63rd Street (MFL)

I refuse to review the 15 trolley until (if?) the full line gets restored out to Richmond-Westmoreland. However, I still wanted to ride the whole thing as it currently operates just to say I’ve done it, and from the western end of the line, there’s really nowhere to go except a few blocks south to Market Street. Time to check out the station I used upon my arrival, 63rd Street!

Oh man, that design is so cool!

I love the way that all the West Philly El stations show the station’s name on either side of the tracks. It looks fantastic, and it’s a simple way of pointing out “Hey, there’s a SEPTA station here.” Well…aside from the fact that…I mean, it’s an elevated station, so…okay, it’s really obvious there’s a SEPTA station there. But that number on the side still looks great!

One of the exit-only staircases.

Three out of the four staircases here are exit-only. Sure, it’s a little annoying, but we are near the end of the line so it’s not something I can be too upset about. Plus, the artwork on the two western exits looks fantastic. There are two bus connections here, the 21 and the 31. Since the 21 originates at 69th Street (a much bigger hub), it doesn’t get a ton of ridership from here, but the westbound 31 towards 76th-City does pick up a decent number of passengers at 63rd, since this is its last connection to the El. We’ve got nothing more than signs for the bus stops, but I get the feeling shelters aren’t super needed here – maybe one for the westbound 31.

There’s even a tiny piece of art way over on the left!

Thus, we reach the fourth entrance, which is actually an entrance. It gets a sheltered portion at street level, while some artwork-laden stairs make their way up to the station’s mezzanine. Sadly, while an upward escalator shows up for the second flight, there’s nothing on the first. This station is accessible, though, with a single elevator that takes passengers up to the unpaid mezzanine, as well as from the paid platform to the footbridge. Talk about efficiency!

It’s not actually this dark, I’m just not very good at the whole “photography” thing.

I often harp on SEPTA mezzanines for being too low-capacity, and this one definitely is – it has only two fare machines and four fare gates. But I’m going to give 63rd Street a pass, since it doesn’t get a ton of ridership, and there doesn’t seem to be space for more gates. Sure, you could take out an emergency exit and fit in two or three more, but…the emergency exit is probably there for a reason. Just a hunch.

The platform.

So…if there’s only one entrance, how are you supposed to get to the other platform? Well, it’s actually a design that makes a lot of sense. The fare gates take passengers to the inbound side, since that’s the dominant direction at any outlying station. But since we’re so close to the end of the line, very few people are going outbound. Why spend the money to build two mezzanines and pay two cashiers when you can just have people cross a footbridge to go outbound? Yes, it’s inconveniencing a few riders (in this case, me included), but from an efficiency standpoint, I see nothing wrong with it.

A piece of the inbound platform.

Despite the huge disparity in ridership between platforms, they both get similarly good treatments. The entirety of the station is sheltered, and both sides get this little nook set back from the platform where most of the seating space is. Still, the station has plenty of benches and wastebaskets scattered along the rest of the platforms, so you needn’t fear having to sit inside the nook if you don’t want to. I don’t know why you wouldn’t, though – the view down the street from in there is fantastic!

A train snaking towards Millbourne.
Such a cool view in the eastbound direction from the footbridge! Too bad the city was foggy on this day…or maybe that improves the aesthetic?

Station: 63rd Street (MFL)

Ridership: Like I mentioned, this station doesn’t get a ton of people: just 2,236 riders per day. This makes it the least-used station in West Philly, and its ridership is less than half of that of the second least-used station (although Millbourne gets less than 25% of this station’s ridership, but that’s Millbourne). Why do so few people use 63rd Street? Check back with me in the cons.

Pros: The West Philadelphia El renovations put a lot of care into the stations, and the good design really shines here. It’s a bizarre but pleasant surprise seeing so much artwork at a SEPTA stop (such stations are out there, but it’s rare), plus the station is simple and super easy to navigate. It seems like going outbound via the footbridge would be confusing, but the signage is clear and helpful.

Cons: Having to cross over to the outbound side is a little annoying (but not for most passengers), and I’ve experienced a stinky elevator and some peeling paint here before. Really, though, this station just isn’t especially useful. Half of its coverage is occupied by Cobbs Creek, and it’s only three blocks (a seven-minute walk!) away from its neighbor, 60th Street. Sure, it’s not as bad as Millbourne, which is in an even more terrible location, but…again, that’s Millbourne. I understand the need for a station here (63rd is an important street), but the location doesn’t equate to high ridership. Incidentally, because of that, only “A” trains stop here at rush hour. This is under “Cons” because the skip-stop system is stupid and I want it to go away.

Nearby and Noteworthy: 63rd Street is mostly residential, and the majority of businesses that are around here cater to that (i.e. convenience stores, pharmacies, etc.). There is a nice unpaved trail along Cobbs Creek, though, making for a nice escape from the city.

Final Verdict: 7/10
So I looked back at my Millbourne review to see what I scored that stop, and I had given it a 6. In terms of station quality, I would put 63rd and Millbourne on a similar pedestal, although I might as well reiterate that Millbourne Station is super weird and awesome and you should totally visit it. 63rd Street is a good station in a more traditional way, with good design and plenty of artwork to spruce the place up. And honestly, despite Millbourne’s charm, this station is just better. Plus, its ridership is less stupidly low (but still really low, not gonna deny it). That’s worth an extra point.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates
I think our hacking saga should be over. For those who don’t know, the blog was attacked over the past few days, redirecting users to sketchy websites. The problem was a plugin that I’ve now removed; it does mean you won’t be able to see related posts at the bottom of the page anymore, but I think we can all agree that’s a fine tradeoff for having a functional website that’s not trying to scam people.

LRTA: 9 (Lowell Circulator)

This one’s not even hiding its circularity. It has “circulator” right in its name, for heaven’s sake, and it is in fact a giant, unwieldy, disgusting loop. It goes by the name of…the 9.

Oh, of course it’s a minibus.

We went up Thorndike Street for a bit, but we stopped short of downtown, turning onto Middlesex Street. I don’t know why this route runs east down Middlesex Street when every other LRTA route that runs this way goes east down Appleton and west down Middlesex. I don’t even know why they wanted the 9 to run two ways down Middlesex to begin with – we had to use Elliott Street to get onto Appleton anyway and serve the Salvation Army! Then…WHY NOT RUN TWO WAYS DOWN APPLETON????

A rearview shot of Elliott Street. What is this, a back alley?

Appleton became Church, marking the starting point of the loop, and after some suburban-feeling offices, we crossed the Concord River into a more “real” neighborhood. There were dense apartments with some businesses as we turned onto High Street, then East Merrimack Street. Strangely, we came really close to the Lowell General Hospital, but we didn’t actually deviate into it. Why would the “circulator” skip a deviation, while a route that actually goes somewhere (the 2) does deviate? Who knows?

Nice neighborhood!

We passed the Lowell Memorial Auditorium before crossing the Concord River again into downtown Lowell. Of course there were lots of businesses along Merrimack Street, but then we turned onto the narrow Kirk Street. It was a left onto Father Morissette Boulevard from there, and we passed Lowell High School, some offices, and an apartment development.

A canal.

Time to deviate to part of UMass Lowell that’s already served by their shuttle system: right onto Cabot, left onto Hall, right onto Aiken, left onto Perkins, and straight over to Pawtucket. We had to hang out at UMass’s Fox Hall for a few minutes because we were early – always a fun time. The tiny, one-way Pawtucket Street then crossed over a canal on a decrepit bridge that even the minibus felt too heavy for – even more of a fun time.

I’m holding my breath…

We turned onto Salem Street in order to serve the “University Crossing Transit Hub,” a stop that’s only really significant to the UMass shuttle system, and seems pretty darn unnecessary to serve on a city bus. At least we didn’t deviate into the bus loop. Instead, we turned onto Bowers Street, which was tiny and residential, then we turned onto Fletcher Street, which was wider…and residential.

Heading down Bowers Street. There are houses on the left and an apartment building on the right.

Oh, I see, this Fletcher Street section was all just a deviation to serve the Market Basket and the Lowell Senior Center! Cool. We passed both of those on Broadway Street, then it was a left onto Adams Street to go right back up to where we were before. Adams went through a big apartment development, and a few tight turns at its end led us onto Merrimack Street.

I have nothing interesting to say about this intersection.

