Ah…back in the world of SEPTA suburban routes. I don’t think the 99 is bucking any trends as far as insanity goes.
Well, I must tell you, the first two minutes of the 99 are certified deviation-free! We left the Norristown Transportation Center and took DeKalb Street over the Schuylkill River, which was pretty wide at this point. There were some commercial buildings on the other side as we entered Bridgeport, but after we crossed some train tracks…aw man, time for the route to do a jog. So much for a clean deviation record.
So yes, we turned onto 4th Street, which had urban rowhomes, suburban businesses, and some vacant land slots. Making a ridiculously sharp turn onto Ford Street, we passed a bunch of duplex houses before reaching some businesses at the DeKalb Street Norristown High Speed Line station. DeKalb Street became the very wide DeKalb Pike after that, going through the woods for a bit before we turned onto Saulin Boulevard. Oh good, another deviation!
The only building along Saulin Boulevard was industrial, but then the road curved right, then we made another right turn onto Monroe Boulevard, and that curved its way left…and we served a little shopping plaza and apartment development. Okay, but, like, this stuff is a 6-minute walk from the main road, and the roads are sidewalked, and the 124 already goes straight by it without having to deviate…argh, okay. Well, at any rate, we used Henderson Road to get back onto DeKalb Pike.
DeKalb Pike was a giant road passing suburban businesses…and a random cemetery in the middle of it all. We crossed I-276, and on the other side, we pulled off to begin our deviation through the bowels of the King of Prussia Mall. After navigating several roads that went underneath the massive building, we pulled into the main bus stop there, and a bunch of people got off.
We made our way out of the mall and crossed I-276 again on Allendale Road. One side of this road was single-family houses, while the other side featured office buildings. We went full-on office, though, when the bus turned onto 1st Ave – it was all big buildings surrounded by parking lots, plus the Valley Forge Casino. At that point, we turned onto Gulph Road.
Gulph Road ran alongside Valley Forge National Park, so during our brief time on it, we got beautiful views of open countryside. Then we headed onto a highway ramp for Route 422 and got a brief express section crossing the Schuylkill! It was over almost as soon as it started, though – we took the next exit onto Trooper Road.
Another weird situation where houses were on one side and office buildings were on the other, huh? Alright, sure. But soon both sides became suburban businesses, and we did a rather clever deviation via Shannondell Boulevard that not only served a small shopping plaza, but also saved time by avoiding a big out-of-the-way intersection. That’s how you do it!
We turned onto Egypt Road outside of a massive apartment development, then it became mostly houses, with a giant golf course as well. “Audubon Village” had a few businesses in it, but don’t be fooled by the name – it was a shopping plaza, and moreover a small one that didn’t require a deviation. We crossed Perkiomen Creek, and just when I was starting to enjoy how straight the route had been recently, it threw a monster deviation at everyone.
So first we took a right onto Black Rock Road, then a left into Oaks Shopping Center, which was tiny and had basically nothing of interest, and if the sidewalk infrastructure was even a tiny bit better, the bus wouldn’t have to serve it at all. We then came down on Mill Road, and there was this big loop to serve the Marketplace at Oaks, which included a number of recreational businesses, a BJ’s, and the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center. And on the way back up to the main road, there was one more deviation-within-a-deviation to serve the Oaks Corporate Center, which consisted of three small office buildings. Cool.
So we made our way back to Cider Mill Road, which ran through the woods. This was a weekend, so we skipped past the weekday-only deviation to SEI Investments (which wouldn’t have to be done if the sidewalk infrastructure was marginally better; also, for their error-of-the-day, SEPTA calls this place SEI Industries in the paper schedule), and we went by a few housing developments later on. There was some serious hilly forest running after that, with our street becoming Arcola Road. We skipped another weekday-only deviation, this one to Providence Corporate Center, which is weekday-only despite having a big apartment complex in it. Then again, if the road through it had a sidewalk, the bus wouldn’t have to deviate at all. Ugh.
