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 senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  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.

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