We took Merrimack Street past some businesses to Lowell City Hall, then we used Dummer Street to get onto Market Street. But okay, we’re back downtown. Surely this is the home stretch? Let’s just take a right onto Dutton Street to return to the terminal. No? We have to continue down Market to serve the “Leo A. Roy Parking Garage”? Ugh…alright. Then it was a right onto Central Street, and once we turned onto Appleton Street, we could head back to the terminal. Well, after that unnecessary jog onto Middlesex Street first. Yup, this route just keeps on giving!

In downtown Lowell.

LRTA Route: 9 (Lowell Circulator)

Ridership: The LRTA’s haphazard Regional Transit Plan has no ridership information for the 9. The best I can give you is the 6’s Saturday ridership, which combines with the 9, and that route gets…78 people for the day. Alright, pretty low. Maybe weekdays are higher, though – how much ridership did my weekday trip get? One person other than me. ‘Kay.

Pros: The route’s title isn’t lying – this thing does indeed circulate. So props to the 9 for being honest about itself.

Cons: This bonkers, 40-minute loop just makes very little sense. It feels like it skips places it should be serving and serves places that it shouldn’t have to. For example, using the 9 to serve Lowell General Hospital would save time for through-riders on the 2, while I doubt the jog to the University Crossing Transit Hub generates enough ridership to bother doing it. And you’ve (hopefully) read the review – those are just a few examples! By the way, the weekday schedule is generally every 40 minutes, but in the morning and evening it has strange inconsistencies in the headway. At least Saturday service runs at a consistent every hour, but the combined route with the 6 is so egregiously twisty that its schedule page should have an “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” addendum. And somehow it’s scheduled to only take one minute longer than the midday schedule! Something definitely doesn’t add up there…

Nearby and Noteworthy: Like…yeah, you can use this to get to vibrant downtown Lowell. But if you’d rather not circumnavigate the earth on the way, I would recommend using the 18 instead.

Final Verdict: 2/10
I mean, at least the 6 kinda goes somewhere. Trying to get from point A to point B on the 9 is just an exercise in futility. For most destinations, there’s either a faster route, or walking takes about the same amount of time as the 9 (not to mention you can leave whenever you want when you walk instead of being chained to a 40-minute headway). Yes, this route absolutely serves its purposes (for example, certain cross-Lowell trips), but it is such a mess that I can’t bring myself to give it a higher score.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Somerton

SEPTA’s pass system has some pretty bizarre rules. One of the strangest is with Zone 1 Trailpasses, which you would expect to only be valid within…you know, Zone 1. Not so – on weekdays outside of rush hour, they’re valid for travel to any station within the geographical boundaries of Philadelphia. Oh, wait, there’s a catch here: “except Forest Hills and Somerton Stations”. Alright, sorry, Zone 1 passholders, but you’re out of luck for this one!

The entrance to the parking lot.

The reason Forest Hills and Somerton, both on the West Trenton Line, are exempt from the pass’s coverage is because the line actually leaves Philadelphia on its way into the city. Located on a sliver of the Far Northeast, these stations are more or less in the middle of nowhere. Somerton is surrounded by suburban sprawl, so it makes sense that it has a parking lot, although at just 201 spaces, it tends to fill up pretty quickly. Only a dollar a day to park, though! The station’s non-car entrances include direct access from Station Road to the south, and a pedestrian walkway that goes further west on Philmont Ave, taking you that much closer to the very nearby Forest Hills.

Looking down the platform.

Somerton’s platform is basic but super functional. It’s slightly raised so there’s no need for those silly step-stools that SEPTA uses elsewhere, and there are consistent benches and wastebaskets on both sides. The outbound platform doesn’t get shelter, but that’s not a huge deal; the inbound side, meanwhile, has the awning of the station building to protect it from the elements. The station is wheelchair accessible, with mini-high platforms on both sides.

Peeking inside the building.

To get between platforms, you have to use a level crossing in the middle of the station. Luckily, safety precautions have been taken: there are both visual and audio cues that let passengers know when a train is coming. Somerton’s building is only open on weekdays from 5:15 to 11:30 AM, but it looks like a nice place to wait during the morning rush. From what I could see, the inside has benches, a ticket office, and a small library.

A train blazing in.

Station: Somerton

Ridership: Wow, here I was thinking this stop wasn’t super well-used, but it’s actually the busiest unique station on the whole West Trenton Line! On the average weekday, it gets 718 boardings, meaning that the majority of riders get here in some way other than driving and parking.

Pros: The layout is simple, but it gets the job done. It’s a far better low-level platform than a big chunk of other SEPTA stations, and while mini-highs aren’t optimal, it sure beats inaccessibility. The building seems like a great place to wait, but even when it’s closed, the station still offers plenty of sheltered seating. Also, this may not be a concern for most Regional Rail riders, but for a suburban station, the bus connections here are robust: the 58 serves points northeast and southwest, while the 84 takes a southeasterly course. No shelters for the stops, unfortunately, but I doubt transfer traffic is huge.

Cons: It’s a shame that the parking lot is so small that it gets full on a daily basis, but there isn’t much room to expand it. I only lament the parking lot size because this station isn’t in a pedestrian-friendly area, so for many people, driving or getting dropped off are the only options. There are only two bike racks here, though, so perhaps more of those would help generate new riders and free up space in the lot.

Nearby and Noteworthy: A few sprawly restaurants are nearby, but nothing seems particularly noteworthy. I like how many apartment developments there are around the station, though!

Final Verdict: 8/10
Who knew this little suburban station would be so busy? And yes, I know it’s in “the city”, but let’s be real, this is the suburbs through and through. It is great to see that there are a lot of apartments around the station, although given some of their sidewalk situations and the amount of parking they offer, it might be more transit-adjacent development than transit-oriented. Still, the station is an attractive place to commute from, with a great building for the morning rush and wheelchair accessibility. Just don’t try driving here!

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Introducing TransportationCamp Greater Attleboro-Taunton!

I was at TransportationCamp Philly last week, and it was a blast. If you haven’t been to one of these “unconferences” before, I strongly recommend it – it’s a great way to meet other people interested in transportation and talk about some fascinating things. Here’s their website if you’re interested. In particular, TransportationCamp New England will be on April 27th at MIT.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it. Why, you ask? Well, it’s a matter of inclusion – I was talking to some people who were upset by the fact that New England gets lumped into only one TranspoCamp. Thus, after some back and forth with various parties and sponsors, I am pleased to announce TransportationCamp Greater Attleboro-Taunton!

This event will take place on April 27th, the same day as TCNE. We have some amazing sponsors, including:

  • Downtown Attleboro Division:
    • The Attleboro DMV
    • GATRA (of course)
    • Norton Senior Center
  • Emerald Square Mall Division:
    • Seekonk Stop & Shop
    • That bowling alley that just opened up where all the kids are going
    • Plainville Council on Aging
  • North Attleboro Industrial Park Division:
    • The Cumberland Farms in Mansfield
    • Linda Reeves, resident of Norton
    • Taunton Nursing Home

TCGAT will take place at the Middleborough Council on Aging, which is easily accessible using GATRA’s Middleborough-Taunton Connection route. GATRA has agreed to run a special Saturday service on the normally three-days-a-week bus, but remember that you still must call at least 24 hours in advance in order to secure a ride! Buses will run at very high frequencies, with service at 11 AM, 1 PM, and 3 PM.

Now, the idea of TransportationCamp is that anyone can propose a session about anything related to the field of transportation. We have already gotten some very exciting ideas, including:

  • Capacity and Intimacy: Truck Minibuses, the Best of Both Worlds
  • Multimodal Connections to the Providence, er, Franklin Line in Norfolk
  • Redesigning GATRA’s Route Network: Why More Deviations are Needed
  • And many more!

The event will begin tardily sometime around 11:30. There will be one three-hour session, and the event will be over at 2:30. However, stick around afterward for the Early Bird Special at the Middleborough Dairy Queen, where the fun will continue over inexpensive food!

Tickets will cost $20 ($0.50 for seniors) and will be available for purchase by sending a letter to GATRA’s headquarters in Taunton with a self-addressed and stamped envelope, along with a check made out to “TCGAT”. They go on sale today, April 1st, which is definitely not a suspicious day for these tickets to go on sale. Hope to see you all there!

Poster designed by Alison Gromley, who says her Digital Drawing class at the Raynham Senior Center is going great!

