerset, a distinctly Philadelphian brand of darts is made the same way it has been for over 100 years—by hand. Brad Maule throws a round with Widdy Darts > more

New PWD Project To Teach Children Ecology & Technology

New PWD Project To Teach Children Ecology & Technology

April 17, 2014  |  Morning Blend

GreenSTEM systems to be installed in four schools, the inequality of urban pollution, jazz month in Philly, parklets being installed in West Philly, and terrible timing in closing Kensington store > more

A Last Look at Second Baptist Church

A Last Look at Second Baptist Church

April 16, 2014  |  Last Light

The demolition of a former house of worship in Northern Liberties has provided a glimpse into the building's history > more

PATCO Announces $7.5 System Upgrade

PATCO Announces $7.5 System Upgrade

April 16, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Clearer information and working escalators for PATCO, delays in UC student housing development, the William Penn Foundation’s new approach to safe watershed awareness, and what the Lower Northwest invented for the world > more

A Golden Glow For <em>The Inquirer's</em> Saffron

A Golden Glow For The Inquirer’s Saffron

April 15, 2014  |  News

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize board announced its 2014 winners. After 15 years with a watchful eye on Philadelphia's built environment, the Inquirer's Inga Saffron won journalism's highest award for criticism > more