NOTE (12/3/19): This is about ten months late, but it’s been on my mind: when this post came out, a number of people expressed concern that I referred to Strawberry Mansion as “one of the most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia.” I’m sorry for saying such strong words without context. I mean in the public perception, including amongst my friend groups and even my superiors (as discussed in the post), this is widely considered to be an unsafe neighborhood. Examples are here, here, and here, with actual crime rates here (low property crimes, but a murder rate that’s almost seven times the national average). I don’t think it’s unfair to call Strawberry Mansion an unsafe neighborhood, but I also apologize for not handling the topic more sensitively; I’ll be sure to do better as I continue my explorations of Philadelphia.
As soon as I found out that the long-fabled 49 was actually going to open up in our lifetimes, I knew I wanted to ride the first trip. At first, we only got a vague “5 AM” opening time, and I really had no idea what that meant or from which end of the route. Then the schedule was released, and we got the time and the place for the first trip: 4:52 AM. Strawberry Mansion. If I wanted to ride the first trip, I would have to go to one of the most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia in the dead of night.
I was determined to do it.
For those who don’t know, the 49 has been in the works for a few years now. SEPTA’s first completely new bus route in over a decade, the 49 is meant to connect University City to neighborhoods directly north and south. The routing has gone through many changes due to local opposition and community requests. The one that SEPTA decided on runs from Strawberry Mansion, through Brewerytown and Fairmount, down to University City, and over the 34th Street Bridge to Grays Ferry in South Philly.
Unfortunately, it turns out that getting to the 33rd-Dauphin Loop is not easy to do on an early Sunday morning. None of the routes that go there run Owl service, and the closest Owl bus is up on Allegheny a mile away. I was considering the Allegheny option, but then I realized: why not bike there on Indego? It was a win-win situation! Not only would it be the fastest way to get to Strawberry Mansion, but I would also be a moving target!
But who’s going around killing people at 4 AM on a rainy Sunday, anyway? Some of my friends agreed with me (“Go for it, it’s not like you’re going into a war zone.”) and others didn’t (“Dude, you’re going to die, don’t go!”), but I was determined. After all, how often does SEPTA open a brand-new bus route?
At one point, my boss at my university job asked me if I had any fun plans for the weekend. I told him about my journey. Initially, he was on board, but later, I got several emails from him with increasing levels of worry. Then the Penn Band was playing at a basketball game, and I got a call from an unknown Philadelphia-based number. “Hi, this is Penn Special Services [the department of safety]. I heard you wanted to ride the new SEPTA route this Sunday, and I was wondering if you wanted to chat about it.” Darn it, my boss snitched on me!
I was happy he was concerned about my safety, though, and I called Special Services back the next day. As expected, they strongly dissuaded me from doing my morning bike ride, but if I was to go, they said I should let them know so they can “tell SEPTA.” Okay, I have no idea what telling SEPTA was going to do, but sure.
But this call gave me cold feet. If Penn Special Services is concerned about my safety, should I really be doing this trip? But then again, their job is to be concerned about students’ safety. I talked out the whole situation with my girlfriend, who had been vehemently against the trip the whole time. But now that a position of authority wanted me to stay, I think she got a bit of rebel spirit: “You know how I feel about this, but I know you really want to go and the Special Services can’t stop you. It’s not every day that SEPTA opens a new bus route. ” Okay. If she was okay with it, then I was going to go. I texted Special Services and said I was going, but if I felt at all unsafe, I would turn around.
Now that I was getting up at 3 AM the next day, I had to decide whether I would go for an all-nighter or try to get to sleep really early. It ended up being a cruel in-between – I tried to go to bed at around 10:30, but I was so anxious that I don’t think I got any sleep. After writhing around in bed for five hours, it was time to get up.
I left the dorm at around 4 AM. There’s an Indego station right across the street, so I crossed, walked to the kiosk, and…it was broken. Well, darn it. I knew there was another one a few blocks away at the 40th Street Portal, so I walked down there, spotting a few near-empty Owl trolleys in the process. I found the station, paid for my $10 (!) day pass, and picked out the bike in dock number 11.