LRTA: 1 (Christian Hill)

Alright, we’re actually gonna go somewhere in a circulator this time. Also, you’d better have extra space in your wallets (or on your CharlieCards), because the 1 leaves Lowell, requiring the “suburban” fare. Got it? Alright, let’s go.

Alas, it’s “NOT IN SERVICE” because I couldn’t get a good one when it was actually signed as the route.

As usual, we headed up Thorndike Street, which became Dutton Street as we entered downtown. After curving onto Arcand Drive, we turned onto Father Morissette Boulevard, passing the Lowell High School and its cool bridges over the canal that splits it in two. Our next turn was a left onto Bridge Street, which did indeed become a bridge over the Merrimack River.

Ah, I love this river.

Bridge Street was a major thoroughfare with businesses, but we took a right onto the smaller residential 3rd Street. The houses very quickly got less dense as we turned onto Beech Street, then 10th Street, then Beacon Street, making our way up a hill (Christian Hill?) as we went. The route’s loop began at the intersection with Methuen Street, where the outbound route stays on Beacon and runs past a park.

Ah, we’re not doing sidewalks now, I see.

We hooked a sharp left onto Willard Street, then a hard right onto Bridge Street (once again). We performed a pretty unnecessary deviation into Sunrise Plaza, but at least it didn’t take too long. Right after the plaza, we entered Dracut and turned onto Arlington Street, going by the town clerk and library. Finally, we turned onto Willard Street (once again), which took us to the last stop at Village Plaza.

Well, as far as character goes, it’s…trying its best?

I figured I’d document the other side of the loop too, although it’s a lot less involved. We headed the other way down Willard Street, staying on it this time – it passed a bit of forest, some houses, and a few apartment developments. We then turned onto Humphrey Street, a narrow street lined with houses, and once that ended, we swung onto Methuen Street and then Beacon Street. The rest of the trip was the same as going out.

Taking a layover at Village Plaza.

LRTA Route: 1 (Christian Hill)

Ridership: The ridership is low, at 149 riders per weekday, but the 1 is slightly more productive than the LRTA’s system average, probably because it’s on the shorter side. Meanwhile, when the route combines with the 8 on Saturdays, ridership drops to 119 riders, but the productivity increases quite a lot.

Pros: The 1 seems to get decent ridership for such a small route with relatively suburban characteristics. The schedule is reasonable for the ridership, too, with service once an hour. I also like the combined route on Saturdays – it’s not too crazy for LRTA standards, and the loop seems to be better for productivity than on weekdays!

Cons: It just doesn’t have all that much to call its own. The loop at the end seems unnecessary and confusing, and that’s basically all the 1 serves uniquely. It could be worth looking into a full-time combination between the 1 and the 8 with more frequent service.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Is there anything of note in the two plazas served by the 1? Didn’t seem like it.

Final Verdict: 6/10
The 1 just…does its thing. It’s decently productive, and it just circles around getting mediocre ridership. A combination with the 8 could provide half-hourly weekday service, which would be very nice, but the question is whether or not the loop would be too indirect. It works for low-ridership Saturdays, but it would be a pain for someone going to a far end of the loop.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

Service Change: Transit in Pittsburgh and Morgantown (yes, THAT Morgantown)

A lot of my friends were surprised when I told them that my family and I were willingly going to Pittsburgh over spring break. I guess that just goes to show how underrated this place is – I personally loved it, since it offers some incredibly diverse neighborhoods with fascinating topography (hills upon hills upon hills). Because my Baltimore post was pretty popular, I figured I’d talk about the various modes of transit I took while I was in Pittsburgh.

As always, we begin with Greyhound.

After an overnight Greyhound bus that was two hours late (go figure), I arrived in the surprisingly nice bus terminal Saturday morning. I had this day to myself, since my parents’ flight had been cancelled, so they were arriving in the evening. Hmm…a whole day to myself. I know, I’ll go ride an RTA! So I dropped my stuff off at our hotel, bought three weekly passes at a Giant Eagle supermarket, and returned to the Greyhound terminal to ride the Mid Mon Valley Transportation Authority’s Commuter A route to a town called Donora. What a mouthful.

An awkward photo of the bus through the terminal window.

Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the Port Authority, uses a fare system called the ConnectCard, which is actually the same technology as the MBTA’s CharlieCard (right down to the same satisfying beep when you tap). Also like Boston, Pittsburgh has a multitude of RTAs that fan out to various other counties, except here, they all run express routes into the city. Most of these agencies also use the ConnectCard, so I was able to load money on and use it for the Commuter A.

The interior of the MMVTA bus.

The Commuter A is the MMVTA’s principle route to and from Pittsburgh. Although they run a few peak-only express services too, this one runs all day, taking a more local route and serving most of the major towns in the MMVTA’s service area (meaning yes, the route is twisty as heck). I believe it’s also the only RTA that runs into downtown Pittsburgh on weekends, with service every two hours on Saturdays and every four hours on Sundays.

A stop on the South Busway.

Probably the crown jewel of Pittsburgh’s transit system is its network of grade-separated busways. There are three of them, and they’re all open-ended, so buses can use the busways and then fan out to other destinations. Even RTAs get in on the fun, as I found out after we cruised through downtown on regular streets. Once we crossed the Monongahela River, we entered a transit-only tunnel cutting through Mount Washington (shared with the light rail), and we officially entered the South Busway on the other side. The South Busway is the least-used of the three, since it more or less parallels the light rail the whole time. Rather than serve destinations within itself, its main purpose is to speed up trips from the suburbs, and indeed, it was a blast to go down this thing without any interruption from cars.

The MMVTA’s main hub and headquarters in, well, basically the middle of nowhere (North Charleroi).

Once the busway ended, we just travelled on local roads through mostly suburban sprawl. Eventually, though, we started reaching the depressed industrial towns of the Mid Mon Valley, and this is where things got interesting. A lot of people used the bus for local service at this point, and some of the passenger interactions were fascinating (including one woman who told a stranger trying to talk to her that she was a police informant and would get him arrested if he didn’t leave). The towns had definitely seen better days.

The bus in Donora.

Donora is the last town the Commuter A serves, and I got off in its rather dead downtown. Luckily, there was a spark of light: the Saturday-only Donora Smog Museum. I tell ya, for what looks like a town that’s fallen on hard times, it certainly has a lot of interesting history, including what is perhaps the birth of the environmental movement (check out the website for more info). The people in the museum were wonderful, and it was a fantastic experience. So, if you’re ever in Donora, PA on a Saturday…check it out!

One of the employees even gave me directions to the old streetcar turnback. You can still see the tracks, and that red building was once a ticket office!

Enough RTA adventures, though. My next bus trip was taking a 28x out to the airport to pick up my parents. The 28x is the airport flyer route, running every half hour to the airport via most (but not all) of the west busway, plus express sections on I-376. However, it has one fatal flaw: a five-minute deviation to a collection of shopping centers. Yes, this is a huge ridership draw, but it’s still annoying! But on this ride, I also discovered something that has absolutely no excuse: week passes are only valid for a calendar week, from Sunday morning to Saturday night! Who does that???? Luckily this driver let me on for free, and my family just paid the $2.50 single fare each for the trip back. This is some truly insane fare policy, though. It’s a good thing we were here for roughly a calendar week, so we only had to pay for Saturday!

The bus downtown.

But now it’s time to tackle Pittsburgh’s one true rail service, a light rail network with a downtown subway and two branches serving the inner suburbs, which then come back together before splitting off into another two branches serving the outer suburbs. This schedule has a map in it that might be helpful. Also, hey, the system is called “The T”! Come on, that’s Boston’s thing! Yes, I know Stockholm did it first…

The 2012-built Allegheny Station.

A relic of the Port Authority’s fare-collecting past is the downtown free-fare zone. It used to be valid on all buses (but only until 7 PM) and the light rail, but the pay-as-you-exit situation on the buses was confusing, so now it’s only for the light rail. Still, though, free service between the system’s downtown stations is pretty awesome! The light rail begins at Allegheny Station, part of a 2012 extension to the stadiums and recent development of the North Side.

The inside of a train in the subway.

The trains themselves are fine on the inside – they certainly don’t feel as dated as the ones in Baltimore. There is an odd system where two-car trains are used in the peak, but if you sit in the second one, you can only get off at certain stops that are actually long enough to hold both cars. Luckily, said stops are marked on the maps, but they still tell you that if you’re unsure of which car to board in, just do the first car. It’s pay-as-you-exit going outbound, incidentally, because of the free fare zone.

