Ed. note: On this eve of the much anticipated TEDxPhiladelphia event, Temple University’s Performing Arts Center is being spit shined while finishing touches are put on PowerPoint presentations and bins of pins with cute red Xs are placed at the entrance. The New Workshop of the World applies a 21st Century sheen to Philadelphia’s erstwhile manufacturing moniker.
A day’s worth of talks comes from contemporary movers, shakers, and makers—people like Disston Precision president Jack Lucid, producer, musician, and founder of nonprofit Weathervane Music Brian McTear, economic development adviser and Mayor Nutter ally Terry Gillen, and P’unk Ave/Indy Hall/Ignite Philly dude Geoff DiMasi. The event is way sold out, but you can stream it online, and more in the spirit of TED, the Philadelphia Center for Architecture is hosting a live viewing party, for free. Register for that HERE.
As a matter of expanding on the conference, this year’s TEDxPhiladelphia also features a series of “Adventures”—talks, walks, and tours. Saturday features two events of note to Hidden City readers: a morning tour of Penn’s new South Bank Campus (on the former site of the DuPont laboratory) and a two-part afternoon walking street art tour, in Midtown Village and Fishtown with Streets Dept’s Conrad Benner.
On top of his role as street art arbiter, Benner has stepped up as an activist, most recently advocating for SEPTA to return their subway and el to the 24-hour service they discontinued over twenty years ago. A petition he started gathered over 2,000 signatures practically overnight, catching the media’s—and SEPTA’s—attention. SEPTA claims they’re considering the 24/7 option—which they employed during significant snow days this winter—for rollout as soon as this summer. In the meantime, Benner has teamed with Northern Liberties makers Print Liberation on a “SEPTA 24/7” t-shirt.
Our Theresa Stigale recently met with Benner to discuss SEPTA, service, and style.
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Theresa Stigale: Give us a little background on the starting point for this.
Conrad Benner: Philly is a growing city. It’s not the same city I grew up in. The population of the city increased in the last census for the first time in something like five decades. People are moving here. People are staying here. The neighborhood I was born and raised in, Fishtown, now has a number of bustling restaurants—actual restaurants—not just pizza shops. (Though I do still love a Key Pizza every now and then, I can’t lie.) There’s an energy. There are people. And there are businesses taking advantage of our city’s little renaissance.
Our city does not close at midnight. Bars and restaurants, two of the fasting growing parts of our city’s economy, are open much later. People use public transportation at all hours of the day for many types of reasons. And reliable public transportation—day or night—is one of the foundations of a flourishing, prosperous city.
TS: So this was your motivation to petition SEPTA to run the El trains 24/7?
CB: I worked a lot of different jobs at $8/hour late at night and I didn’t get off from work until 1:00 or 2:00AM. I ended up taking cab rides home that cost $15 or $20, which on some nights ended up being one third of my pay. Most people assume that it’s only restaurant or hospital workers who need public transportation late at night, but it’s also a lot of retail workers staying late to work on stocking inventory. I don’t own a car but I live in one of the biggest cities in the U.S. and that’s one of the reasons why people live here—to not have to own a car and to use public transportation.
TS: So what late night options do you have now?
CB: SEPTA runs the ‘Night Owl‘ buses which frankly don’t cut it. They are almost always late and way off schedule. They are almost always packed. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many people saying they like riding them.
SEPTA closed the late night train service in 1991, and then they had to install gates at all of the stations to lock them up. I heard that they cost over $300,000 to install. So the Night Owl buses replaced late night train service that ran for nearly 70 years. The buses were an experiment and I think it’s time to end that experiment.
TS: Have you spoken with anyone at SEPTA directly?
CB: No I haven’t but I’m not sure that’s my role. If they they want to talk with me then yes I would meet with them. They know about the petition because it’s been all over the media. What bothers me is that the SEPTA Board has only two members who represent the city. Inga Saffron wrote on Philly.com recently that 80% of SEPTA’s riders are from the city, but the Board is sominated by members who represent the suburbs. If Philly has 80% of the riders, the we should have 80% representation on the Board.
TS: What actions do you think SEPTA will take thanks to your petition?
CB: The petition was just step one and over 1500 people signed in the first couple days! It sparked a ton of interest but SEPTA is a giant organization and it will take time to implement any decisions.
They have said that they would consider a test run this summer for trains to run Friday and Saturday up to 3AM. But if they commit to that, it won’t be announced until the budget meeting this month.
TS: What do you think the economic impact would be for SEPTA and the city?
CB: For SEPTA if would likely mean the same costs for staffing as the Night Owl buses. Although the El needs fewer drivers to carry more passengers, they would still need to staff the El station booths. For the city, it could mean a boom in the economy as more people might stay out and spend money knowing that they can count on taking a train home, not just an expensive cab.
TS: Speaking of your t-shirt–it’s really cool! Can you discuss the design?
CB: I wanted to create different ways to keep the awareness level up on this issue so I came up with the t-shirt idea. I worked with Print Liberation to create the design. We’re selling it basically at cost. It is a pretty cool t-shirt but taking SEPTA should be cool too! There are a lot of reasons that people need reliable public transportation day and night. Jobs in this city exist 24 hours a day and people need to get around in order to work. Our city doesn’t close at midnight.