Now, I can attribute blame to me having a hard time with this bike to two possible causes: number 1, I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, and I was out of shape; or number 2, this bike was terrible! Possibly both, because while I’m no bike expert, this thing seemed pretty bad. It had three gears: “You’re not going anywhere”; “This sucks”; and “This sucks even more, just give up”. The bike did have a flashing light on the front and reflectors everywhere, for which I was very grateful.
So I rattled my way north on 38th and then headed through Powelton Village and Mantua. Mantua is known as being a “watch yourself” neighborhood, but most of the crime happens in its western portions; 34th Street seemed fine. Plus, I wasn’t even concerned about crime, I was concerned about this darn rain! I was already drenched and freezing, and I ended up taking off my glasses because I could see easier that way.
I got a fantastic reprieve from pedalling after 34th Street crossed the Northeast Corridor: it is pure downhill from there, and I had a blast just coasting down at top speed. Swinging a right onto Girard, I crossed the Schuylkill, then made a left onto 33rd. Now I was entering the lion’s den.
Honestly, though, it was completely fine. The streets were empty, and I didn’t feel at all threatened, except by the stupid rain and my tired legs. I locked my bike at the 33rd-Diamond station (most likely incurring a $4 Indego fee for biking slightly longer than half an hour – grr!) and walked the last two blocks to 33rd-Dauphin. Now, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting to see at the bus terminal, but I figured at least a few people would be there. But no – the place was completely empty.
“You got a cigarette?” a passerby asked. “No, sorry,” I replied. I checked my watch. 4:47. This thing had better show up. There was no 49 signage anywhere, so I really had no idea where to wait. Suddenly, a news van parked on Dauphin. Someone got out with a tripod and was just standing there filming across the street. I wanted to ask him if he was here for the bus, but I didn’t want to disturb his shot. We were definitely aware of each other, but we never made contact.
Suddenly…there was the bus! It was down the street at Ridge and York, just sitting there. It said “SEPTA Off Duty”, but it did eventually switch to “49”. Should I try to get it? I assumed it would come serve the station, right? It started moving, but…hey, it went straight onto 33rd! It was skipping the bus station! It took a left onto Dauphin and started heading east.
Oh, no WAY did I come up here at 4 in the freaking morning just to miss this thing! I had to Hail Mary it. The bus was stopped at a red light at 32nd, so I SPRINTED. Somehow, I made it up to the doors, knocked, and the driver let me on. I swiped my pass, and that was that: I was the first-ever passenger on the 49. I was cold, drenched, and delirious…but I was the first passenger ever to step foot on the 49 bus. That was an honor.
The only other person on board was a SEPTA schedule planner who was there to make sure the first run would go well. For this entire trip, it was just us and the driver talking to each other. Once we got to South Philly, a few SEPTA inspectors who had been following us came out to talk with the other employees during the layover. The first-ever 49 trip had been completed.
On the ride back up north, the bus got another passenger. It was someone who was just going up 29th and could’ve used either the 7 or the 48. That turned out to be the theme for the rest of the day, with a ton of dialogues like:
“Do you go to 23rd and Spring Garden?”
“No, this is the 49.”
“Oh, okay, where do you go?”
“I go down 21st.”
“Okay, that’s close enough.”
A lot of people had no idea what the 49 was, but the drivers did a great job explaining where it was going. My favorite quote from a passenger was “49? Where this jawn come from?” like it materialized out of nowhere or something. He was one of the few people I saw who reacted with anything other than apathy, though – “That’s a great route, man, now I have three buses to choose from!”