The grand North Side station.

Allegheny is above ground, but the line enters a tunnel right after it. North Side Station is next, and like all the other underground stations, it’s beautiful. Also, unlike in Baltimore, which played smooth jazz at its stations, Pittsburgh plays cool classical music! It feels pretty awesome to walk out of a train station with William Tell Overture blasting over the speakers.

A train departing Wood Street Station.

From the North Side, the line goes under the Allegheny River and makes underground stops at Gateway, Wood Street, and Steel Plaza. Wood Street is the main bus hub downtown, and you’ll often see trains in both directions empty out here. After Steel Plaza, the line comes above ground for a stop at First Avenue, and then it’s over the Monongahela and out of the free fare zone.

Crossing the Mon.

After Station Square, we entered that combined bus-rail tunnel through Mount Washington. The first stop on the other side is South Hills Junction, where the Blue and Red Lines split for the first time. We were on the Red Line, which has a great section just after the split where it hugs the side of a mountain. Eventually it reaches Broadway Ave and gets a street-running section.

A train leaving Hampshire Station.
Hampshire, incidentally, is the closest stop to the steepest street in the US!

The street-running enters a more residential neighborhood, but eventually Broadway Ave ends and the line later enters a short tunnel through the neighborhood. Castle Shannon has a giant free parking lot, and the stop after that, Overbrook Junction (right next to the Blue Line), is where most Red Line trains stop…except for a few, including the one we were on! So, we rejoined the Blue Line, running for three stops until Washington Junction. This is where the lines split again – our train ran along the shorter branch, which ends right next to a shopping mall called South Hills Village.

The South Hills Village platform.

We hung out at the mall for a bit, then we got one of the half-hourly (!) trains back up to Washington Junction. From here, we boarded a southbound Blue Line towards Library (also every half hour). This longer branch basically runs through the middle of nowhere, ending in, yes, the middle of nowhere. At least the station had a moat. Coming back to the reverse branch, the Blue Line’s section is a lot more boring than the Red Line’s – it basically just follows the South Busway past not-particularly-interesting scenery.

There’s a free parking lot on the other side of the “moat” here at Library.

Coming back to downtown, it was time to tackle the full West Busway on the G2. Considering that this route exclusively runs on the busway, you would think it would have rapid transit frequencies, and it does…at rush hour. But after running every 8 minutes during those times, it drops to every 20 during the day, and alternating 25-30 minute headways on weekends! Ewwwww!

The bus from the back.

The first part of the G2 is in mixed traffic along West Carson Street, which slows it down significantly at rush hour. Once it hits the busway, though, you go fast. It even has a short bus-only tunnel! This busway mostly serves suburbs, which might explain the lower ridership and frequencies along it. It ends in a town called Carnegie, where we got a nice pizza lunch.

Carnegie Station.

After taking a local bus, the 31, back to downtown, it was time to tackle the unofficial “north busway”, which is just an HOV lane along I-279. Still, the routes that run along it get a designated color like the other busways (this one is orange; west is green, south is yellow, and east is purple), so I figured it counted. The I-279 routes only run at rush hour, but they tend to be frequent within those periods. We got the O1, which is exclusively meant to serve one park-and-ride, and it gets an articulated bus every 10 minutes during the peak!

Ooooh, this is a relic!
The high-floor interior.

For a trip very early in the rush (about 3 PM), the quarter-seated load wasn’t terrible. It was also short, at only about 20 minutes of express running. But here’s the sad part: we didn’t use the HOV lane! It completely ruined the point of setting out to ride this thing to begin with! Oh well, at least it took us to…a parking lot. Yay. In all seriousness, though, the Port Authority’s Neoplan high-floor articulated buses like the one we rode are dying out quickly, so it was lucky that we got to ride one.

Welp…there’s the HOV.
The best part about these old buses is the rhymes on the side!

We got an 8 back to the city, then it was time for one more round-trip, this time on the 11. I would say if you can only do one bus in Pittsburgh, the 11 should be it. Sure, the busways are fast and fun, but how can you top great city views and being on a bus struggling down roads like this:

When it comes to rail in Pittsburgh, the light rail isn’t the full story. The city also has two “inclines” (funiculars) that travel up to Mount Washington: the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline. We weren’t able to do the Mon Incline because it was (and is) closed for repairs, so I guess I’ll have to come back at some point to tackle that. At least the Duquesne Incline was running, though, so we took a G2 out to the base of it (which, other than driving, is more or less the only way to get out there).

The bottom of the Incline.

The Inclines use Port Authority fares, although the Duquesne Incline is run by a non-profit. It uses these really old rickety cars, so the ride up is harrowing, but a very unique experience with an amazing view. We rode it at rush hour, so it was interesting comparing the tourists with the people actually using it to commute (the suits and ties who were on their phone without regard for the view).

Wow!
The inside of the car.
There’s a little museum portion at the upper station.

From here, we walked through the fancy Duquesne Heights neighborhood along Grandview Ave, whose name is very accurate. We had dinner in Mount Washington, and then took the “Mon Incline Bus Shuttle” back down the mountain. It had to take a ridiculously roundabout route, and the ride took forever! Again, I hope the actual incline is running when I make it back to Pittsburgh.

A 61D downtown.

Another important corridor to talk about is the 61/71 corridor – or, more specifically, 61A/61B/61C/61D/71A/71B/71C/71D corridor (although not the 71 without a letter, that’s a completely different route – makes perfect sense). Aside from an outbound-only busway for the 71s, these routes run in mixed traffic, but they’re quite possibly the most important ones in the city. They all run together (more or less) from Downtown to Oakland before splitting off, serving UPitt and Carnegie Mellon in the process and getting a ton of student traffic using free university passes. In fact, from my experience, these routes get far more people east of Oakland than they do on the downtown section! But most importantly, this is by far the most frequent corridor in the city: it’s eight routes running every 15-20 minutes each. Even on Sundays when they all run every half hour, it’s still less than every 4 minutes on the combined section! Pretty amazing, and they often get packed.

Speaking of packed buses, welcome to the East Busway.

We ended up doing the East Busway in two parts. First, we came back to downtown from dinner in East Liberty using the P1, the “all stops” East Busway route and I believe the most frequent and busiest single bus on the system. It is very often packed, but speeding down the busway, the trip is a lot faster than driving. We tackled the outer half of the busway on the P3, a weekday-only route that begins in Oakland and travels east from there. Like the P1, it was also busy and speedy!

A few buses at Swissvale.

Alright, I think that’s it for Pittsburgh! Overall, I thought it was a great city, and its transit system definitely has good infrastructure, but some of the frequencies could be a lot better. The light rail feels like it only exists because the track was already there (there are far better places for rail to go), and for a tourist, it’s only useful downtown. It seems like the busways (particularly east) and the 61/71 corridor are Pittsburgh’s true transit powerhouses. Okay, I guess that’s the end of the post! Except…

Oho, here we go!

Yes, we went to Morgantown, West Virginia for a night, and it was for all intents and purposes just to see the city’s bizarre transit system. Morgantown is a geographically tiny city that packs in 30,000 residents, plus 20,000 college students across three campus of WVU. In the 1970s, traffic was getting insane, and delays on the college shuttle buses were causing students to be late for class. The solution? The future…or at least, what might’ve been the future.

Presenting the PRT!

The “future” was apparently a “Personal Rapid Transit” system, or PRT. With over 70 tiny vehicles (max capacity 15, and they won’t move if you go over), this automated system travels between five stops on campus. But here’s the fun part: when you enter the system, you punch in your destination, and it will release a car to take you there! Because it has to account for trips between every pair of stations, there is a ridiculous amount of track infrastructure, including express tracks and turnaround tracks where cars line up waiting for their next assignment.

The turnstiles at Health Sciences Center Station.

Our hotel was very conveniently located within walking distance of the northernmost stop, Health Sciences Center (or HSC). The system is free for people with WVU cards, and it supposedly costs 50 cents for the rest of the world. However, the coin slots were just…closed off. And you could just punch in a destination and the gate would open. Alright, free rides, I guess.

The HSC platform.

As soon as you step onto the platform, you start getting lectured by an automated robot voice, telling you basically every rule under the sun. It also lets you know when a train is at the gate, and when it’s ready to depart. Unfortunately, the system was running in all-stops mode when we were here, so we didn’t really get the full PRT experience.