Rather than turn onto Collegeville Road immediately, we got to do a seven days a week deviation! This involved continuing straight down Arcola Road and looping around Providence Town Center, a fake suburban town center with more parking than building space. And guess what? If there were sidewalks, the bus wouldn’t have to do this. I’m sensing a pattern here!
We headed back onto Collegeville Road, entering the straight-as-an-arrow home stretch! There were lots of housing developments along here, plus a golf course and some last remaining vestiges of farmland that haven’t yet been taken over by sprawl. As the road’s name became Bridge Street, though, the houses became much more natural, like they had actually been built organically.
There was a fire station and a supermarket before Bridge Street crossed the Schuylkill, and then…we were in Phoenixville. And we went straight down that main drag, and it was like heaven. This town was so much more interesting than anything else we had seen before, with quirky businesses in charming, dense, walkable buildings! We used the more residential Church Street to loop around, but even then, they were dense rowhouses. The bus reached its layover point, and I was excited to explore.
Route: 99 (Phoenixville to Norristown Transportation Center)
Ridership: The weekday ridership is 1,552 people per day, which adds up to around 25 per trip. Given that a number of weekday journeys are short-turns, it’s not bad, and the route ends up being the 13th-busiest suburban bus on SEPTA. My Sunday morning trip, though, got 46 riders (with 20 riding through past KOP)! Maybe the route’s ridership is peaky, so it averages to around 25? Maybe Sunday ridership is similar to weekday, but the lower frequency increases the number of people on each bus? I’m not sure.
Pros: I think the fact that this is a direct link from Norristown and Bridgeport to the King of Prussia Mall helps a lot with ridership, but it’s also a seven-days-a-week connection to a number of important suburban destinations, including Phoenixville. On weekdays and Saturdays, the route runs about every 30 minutes to King of Prussia and every hour to Phoenixville, while on Sundays, it’s simply hourly – this is a pretty good schedule for a suburban route, I think, especially given the ridership proportions.
Cons: Honestly, it all comes down to the routing. But that is a big problem when the route is as crazy as this one is! I get that it’s the only bus that runs through a lot of low-density areas, so the squiggling around makes an iota of sense, but so many of the deviations wouldn’t have to be performed if the pedestrian infrastructure was just a little bit better! Although that’s up to the towns and not SEPTA, those improvements would streamline the 99 a lot.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Phoenixville! Oh my gosh, it’s incredible! There’s this big hippie culture there, and a bunch of the businesses just sell weird stuff – they’re a blast to walk through. It also has a really cool movie theater, several breweries, and an annual festival where they light a giant wooden phoenix on fire!!!! Yeah…Phoenixville is really cool. I’ll also throw in a bizarre museum on the 99’s Marketplace at Oaks deviation: the American Treasure Tour Museum has a bunch of weird, mostly 20th Century historical junk, and it just seems like a strange, fun place to visit. Lots of good stuff on the 99!
Final Verdict: 4/10
The route gets credit for good ridership and a good schedule for a suburban bus, but I can’t give it much more than that because the routing is just ridiculous. Like I said, the first and probably less controversial solution is to build proper road crossings to allow the 99 to skip some of the mini-deviations. But for something more spicy, how about swapping the 99 and the 131? Also see the map here.
Now, this isn’t perfect – it makes for longer travel times for people going to the 131’s deviations in Audubon, most notably. But despite looking pretty long, the routing via the former 99 is not horrible, especially when the Henderson Square Shopping Center deviation is removed (I was considering eliminating the Bridgeport jog as well, but it does serve a lot of rowhouses that aren’t covered by anything else – consider it a possibility), and when you consider that the southern part of the 131 is less affected thanks to being on the way of the former 99 anyway. This also somewhat screws over people going from the western part of the 99 to the King of Prussia Mall, but most of the route that way is commercial, and Phoenixville gets a much more direct link to the mall by way of the 139 (although that only runs six days a week). And for anyone going from the western part of the 99 to Norristown, this is a major improvement.
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