Okay, but when do I actually review this thing? Well, I was waiting for daylight to actually conduct the review, but I was also getting hungry. So, I did one more trip southbound and walked over to the Melrose Diner for a wonderful cheap breakfast (the 79 wasn’t coming for 23 minutes!). From there, I took a Broad Street Line train up to Susquehanna-Dauphin, barely made a 39, and took that back over to 33rd-Dauphin to get the 9:16 49 trip. Now it was time to conduct the review. Also, the reason I didn’t just go back and take it northbound was because the 79 was against me again and I didn’t want to walk all the way to 29th. Oh well.
Luckily, it had now been solidified that buses were using the route 61 stop at 33rd-Dauphin for now (a cut for the 49 is being constructed). I hopped on, once again the only person on board, and we headed down Dauphin Street. We passed the Strawberry Mansion High School, as well as a ton of apartments with a ton of vacant land around them. We reached a small shopping center, and here, we turned onto the wide-for-Philly-standards 29th Street.
Now, a big problem with this first day of the 49 was timekeeping. No, buses weren’t late – they were really early! We were constantly stopping at green lights just so we wouldn’t be ahead of schedule. This will be offset a little bit as more people learn about the route, but my guess is that the schedule will still need tightening. There were a few businesses at the intersection with Ridge Ave, then the road crossed the Northeast Corridor and we entered Brewerytown after Cecil B. Moore Ave.
We entered Fairmount after crossing Girard Ave, and while the overall conditions of the apartments had been steadily improving, it got really nice here. We took 29th Street all the way down to Pennsylvania Ave, right alongside Fairmount Park, and took a left. There were some more modern apartment constructions down here. At one point, Pennsylvania Ave split in two to accommodate more parking, and the driver really had to compensate to get through the tight s-curve around the parked cars.
There were lots of small businesses among the apartments when we turned onto Fairmount Ave, plus the Eastern State Penitentiary! It was outside the former prison that we turned onto 21st Street, a turn so tight that SEPTA had to install orange flex posts to make sure people wouldn’t park. This narrow street had a ton of rowhouses, with a few businesses here and there as well.
The architecture suddenly got modern around Hamilton Street, with some tall apartment buildings, a small shopping plaza, and even an urban Target. As we approached Ben Franklin Parkway, we passed the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation, and there was a view of the classic Museum of Art building down the parkway. After crossing the Vine Street Expressway, the bus went by the Franklin Institute as well.
It was a few more blocks of classic rowhouses before 21st went under the Regional Rail tracks and JFK Boulevard. Now we were in proper Center City, with a ton of skyscrapers around Market Street. It was time for the 49’s
pièce de résistance: taking a right onto Market to head towards University City. This is, incidentally, the part of the route that will be absolutely miserable at rush hour.
We passed 30th Street Station (another really useful connection this route will give to a ton of people) and the IRS building, and then we were in Drexel Land. But come on, who cares about Drexel? Once we turned onto 34th and hit Chestnut Street, we were definitively in Penn’s jurisdiction. I was particularly happy to go by the best dining hall on campus – that’s a connection that I’ll be using if I’m ever coming down from North Philly.
Once we crossed Spruce, we entered the University City hospitals area, which will be a huge commuting destination. It will also be horrible at rush hour. We made our way past all the hospitals on Civic Center Boulevard, and then…gosh, I’m so used to taking the 42 through here and making a right, but nope, we took a left onto University Ave! It was time to drive to South Philly on the route’s completely new section.
We went underneath the Northeast Corridor and curved our way onto the University Ave Bridge, crossing the Schuylkill again into South Philly. The bus took a left onto Grays Ferry Ave, a wide, mostly industrial road. We turned onto 29th outside of a shopping plaza, and this very narrow street was all rowhouse apartments.
There was a park in between Tasker and Morris Streets, which is where the route intersects with the 29. The apartments past there felt like they were built (comparatively) more recently, particularly the suburban-style development that was on the right side of the road for a bit. Once we crossed Snyder, the end of the route was near: a right onto Vare Ave, and we reached our layover point right next to the Schuylkill Expressway.
