When it pulls out of Broad & Oregon at 2:15 this Sunday morning, the 23 bus will head to Chestnut Hill one last time, bringing up the rear on one of SEPTA’s most historic routes. The next departure from that location, at 5:20AM, will carry the new route number 45, and turn around at Noble Street, just north of Callowhill Street. The 23 will continue serving the northern two-thirds of the route, from Chestnut Hill into Center City, returning north at Walnut Street.
This is no small distinction. As bus superlatives go, the 23 is SEPTA’s most likely to do everything. It is, by far, SEPTA’s most traveled bus line, with over 23,000 average rides per weekday and 6.9 million rides per year, over a million more than the next-most-used bus. Only the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines have more rides in the entire SEPTA system. It makes 140 stops in each direction, serving transfers to 40 different bus lines, the subway and el, every regional rail train (it stops at Market East Station), and it’s within two blocks of the Subway-Surface Trolleys. PATCO’s right downstairs too if you’re headed for Jersey.
The 23 deploys 254 buses in each direction every weekday, with 162 Saturday and 131 Sunday. That’s 3,126 trips per week. With that frequency, 34 buses are online at the same time during peak weekday usage.
Perhaps most tellingly, the 23 constitutes the perfect dissection of Philadelphia. Its northern origin, at Bethlehem Pike and Germantown Avenue, is the highest point in the city, at 445 feet above sea level. It descends over 400 feet to the former marshlands 20 feet above sea level in South Philly’s Marconi Plaza. Along the way, the entire city passes by, a study in diversity, socioeconomics, architecture, history, people, neighborhoods: Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Nicetown, Tioga, Fairhill, Temple University, West Poplar, Callowhill, Chinatown, Wash West, Bella Vista, South Philadelphia.
At nearly 14 miles long, the 23 is also SEPTA’s longest city bus route, following the route of what was once the longest electric streetcar route in the world. SEPTA “temporarily” suspended trolley service on the 23 in 1992 (along with the 56 and 15, the latter of which was restored in 2005), making the argument that buses could more easily maneuver around obstacles like fender benders and illegally parked loading trucks. The bigger argument, of course, was the same as that for splitting the route in two now: more timely and reliable performance. What often took over two hours end-to-end on the trolley was reduced to roughly 90 minutes.
“I’ve been here for 41 years,” says Charlie Webb, SEPTA’s Chief Officer for Service Planning. “When our offices were [next door] in the PSFS Building, it wasn’t uncommon to look out the window down onto 12th Street and see a dozen trolleys backed up.”
Still, even with buses, because of its length and ridership, the 23 has had its share of problems. “The 23 is our most complained about route,” says Dan Nemiroff, SEPTA’s project manager on the 23-45 split. “It has the most passups (when a bus is too full and passes up a stop where people are waiting), and when they bunch together, it leaves the ones in the back underutilized.”
Tracking technology also revealed that, at some of the busiest stops, buses were arriving more than six minutes late upwards of 60 percent of the time, performance that ultimately renders the schedule useless when the bus runs in intervals of six or seven minutes anyway.
“This isn’t so much that we wanted to split [a historic line],” says Manny Smith, SEPTA’s Public Information Officer, “but that we needed to make the most immediate improvement for reliable service from Chestnut Hill all the way to the bottom of South Philly.” He also notes that service on both routes will continue with the same frequency and schedules.
The intersection of Broad, Erie, and Germantown is roughly the halfway point of the route, and many do exit there for the subway, but SEPTA determined that more riders in both directions exit within a couple blocks of Market Street. They also determined that the split broke down roughly 60/40 north and south of Market, with most commuters using the 23 to get into Center City.
For those who do ride through Center City, a free transfer will be available specifically for the 23 and 45 buses. Riders with passes will just swipe again; those with cash or tokens need to request an “emergency” transfer slip from the driver upon exiting. When it comes online, the SEPTA Key will recognize the 23-45 transfer. Aside from those at 30th, 15th, and 13th Street Stations for the subway, el, and West Philly trolleys, only one other free transfer exists: that between the 4 and 16 buses, which similarly replaced the former C bus in 2012.
Still, while the split into two lines makes logistical sense, it too, like the suspension of the trolley in 1992, may technically be “temporary,” providing a glimmer of hope for those who hope to see the trolley return to the route. Mike Szilagyi, who operates phillytrolley.org and occasionally contributes to Hidden City, notes that some trolleys ran on a portion of the route even after 1992.
“Trolleys served Route 23 in Center City and South Philadelphia every December during the late ’90s,” he says. “As I recall, people loved them, especially in South Philly.” More recently, in June 2003, Philadelphia’s Historic Northwest Coalition and Walk Philadelphia cosponsored a tour of historic Germantown Avenue sites. (Be sure to view the photo essay by Harry Donahue of a full run of the 23 trolley in 1987 on phillytrolley.org HERE.)
SEPTA has included funding in its 12-year capital plan to study the feasibility of restoring trolley service to the 23. And while current estimates put a full restoration at over $100 million, provisions such as PennDOT’s inclusion of new tracks and wires during its 2008 rebuild of Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy continue to support the possibility.
“My crazy idea is that SEPTA should not only bring back electric streetcars to Route 23,” says Szilagyi, “but that they should also contract with renewable energy sources to power it.” He points to Calgary’s CTrain as a successful model using 100 percent renewable energy to power its trolley fleet, even employing the slogan “Ride the Wind” to promote it.
A potential return to a Route 23 trolley remains distant, but remnants of its past trolley life are easy to find. Tracks and overhead wires cover most of the route’s distance (the tracks are paved over in sections of Center City and South Philly), and signs at intersections like 11th & Oregon and Germantown & Bethlehem remind drivers not to stop in the “trolley turn zone.”
The bus’ current route developed over time. The 23 has only covered this route since the 1950s, when it merged with the former Route 20 trolley. Prior to the ’50s, SEPTA’s predecessor, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, operated trolley routes on every single north-south street in Center City and South Philadelphia. The 20 ran from Olney to the Navy Yard via 12th & 13th Streets and the 23 used 10th & 11th on its Chestnut Hill/South Philly run. Since then, the 23 has used 11th & 12th streets north and south. Until 1992, the trolley turned at 10th & Bigler in South Philly. Since the introduction of the bus, it’s continued south under I-76 to Packer Avenue, where it turns to Broad Street and terminates at the subway headhouse at Broad & Oregon.
Now, that southern portion becomes the 45. The designation has no significance beyond being the smallest available number. (It does not, as Dan McQuade observed, refer to Michael Jordan’s numbers with the Bulls pre- and post-retirement.) Incidentally, SEPTA operated a Route 45 bus until 1989, when it became the Route 125 from Center City to King of Prussia.
Come Sunday, SEPTA’s 23 and 45 bus routes begin anew. Over the past two months, information cards on all the 23 buses, brochures at stations, bus wraps, full-page ads in the Metro, and at least one billboard in Callowhill have announced the change. And anyone who’s missed the memo will find out when the driver announces “last stop” at Market Street. Good thing the transfer’s free.