SEPTA. Why do you have an El train and an L bus? This is very confusing! If it’s any consolation, they don’t go anywhere near each other, but the amount of times I’ve gotten double takes when talking about the L bus has gotten to insane levels!
It’s going to take an entire paragraph (or more) in the “Cons” section to discuss the L’s various termini, so for now, just know that the Plymouth Meeting Mall variant is the longest one, so it’s the one I put myself on for the review. We made our way out of the mall onto Germantown Pike, a wide suburban road with, like all wide suburban roads, businesses with parking lots along it. It cut through a complicated interchange with I-276 and I-476, and there were a few office buildings on the other side.
After those offices, though, the street became more residential, and actually historical – the group of buildings around the intersection of Germantown and Butler Pikes was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and nearby Abolition Hall was built to be a meeting place for abolitionists. The residential architecture was interesting and varied as we continued along, too. Well…crawled along. There was a lot of traffic.
We passed the Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, then a golf course and a well-named park. The traffic magically stopped after we crossed Joshua Road, where several small businesses were located inside little shopping plazas. Retail showed up pretty regularly on the road until it curved northeast, playing host to leafy houses.
A golf course showed up before the intersection with Northwestern Ave, which featured an apartment complex and Chestnut Hill College. This is also where we entered Philadelphia. How did I know that? Because the bus told us: “Entering City Fare Zone.” Ummmm…yeah, that’s definitely not a thing anymore. And I checked the Web Archive – the earliest PDF I can get, from early 2010, has no zoned fares to speak of. How outdated is that message??
A woodsy section over Wissahickon Creek led us to the big, beautiful houses of Chestnut Hill. Germantown Ave became cobblestoned when we entered downtown Chestnut Hill, with its fancy businesses inside of old buildings. This is where the L’s other main branch connects up, so the route is a lot more frequent east of here. We went by Chestnut Hill West Station on the Chestnut Hill West Line, then we turned onto the residential Gravers Lane and passed Gravers Station on the Chestnut Hill East Line a block later.
Once past the Chestnut Hill East Line, we turned onto Stenton Ave, which passed a few sets of apartment buildings. We crossed some telephone wires, and from there the houses shifted from the fancy, single-family affairs in Chestnut Hill to more standard Philly duplexes. A few businesses showed up at the intersection with Mount Airy Ave.
It was pretty much all rowhouses, with a few churches, from there until more businesses around Washington Lane. After that, we passed MLK High School, and a few blocks past the school, we took a right onto Wister Street. This was mostly rowhouses too, with a bit of retail and a few empty plots of land. Just before hitting a shopping plaza, we turned onto the similar Nedro Ave, which led us to Broad Street – a quick jaunt on that, and we were at our destination of Olney Transportation Center.
Route: L (Erdenheim or Plymouth Meeting Mall to Olney Transportation Center)
Ridership: My trip ended up fronting a triple bunch, so despite going inbound in the evening rush, we amassed 79 riders over the course of our 70-minute ride (20 minutes longer than it’s supposed to take, incidentally). The route actually ranks pretty low in ridership for a long frequent route, getting 7,796 riders per weekday, making it 31st on the system. Admittedly, the frequent section is only about half the route, so the numbers could reflect lower ridership beyond that thanks to fewer buses.
Pros: The frequencies on the core section of the L are actually fantastic: on weekdays, it’s every 15 minutes most of the day from 6 AM to 9 PM, with buses every 5-6 minutes at rush hour. Weekends are good, too, with 15-minute Saturday service from around 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM, and even Sundays have a decent 20-minute headway from 9:30 AM to 6 PM. Of course, the route splits in two, but for most of the day it’s done well: every other trip goes all the way out to Plymouth Meeting Mall, and the others end in Erdenheim, a few minutes up Bethlehem Pike from Chestnut Hill. This is a good way of balancing ridership and not having to run too many buses on the long suburban run to Plymouth Meeting.
Cons: Okay, there’s a lot to break down here. Let’s see…first of all, frequencies drop down really quickly at night, going to every 35 minutes after 9 PM on weekdays, and every 30 minutes after 8 PM on Saturdays and after 6 on Sundays. So things are pretty good if you travel during the midday, but once nighttime hits, the route becomes a lot harder to use. The load profile seems to suggest pretty high ridership on some nighttime trips, too. Speaking of nighttime, this is another SEPTA route that’s really close to having Owl service: the first trip leaves Olney a little before 4 AM, and the last trip arrives at Olney a little after 3 AM. It’s not a huge deal, but it sure would be satisfying if the route could close that gap.
But those are pretty minor things. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: variants. Specifically rush hour variants, because that’s where they’re confusing. First of all, a new terminus is added at Rodney Street and Mount Airy Ave, just off of Stenton Ave. This is marked as frequent on the route’s paper schedule map, despite the fact that it’s a rush hour only variant – it made me think that all trips deviate up there or something! It also makes the service to the main termini really all-over-the-place, and particularly going inbound in the evening rush from the Plymouth Meeting Mall, the schedule is off the wall. There are 20-minute gaps in service, then two buses six or eight minutes apart! No wonder my bus was the head of a bunch!
And I question Erdenheim as a main terminus. Is there really enough up there to justify a terminus? Wouldn’t it be more simple for the schedule to just end the bus at the Chestnut Hill Loop? I guess maybe there’s no room there, and the buses had enough time to go up Bethlehem Pike a little bit, so they figured why not. And maybe it does get ridership…it just seems like it adds confusion to me. But something that definitely adds confusion and definitely could be gotten rid of is the morning peak only, outbound only “express” service on four nonconsecutive trips to the Plymouth Meeting Mall. It operates a different way out of Olney with “limited stops” and saves…*drumroll*…three minutes maximum. We do not need this.
Oh, and one more bonus variant! Have you ever noticed the one trip that goes from Plymouth Meeting Mall to Olney, via Erdenheim (not that they specifically say via Erdenheim – I had to look up the streets on a map to find that out)? It leaves at the innocuous time of 9:56 PM and just sorta jogs up to Erdenheim on the way to Olney. And you know the best part? The schedule note describes the streets it takes in the wrong direction. Again…this is just so unnecessarily complicated. We do not need this.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Despite its cool name, I always associated Plymouth Meeting with its suburban side (e.g. the mall). That historical part of it is actually really cool, though! There are also some fancy historical restaurants further down Germantown Pike, if you’re into that (the last one is not fancy, but it is still historical, so therefore I consider it the option I’m most likely to check out).
Final Verdict: 5/10
The core of the L is really good. I love that it provides frequent service along Stenton Ave, a street that definitely needs it. And if you’re travelling at midday, you’ll generally have a bus coming soon seven days a week! But man, this route sure is a mess, huh? It mostly comes down to the insane rush hour scheduling that’s more complicated and probably more frequent than it has to be (productivity is lower at peak than midday, and the load profile shows that no bus gets higher than 40 riders at any one time, and midday ridership competes easily with peak), but even if it’s just during that time, the complexity could turn new users off from riding. NOT TO MENTION THAT IT’S CALLED THE L BUS WHEN THERE’S ALSO AN EL TRAIN! I haven’t forgotten that. I’ll never forget that.
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