Not the most spacious car in the world.

The cars run on rubber tires along the track, which you would think would make for a smoother ride, but it’s actually super jolty. These things bounce around like there’s no tomorrow! Also, as it turns out, all-stops mode is slowwwwwwwww. If you’re going right to your destination, they just fly through each station on express tracks, but when you have to make intermediate stops, it’s about a minute of dwell time at each one. The thing makes two stops at each one: a “departure” stop where people aren’t allowed to board, and a “boarding” stop one gate over where everyone gets on. The doors stay open for 20 seconds at both. It’s excruciating.

I had plenty of time to get this shot of Towers Station!

My favorite part of the PRT was the long gap between Engineering and Beechurst Stations. The line comes down from a mountain and runs alongside a road next to the Monongahela River, offering a great view towards downtown Morgantown. Beechurst is where most passengers tend to get off, and the next and final stop, Walnut, is right in the middle of downtown. There isn’t a ton to do in downtown Morgantown, so I can see why this stop is lesser-used.

The entrance to Walnut.
The little car heading back north.

We did at least get to try out one express trip. During busy peak times, the system goes into schedule mode, where extra trips are sent out on a schedule between Beechurst and Towers, since that’s where most people are going. Those trips skip Engineering, and even after getting off of a local and waiting for the express, we were still able to beat it by a wide margin to Towers!

Expressing through Engineering.

The Morgantown PRT feels like a strange relic of a different time. I have a hard time seeing PRT as being a technology of the future. It requires so much infrastructure (Morgantown’s went way over budget), the tiny cars regularly get packed because of their limited capacity, and in this case, the whole thing could’ve been done with conventional light rail for far cheaper. Plus, it apparently breaks down relatively often, and whenever that happens, the whole system shuts down and they literally have to drive a Jeep onto the tracks to push the broken car to the next station. The future indeed. Still, if you ever find yourself in Morgantown, give this bizarre and unique transit system a ride. It’s apparently free!

Passing another car along the river.

59 (Castor-Bustleton to Arrott Transportation Center)

It’s time to gush over another trackless trolley! Man, I love riding these. Can I just give the route a 10/10 now? What? That’s unfair? Okay, fine, I’ll ride the 59 first…

Arrott is a tough place to get photos. Gotta love the arm poking out from the left!

Our trackless trolley left the businesses around Arrott Transportation Center and turned onto the residential Penn Street. We took that for a block, then we turned onto Oxford Ave, a wide road with larger houses and some ornate rowhouses. Businesses started to come up as we got closer to Roosevelt Boulevard, and once we arrived at that monstrosity, we took a giant rotary to get onto Castor Ave. Traversing a rotary in a trackless trolley…cool stuff, man.

A little plaza a few blocks before Roosevelt Ave.

The 59 spends most of its time here on Castor Ave, and it’s a major street. It was lined with rowhouses for a little bit, but soon it changed to two-story retail buildings (with apartments above the stores). The eastern side streets were all rowhouses, while to the west were standalone dwellings. Cottman Ave was a major intersection, although unfortunately, the only businesses here were in shopping plazas with block-sized parking lots. This is also where two buses a day deviate to end at the Alma Loop, a fully-wired short-turn location for buses serving nearby Northeast High School.

AAAHHHHHH!

It started to feel more suburban after Cottman Ave. The side streets were all standalone houses now, and most of the business blocks that appeared had parking lots in the front or back. Just before Castor Ave intersected with Bustleton Ave, we pulled off into the Bells Corner Loop, ending the short trip.

Sitting in the loop.

At this point, I’m just gonna go ahead and review the Bells Corner Loop because, hey, we’re here. The 59 is the only bus to serve the loop, which has a cool retro shelter with a bench underneath, a few wastebaskets, and three bike racks. Employees have a building where they can use the bathroom, while anyone can enjoy the Dunkin’ Donuts located in that very same building. Ramps and stairs provide access to Bustleton Ave on the other side of the loop, where the inbound 58 makes a stop. It’s too bad you have to walk up to Strahle Street to get the outbound, but it’s not a big deal. Overall, I’m going to give the Bells Corner Loop a solid 8/10!

Another photo from across the street.

Route: 59 (Castor-Bustleton to Arrott Transportation Center)

Ridership: The 59 barely scrapes the top 50 for SEPTA bus routes, getting 4,641 riders per weekday. However, you have to remember: this thing is short, and it has a lot of local turnover for what looks like just an El feeder on paper. For these reasons, it ends up with the 5th-best farebox recovery ratio on the system, at 47%.

Pros: I apologize in advance for drilling this in, but I must say first and foremost that yes, this route uses trackless trolleys. Beyond that, though, it gets great ridership for its length, and that length gives it fantastic on-time performance: 91%, quite possibly the best on the whole system. The bus not only feeds into the El, but it also provides local service along Castor Ave, thanks to its direct routing with no frills. Not only that, but for much of the weekday, it’s every 15 minutes or better, with service every 8-10 minutes at rush hour. It’s every 20 minutes on Saturdays, too, which isn’t bad. Oh, and the route is more productive during the peak than it is midday! That’s a rarity for SEPTA, but it shows that they’re running the perfect amount of peak service.

Cons: Night and Sunday service is inadequate. It gets infrequent way too early in the evening, becoming every half hour by 8 and every hour by 10 (and it’s earlier on Saturdays). Meanwhile, Sunday service is every half hour all day. Man, you go from providing such good weekday service to going down to a frequency like that on Sundays? What a bummer.

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are a number of stores and restaurants along the route, but the Picanha Brazilian Steakhouse caught my eye in particular. An all-you-can-eat buffet of Brazilian meats? I’m hungry!

Final Verdict: 7/10
I really want to give this route as high of a score as possible because I really do love it, but the scheduling issues are a big sticking point for me. I rode it on a Sunday when it runs every half hour, and my ride still managed to get a respectable 23 people. How much would it hurt to add another bus to it and make it at least every 20 minutes like on Saturdays? The jump in frequency would surely increase ridership along with it! I’m kinda at a 6.5 here, but hey…trackless trolleys. That’s absolutely enough to boost it up the half-point.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

LRTA: 6 (Broadway/UMass Lowell)

The LRTA sure likes its circulators. I’ve previously covered the 18, which is an example of how to do a circulator right – it got a well-deserved 8/10. But they also operate two other circulators within Lowell, and they don’t fare quite as well as the 18 does. Today we’re looking at the 6, which may not be a “pure” circulator loop, but it sure feels like one. In the worst way possible.

I’m not surprised it’s using a minibus, but a little part of me still died inside.

We took Thorndike Street into downtown Lowell, going right by Broadway Street. Oh, we would come back to Broadway Street – we just had to take a left onto Merrimack Street, then a left onto Dummer Street, and finally a right onto Broadway Street. I guess this jog is ostensibly to provide direct access to Lowell City Hall, but the 6 could be sped up by going directly to the station. I mean, the 18 exists for a reason.

Looking down Dummer Street. Hey, this route makes me feel Dummer just from riding it! Ha!

We passed a Market Basket, the Lowell Senior Center, and a ton of smaller businesses along Broadway Street. This part actually made sense, serving a major commercial thoroughfare with no diversions. Oh wait, a few blocks later we turned onto the residential Fletcher Street, starting a big loop. I don’t know why we took Fletcher and not the regular route a block over on Mount Vernon, but I guess there must’ve been a detour of some sort.

A firefighters memorial on Fletcher Street.

We were back on the regular route once we turned onto Pawtucket Street. Right next to the Merrimack River, lots of big houses lined this road. Just after the Lowell Motor Boat Club, we turned onto Wilder Street, entering UMass Lowell’s South Campus. We had to take a right onto Broadway Street to deviate to a UMass Lowell parking lot because, geez, I don’t even know, and then it was a straight shot on Broadway back down the route. With small, dense houses and lots of businesses, this street actually felt worth serving. Also, we never actually laid over at the terminus, so we arrived back at the Kennedy Center eight minutes early. Nice.

A rearview look down Broadway.

LRTA Route: 6 (Broadway/UMass Lowell)

Ridership: In 2015, it was an average of 161 riders per weekday and 78 riders on Saturdays – that’s about 7.5 people per loop. As for my ride? It only got four people.

Pros: It serves Broadway Street, which is a corridor that definitely needs bus service. But that’s, like, the only thing this route serves on its own!

