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

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



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.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

November 20, 2017  |  Vantage

It looks quiet, but the old 19th century firehouse at 730 South Broad Street, home of Brandywine Workshop, is buzzing with art and adaptation. Contributor Karen Chernick takes us behind the blue-green doors. > more

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

November 17, 2017  |  Vantage

Illustrator Ben Leech enlivens the dying art of architectural drawing with his exhibition, "Cret Illustrated: Revisiting a Philadelphia Icon in Sketches," at Woodlands Cemetery. Michael Bixler has the preview > more

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering “State Of Preservation” Report

November 16, 2017  |  News

Mayor Kenney's Historic Preservation Task Force convened today for their fourth official meeting. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

November 13, 2017  |  Uncategorized

  Now more than ever, independent journalism needs the support of readers like you. DONATE to the Hidden City Daily today and receive something nifty in return. > more

Long-Forgotten Furness Building Discovered in Logan

Long-Forgotten Furness Building Discovered in Logan

November 13, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow unearths a little-known Frank Furness design at the old Messiah Univeralist Home in North Philly > more

Historic Kensington Banks

Historic Kensington Banks “For Sale,” But Not Really

November 10, 2017  |  News

The saga of two historic banks struggling for survival under the EL continues. GroJLart has the update > more