Route: 49 (33rd-Dauphin to 29th-Snyder)
Ridership: Well, there isn’t much I can say here that isn’t speculative. Every ride I took got fewer than ten people, and most of them were folks going down 29th who could’ve taken anything. There were a few exceptions, though: over the course of the morning, I saw two people go from Fairmount to University City, one person go from University City to Grays Ferry, and two people with big bags going from Fairmount to 30th, probably to get a train – that last one is a pretty nifty connection to make on the first day of service!
Pros: I’ll admit, I was a little wary of this route at first. “Does University City really need a one seat ride from those places?” But yes, it absolutely does. This opens up so many new connections for a ton of people, including the universities, the hospitals, 30th Street Station, and even attractions on Ben Franklin Parkway for leisure travel. But I think the neighborhood that gets the most out of this is absolutely Grays Ferry. Prior to the 49, most of the neighborhood only had access to crosstown routes, so they had to go to the Broad Street Line to get anywhere. This north-south connection is huge.
I think SEPTA did a great job with the schedule, too. They tried to make it as consistent as possible so the route is easy to understand, and it manages to be decently frequent, too: every 15 minutes at rush hour, every 20 minutes middays and weekends, and every 30-60 minutes in the evening and night. No, it doesn’t come insanely often, and it only runs until midnight, but I think this schedule should work really well for the route’s ridership patterns. Also, one last gold nugget: on all the route’s independent sections, the stops are every two blocks instead of every block. It’s the little things.
Cons: Rush hour is gonna be murder for the 49. But as much as I wish this wasn’t the case, going down Market is truly the most efficient route that can be taken while serving as much as possible. As for early Sunday mornings at the very least, though, the route has the opposite problem! If buses are running consistently early like they did today, the schedule should definitely be tightened. This will hopefully all be fixed as time goes on. I also have to complain about the fact that the 49 adds a new routing to the mess of Fairmount buses that all take almost the same streets but not quite. This will forever bother me.
Finally, for a more pie-in-the-sky idea, I wish the route went further down in South Philly. This is a brand new element of the grid, and probably the strongest part of the entire 49, so I absolutely think it should travel down to Oregon Ave (probably ending at Quartermaster Plaza) to complete the grid. It would require going east on Snyder and then making a right onto 25th, which is a little indirect, but I think this would be a huge improvement for getting around South Philly.
Nearby and Noteworthy: You know, the 49 doesn’t serve a ton on its own. Most of the places it runs to can be accessed by other routes. But the neighborhoods it connects these places to? Oh man, it’s freedom. Now so many more people can get to amazing cultural institutions, wonderful small businesses, and important jobs. I’ve already talked about and linked the big places the 49 serves during the review, so I won’t name anything specific here, but you can go back up and see the links if you’re interested.
Final Verdict: 7/10
No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great start. Kudos to SEPTA for creating this fantastic new connection! It’ll suck at rush hour, it doesn’t go as far south as I would want it to, and the running times might need some tinkering, but I’m really excited to see who takes advantage of this new opportunity. I hope it meets and exceeds ridership projections! Also, every time I see a 49, I can think, “I was the first passenger ever to board one of those.” Sweet.
Finally, here’s an interesting thought: we now have three bus routes running down 29th Street. If Philly were to do an intense redesign with free transfers, most likely one of them would have to go. Which one would I choose? This might be controversial, but I would say the most frequent one, the 48. Yes, eliminate the 48, put all of its resources onto the 49 (with slight adjustments to cover the lost service and accommodate articulated buses), and tell people to transfer to the trolleys or the El if they want to go east on Market. Honestly, they’ll probably get faster rides, and that will make the 49 a stronger element to the Philly bus grid (plus the 48’s service on Market is all redundant). But a redesign is still a long way off, and this is just an idea.
Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates
Remember how I mentioned that news van at 33rd-Dauphin? Well, I ended up showing up in one of their clips! At around 1:12 in this video, you can see me running for the bus. The question is, do I put this on the blog’s “In the Press” section or not? Hmm…