Cons: Basically everything else! The route is absolutely insane: it deviates to City Hall; it makes a point to run up to Pawtucket Street, even though the section on Mount Vernon is a block away from the 9 (the other circulator within Lowell) and nothing on that corridor is more than a five-minute walk from Broadway or the 9; and it deviates to a UMass Lowell parking lot for really no reason. I guess maybe layover, but my bus sure didn’t do it! And then there’s the schedule. The 6 runs every 35 minutes on weekdays, which is just such an awkward frequency. At least it’s a clean every hour on Saturdays, but oh wait, on Saturdays it combines with the 9 to make this ungodly creation:

Routes 6 and 9 Saturday combo map

Nearby and Noteworthy: We passed an old wooden mill something-or-other on Broadway as it crossed over the Pawtucket Canal. I’m not sure what it is, but it looks interesting!

Final Verdict: 3/10
There’s very little the 6 does right. It’s not a direct route, but it also doesn’t “circulate” to very many things that need circulating to! I think the ideal fix to this bus would be to combine it with the 9 full-time. No, not the horrific Saturday mess they have right now. Something…simpler. Actually, if you scroll to the 6 in this document, they have a decent routing that combines the routes, plus gives them a consistent 30-minute headway! It’s not perfect, but it sure is better than what there is now.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
Fare increases for July 1st were approved today. Check out this page to see the new prices.

5th Street/Independence Hall (MFL)

See that cracked bell behind glass? That’s apparently a giant tourist attraction for some reason! Yeah, I don’t know why people love this thing so much when…I mean, it’s a bell. Philly has so much more to offer than…a bell! Okay, whatever, I’m not here to review tourist attractions. I’m here to review the stations people use to get to those attractions – in this case, it’s 5th Street/Independence Hall.

An eastbound entrance.

As Wikipedia oddly specifically points out, this is the only MFL station in Center City where passengers must walk above ground to switch directions. Thus, each direction gets two entrances on their respective side of the street: one fancy one, and one hole-in-the-ground one. That being said, “fancy” only means that there are two or three sets of stairs instead of just one, and “hole-in-the-ground” is your classic SEPTA single-staircase entrance with no frills. In other words, there’s nothing special here.

The westbound elevator, accompanied by an Indego station and a PHLASH bus.

5th Street is wheelchair accessible, so we also get two elevators – one for each direction. They get these nice facades poking up on Market Street, and the elevators themselves are fine (although someone decided to use one as a dumping ground for their unfinished chicken meal). I like the signage directing people across the street if they’re trying to go in the other direction, although geez, talk about wordy: “SEPTA Market Frankford Line eastbound accessible 5th Street Station/For westbound accessible entrance, cross Market St. to NW corner of 5th St. and Market St.”

The westbound side’s fancy entrance, with a bus stop in the background.

Before we head underground, I want to talk about the bus situation here. 5th Street has four bus stops, all but one of which amount to nothing more than a sign. The stop that gets a shelter is the westbound one for the 17 and the 33, which makes sense. The other routes that stop here are the eastbound 48, and the 38 and 44, which terminate here. Finally, the PHLASH makes stops here, as do countless tour buses. You can tell they know where their passengers want to go.

Inside the eastbound mezzanine.

We’ll start with the eastbound side, which is…cramped. I mean, it’s trying really hard to make use of the space, but two awkwardly-placed fare machines doesn’t feel like enough (although five faregates isn’t bad). Also, sorry, people who need the elevator – it’s a long way down a narrow hallway to get there. Have fun! On the plus side, the red, white, and blue designs on the walls add a splash of color to the otherwise drab area.

Yeesh, this is a tight fit…

Like any SEPTA station, 5th Street goes as crazy with exit-only turnstiles as it can, including two that are right next to each other! Once you leave the station through those, there’s no way to get back in, so you’re going to have to buy another ticket. Let’s just see what the cashier hours are here, taken from the website: “6:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. Monday through Friday; 6:00 a.m. – 2:40 p.m. Monday through Friday.” Huh. Okay, so I assume that second one is supposed to be Saturday and Sunday, but even then, if you can only afford one shift (which is why I assume the station goes unstaffed at 2:40), why not have it start later in the morning? The market here is primarily tourists, and I don’t think hordes of out-of-towners are waking up at 6 AM to go check out the Jewish History Museum before it opens.

Coming down the westbound stairs.

Coming down through the “fancy” westbound entrance, there’s a rather nice map of the Independence Mall area on the wall. Although – and I know this is nitpicking – wouldn’t it be better on the eastbound side? After all, most tourists are probably coming from west of here, so they’re getting off from eastbound trains. Stick a “You are here” marker on the map, and it would actually be pretty helpful as a navigation tool for first-time visitors.

The westbound mezzanine.

The westbound mezzanine is more or less identical to the eastbound one. However, it’s here in the more often-used direction where having two fare machines poses a legitimate problem: this is a major station for tourists, many of whom might not be inclined to buy a SEPTA Key and are just getting single trip tickets for their rides. I can imagine the lines for the machines here getting real long…

We enter the platform.

Huh…so this is what tourists see when they come to the birthplace of American independence: trash, chipping paint, low ceilings, broken lights, and a general feeling of hopelessness and despair. Welcome to SEPTA, I guess? Yeah, I really don’t like this platform. I’ve been here before during a rainstorm and seen a monsoon of water blasting down from one of the columns. The one saving grace is once again the wall art, which has some great collages of historical images colored in red, white, and blue.

Another platform view (since I couldn’t get any good train photos).

Station: 5th Street/Independence Hall

Ridership: Wow, I thought this station was more important than it actually is. As it turns out, 5th Street gets pretty mediocre ridership for the El, with about 3,986 riders per weekday. My guess for why it’s lower than other stations (especially other Center City stations) is just that it’s in such a touristy area. For the most part, the market for this station is leisure travellers. However, that also means that its weekend ridership is probably close to what it gets on weekdays. There’s no public data for this, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Pros: The station is accessible, which is always a plus, and it boasts some nice wall art that gives it character. And it sure is in a good location for all those people coming to see Philadelphia’s most popular attractions!

Cons: Of course, once people seeing those attractions enter this station, their thoughts on America’s birthplace might change a bit. I mean, this is just not a pleasant facility to use, from the moment you enter the cramped mezzanine to the moment you leave the squalid platform to board a train. And don’t come when it’s raining unless you want to see lots and lots of water. Lots. And lots. Of water.

Nearby and Noteworthy: You know, I could list off all the tourist attractions around here, but you probably know what they are already. Instead, I’m going to shout out the Ritz at the Bourse, a movie theater that shows new releases but also a ton of classics and independent films. I’ve never been, but they played Rocky Horror last month (I wish I could’ve gone), and they’re showing The Room (the best movie of all time – look it up) in April, so it’s clear that this is a great theater!

Final Verdict: 4/10
I would feel bad giving an accessible station with some decent artwork a 3, but just know that I’m darn close. Still, for only 4,000 people a day, is it really worth renovating the place? In that sense, I understand why they’re keeping it in its current state – there are so many other SEPTA stations that need much grander improvements, including a ton that remain inaccessible. Oh wait…they’re rebuilding this station. Well…at least it’ll look prettier for the tourists, I guess.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Guide to the MBTA’s Spring 2019 Service Changes

The reason I started these guides was because the MBTA stopped listing its schedule changes on its website. Well, I’m happy to say that they’re back to doing it! But…a lot of its descriptions are still really vague. And I really enjoy writing these. And it seems like you all enjoy reading them, too. So…let’s get to it! These changes will come into effect on March 17th.

7: Just a few tweaks here and there to the weekday PM schedule. The only super noteworthy changes are that the 2:33 inbound trip will now depart at 2:30, and there will be one fewer inbound PM peak trip.

36: Watch out, schoolgoers! The 6:20 AM trip to Townsend and Humboldt will now leave at 6:15, and the 6:50 trip to Avenue Louis Pasteur will depart at 6:30. Also, both of these trips will be scheduled to take quite a lot longer than they used to – the Louis Pasteur trip will be 28 minutes instead of 22, and the Townsend and Humboldt one will take a full half hour when it used to be 17 minutes. I guess they must’ve ran late a lot. Anyway, the overly detailed analysis on two school day-only trips is now over.

39: The 39 will generally be getting less frequent throughout the weekday. It will go from every 8 minutes to every 10 minutes in the early morning, every 14 to every 15 in the late morning, and every 8 to every 10 in the evening rush. There are some places where it will improve, though: for example, from every 11 to every 10 in the late afternoon, and every 12 to every 11 at night. So, in other words, the route won’t really change all that much.

43: Oh, they did it! The ever-unreliable 43 will become every half hour on weekdays, down from every 25 minutes now. It’ll also lose evening peak service – right now it’s every 20 minutes then, but soon the half-hour headway will stick it out all the way through the rush into the evening. Finally, that long-standing rule where the 43 leaves Park Street as soon as it arrives will disappear – buses will now wait for their departure time.

47: The 47 makes its long-awaited return back to Pearl Street! Luckily, it won’t be entirely like the pre-detour route, as it’ll omit the old Magazine Street jog. Thank goodness.

62: The 3:00 PM outbound trip will arrive at Bedford VA at 3:48 instead of 3:45. I’m sure this big change will have a profound impact on your life.

64: No, ew, why? What the heck is this? Instead of a weekday midday headway of 35 minutes, it’s now going to be every…39-40 minutes. Disgusting. Also, one trip in each peak will be dropped. And finally, did you like that clean hourly schedule at night? Too bad! Now it’ll be every 70 minutes. It seems like as usual, the 64 loses out.

70: The 70 is one of the most insanely-scheduled routes on the T. So it’s a good thing we have visionaries pushing the University Park arrival of the 10:30 inbound trip ahead by two minutes. Wait…that’s literally the only change? Argh. Better luck next time, 70.

77: The 77 will generally become more frequent throughout the weekday, with small improvements like running every 11 minutes instead of every 12. There’s one exception, though: night service will improve from every 13 minutes to every 10! It seems like they’re actually adding a bus to the route to accomplish this. Look, I’m a regular user of this route, and I’m all for service improvements, but I really don’t look at the 77’s ridership at night and say “Oh yeah, this definitely needs more service.” If anything, it should be a little less frequent (every 15 minutes max) to keep the thing reliable, since buses are often late at night! 10-minute service until 1 AM will be nice, but honestly, that extra bus could go toward one of the countless other routes that actually do provide inadequate service…

80: This one is an update, since the MBTA forgot to put this one on its list of service changes! Thanks to Jared on Facebook for letting me know. Anyway, because of the Broadway Bridge closure, the 80 will now continue up Medford Street and Main Street, take College Ave to Tufts University, and then return to the regular route. This isn’t as interesting as the 89’s detour (see below), and it’s definitely more of an inconvenience. The route’s schedule doesn’t actually change, so you’ll still be picking up the bus at the same times – it just might be in a different place if you’re used to boarding on parts of Broadway or College Ave.

89: The Broadway Bridge detours will be miserable for many people, but I actually really like the effect they have on the 89. Now, outbound buses will turn onto Cedar Street just before the bridge, then take Highland Ave to Davis Square. Clarendon Hill trips will continue there from Davis along the route of the 87/88. I’m all for extra service to Davis Square – this is a clever and innovative way of tackling the detour. The headways will still be weird, but not quite as terrible as they are now. The one major issue I can see is sending buses down the narrow Cedar Street, but buses on narrow streets isn’t a new idea for the MBTA.

104/109: These routes are notoriously crowded in the early morning, so the MBTA is taking steps to mitigate that. A 5:00 AM inbound trip will be added to both routes on weekday mornings, and the 109 will gain three additional trips in the early morning on Sundays. The route will be about every 15 minutes from 5:30 to 6:30 on Sundays now! Too bad the rest of the Sunday schedule is so infrequent…

111: There are some minor trip time changes on Sunday mornings. Service will start ten minutes earlier on both ends, which is nice!

114/116/117: The 116 and 117 will gain an early-morning round trip: a 4:45 116 outbound, then a 5:20 117 inbound. As for the 114, its trip times are changing throughout the weekday. For most routes, I would try to explain the changes in detail, but the 114 times are so random, and this route is such a dead horse at this point, that I’m not even going to bother. If you’re one of the three people that actually uses the 114 for its intended purpose, check out the changes yourself.

120: Huh…it’s kinda hard to rationalize these changes. If I were to describe them in one word, I would say they’re…inconsistent. Whereas the route currently has consistent 25-minute service middays, it will change to 20-25 minute headways with no pattern. Rush hour ends up in a similar boat, with 20-30 minute headways in the morning and 25-30 minute headways in the evening. Overall service ultimately isn’t gained or lost (the route will have the same number of weekday trips), but this just doesn’t sit well with me. Why sacrifice consistency for…well, I don’t even know what the advantage here is?

134: You thought the last one was bad? Oh, honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The 134’s current weekday service runs every half hour on the combined portion to West Medford, with hourly service to North Woburn. Pretty nice, right? Yeah, well, just have a look at the new schedule. Long story short, this thing gets crazy. And it loses service, too. This schedule makes absolutely no sense. Check out the 1:18 Playstead Road trip from Wellington – I’ll bet that thing’ll be empty, considering that it leaves just fifteen minutes after a North Woburn trip! Same deal with the 2:17. And the running times are all over the place, too. Sorry, 134 riders, but your life is about to get a lot more miserable.

136/137: Phew, a minor one. The 1:45 inbound 136 will change to a 1:41 departure, and the outbound 2:30 137 will change to a 2:34.

238: Service during the evening rush will decrease from every half hour to every forty minutes, plus midday service will be every 65 minutes instead of every hour. Not good.

240: Many outbound morning peak trips will disappear, but more importantly, the evening rush loses service in both directions. Granted, the losses with this route mostly affect sections with service every ten minutes, where because of the frequency, buses tend not to be as crowded. But it’ll now be every 15-20 minutes, which might be too steep of a drop. I’ve been on this route in the evening rush, and it definitely has the potential to get packed!

325/326: The South Shore isn’t the only place that loses peak service – these rush hour express routes get major cuts. The 325 will lose one trip in the morning and one in the afternoon, while the 326 gets absolutely severed in the morning: it goes from twelve inbound trips…to seven. I know the route doesn’t get a ton of ridership on a trip-by-trip basis, but if you cut half its service, you can bet this express route will have standees. Strangely, the 326’s evening rush gets off mostly scot-free, losing just one trip.

351: All of the running times for this express route are lengthened to allow for extra travel time. Also, the 7:05 outbound will leave at 7:00, and the 5:20 inbound will leave at 5:25.

424: The route will be scheduled to take longer to get to its destination. Hopefully this will help its horrible lateness problem!

428: Alright…we’re back to going to Wakefield High School, huh? But at a slightly different stop this time? Sure, whatever you say.

436: The one trip a day from Broadway at Conomo Ave will now leave from Broadway at Euclid Ave. I looked it up on the map – it’s one block away.

439: Yay, the 439 is no longer scheduled to leave Bass Point before it arrives! I would’ve been curious to see how that worked, though.

450/456: Great, another route whose changes I can only describe as “random”. Service on the 450 will just get a lot less consistent throughout the day, creating short service gaps in some cases and really long ones in others (how d’ya like the gap in inbound service between 1:16 and 3:02?). Also, this will make the 456 even more useless, ruining the 40-minute coordination between it and the 450. Oh, incidentally, the 456 will get a few running time changes.

455/459: Consistency? See ya! Coordination? Bye-bye! Lost service? Hi, come on in! Yes, the 455 and 459 will be less frequent, but with no consistent headway with this upcoming schedule change. It’ll be about every hour and a half on the 455, down from every 70 minutes, while the 459 will be every 100-120 minutes. And you know what that means: the semblance of coordination that the routes used to have is all but gone! Yes, there will in fact now be a 459 that arrives at Salem three minutes after a 455, then a nearly two-hour gap on the whole corridor. Look, I know these routes have abysmal on-time performance, but there has to be a better solution than this! At least the 455 gains a new early-morning trip from Lynn to Wonderland on Sundays.

501: Some of the 501’s times are shifting, but it’s not losing that much service – about one or two trips per peak. Also, all inbound evening rush trips will now operate via the shorter Cambridge Street routing. This change is a long time coming, and it should help reliability on the way out. I don’t even know why some trips went the long way to begin with!

502/504: Both routes lose a minimal amount of peak service, but nothing to go crazy over. The 504’s midday service changes from every 30 minutes to every 35 minutes, though! Another clockface route has been killed.

505: Based on the trend of these changes, you would probably guess that the 505 is losing a bit of peak service. And you’re right! The evening rush loses one peak-direction trip, and running times throughout are lengthened by ten minutes or more because let’s face it, the Pike is a mess at rush hour.

SL1/SL2/SL3: The three Silver Line Waterfront routes sadly are getting a little less frequent. It’s never anything worse than a one-minute difference, though.

Summary: Sadly, these changes seem to mostly represent further steps down a dark path the T is taking. We seem to be heading toward a world with completely random headways, no coordination between routes, and overall less service. I don’t want to continue down this path, and I hope that Better Bus changes (particularly in Phase 2) will lead to serious improvements to a bus system that is clearly declining in quality. I understand that most of these changes are to offset truly horrible on-time performance (check out any bus route profile and you’ll see how bad the situation is), but the service is getting so much worse as a result! It’s clear that the bus system needs more investment so we can have buses with clear, clockface schedules…that also run on time.

There is one positive, though: the MBTA continues to invest in better early-morning service on multiple routes. Hopefully we can one day have a system that truly runs 24/7, so it wouldn’t have to run such intensive early morning service because there’s nothing from 1 AM to 5 AM. Either way, it’s nice to see the early morning getting some much-needed love. Oh, also, the 77 is getting better night service. For some reason. Seriously, I really don’t understand why they’re doing that. Each 77 after 9 PM gets, like, 20-25 people max with perfectly frequent headways. And there are so many other routes that could use better service! Okay, okay, I’m done…

Aquarium and Entertainment Center (River LINE)

Welcome to the very small touristy part of Camden! It gets two River LINE stations, each named after their closest tourist attractions, and I figured we’d look at both of them in one post. Why? Because…well, they’re both pretty uninteresting. So, let’s review Aquarium and Entertainment Center!

The inbound platform at Aquarium.

Aquarium is a street-running station in mixed traffic, but the road is two lanes in each direction, so cars can pass stopped trains. It has two long platforms with ramps on each end (although the sidewalk does continue behind both), and there are shelters in the middle. Both get maps, benches, and artwork on the columns, although only the northbound platform gets ticket machines. Okay, it’s the second-to-last stop, so I get it.

Two trains lined up at Entertainment Center.

Entertainment Center isn’t street-running, but it’s basically the same thing as Aquarium in all other aspects. It has two platforms with ramps, two shelters (both with the same amenities, although this time, each shelter gets a ticket machine), and a tingling feeling of deja vu. Since this is the last stop, though, you can board at either platform depending on which train is leaving next. How you actually find out which one is leaving, I have no idea.

A train back at Aquarium.

River LINE Stations: Aquarium and Entertainment Center

Ridership: There’s no ridership data for these, but I honestly don’t think it’s too high. The most I can imagine is a few tourists taking PATCO to Broadway and then taking this for a few stops. Even then, though, the RiverLink Ferry is probably how most tourists would get here (but it’s far more expensive).

Pros: They have River LINE amenities. That means they’re pretty good by default, if a little boring.

Cons: One con for each: Aquarium is street-running, and Entertainment Center has an ambiguous layout where you don’t know which train is leaving (as far as I can tell).

Nearby and Noteworthy: The station names are very helpful here! Each one has its namesake tourist attraction, plus an additional attraction that’s also pretty close. So, Aquarium has the Adventure Aquarium (which I’d love to visit, but aquariums are expensive) and the Camden Children’s Garden, while Entertainment Center has the BB&T Pavillion and Battleship New Jersey.

Final Verdict: 6/10
These are standard River LINE stations, but since River LINE stations are all so average, the smallest issue can lower their score. As you saw in the Cons section, I have one slight problem with each stop. So: 6/10 for both.

Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates

Blue Hill Avenue

The day after I became the first passenger to ride SEPTA’s new bus route, the MBTA just had to open a new station! And yes, I did go to Boston to review it. Not just any station, too – a Fairmount Line station. Where all of the stations are notoriously the same thing. Clearly, I’m crazy. So, after my eight-and-a-half hour journey (video coming at some point!), I hopped on the 10 PM Fairmount train with Jordan (the true first passenger to step foot into the station that morning) and rode down to Blue Hill Ave.

Ah, it’s bright!

First observation: wow, this place is well-lit! Like, really well-lit. LED lights galore bask the platform in huge amounts of brightness. Second observation: oooh, rocks! The station was built in a partial cut, and the open rock formations add a surprising amount of character to what would normally be a generic Fairmount Line station. The central part of the platform has no shelter, just benches and some digital signs that are slightly smaller than the normal ones. We also get those robotic Boston Landing announcements, for better or for worse.

The Cummins Highway shelter.

The station has two entrances, one at Cummins Highway and one at Blue Hill Ave. Both get identical shelters. Again, they’re incredibly well-lit, plus they have security cameras and emergency call boxes, so the station feels very safe. From each entrance, longgggggggg ramps lead up to their respective streets. So long that they both have benches in the middle in case people need to take a break!

The Cummins Highway entrance.

The Cummins Highway entrance gets a T symbol, train information, and a bench, perhaps to wait for pickups. There’s also a Blue Hill Ave sign on the bridge that still says that the station is “Coming Soon!” Finally, we get this odd stone block in the middle of the entrance. I’m not sure what its point is, but it’s just…there. The 30 runs down Cummins Highway, but the closest stops are 1-2 blocks away. I know the route only runs every hour most of the time, but it might make sense to consolidate some stops to relocate them closer to the station.

The Blue Hill Ave side.

Yup, and the Blue Hill Ave entrance is basically identical to the Cummins Highway one, minus the big stone. Instead, this one gets a knee-high blockade blocking access to the road. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the inbound bus stop for the 28, 29, and 31 is right across the street from the entrance! I guess most people won’t be making bus transfers here, but for what it’s worth, the bus stops are generally well-placed at this entrance. Jordan and I jaywalked across and hopped on a 28 towards Dudley from here, and in a few hours, I would be getting on a Greyhound bus back to Philly.

Our outbound heading towards Readville.

Station: Blue Hill Ave

Ridership: A 10 PM train is not a good one for judging ridership (although for a Fairmount train, it was reasonably busy with about 20 people on board), but two other people got off here. Jordan said when he was here in the morning, it was getting decent inbound ridership. Either way, I think this will be a well-used station: it’s right near Mattapan’s commercial hub, and there’s plenty of dense housing around it.

Pros: Even though it’s boring, the Fairmount Line station formula works well. It’s hard to complain about a fully high-level platform with direct entrances and lots of light. Plus, the rock formations do add some character! The station’s location is fantastic – Mattapan will finally get a one-seat ride into downtown, which will be a huge benefit to everyone in the neighborhood.

Cons: Sigh…it’s still the Fairmount Line. The station still gets one train per hour. You still can’t pay using CharlieCards. You still won’t get free transfers to other modes. That’s really the biggest drawback here – Blue Hill Ave won’t blossom until it gets legitimate, frequent service integrated with the rest of the system. As for problems with the station itself, though? Just a few wonky connections to bus stops and the fact that the Cummins Highway shelter is basically useless unless you’re travelling outbound (which very few people will).

Nearby and Noteworthy: There are a ton of businesses along Blue Hill Ave south of here – in particular, a bunch of casual restaurants and a few salons, among other stores.

Final Verdict: 8/10
I’ve definitely said this in a Fairmount Line review before: I’m reviewing the station, not the line. Yes, the line remains inadequate for the dense urban areas it serves. In a logical world, this would be a rapid transit station. BUT: the station itself is quite good, and that’s really what I’m reviewing here.

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
It was a blast to come back to Boston for about three hours! Stay tuned for a video documenting my journey, plus the hilarious review of the station with Jordan. I don’t know how long it’ll take to edit, but it’s in the pipeline for sure.

49 (33rd-Dauphin to 29th-Snyder)

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.

I always take a photo of the bus, so why not give Indego some love too?

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.

Made it!

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.

Not a soul.

“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.

Hey…

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.

NO!!!!!

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 empty inside.

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.

The sun has yet to come up.
My obligatory selfie!

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!”

Back up north.

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.

Here it comes!

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.

A smorgasbord of architectures on Susquehanna.

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.

Some colorful rowhouses.

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.

Turning onto 21st.

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.

Looking down the Parkway in the other direction, with City Hall shrouded in fog.

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.

Over the Schuylkill we go!

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.

Lots of engineering buildings down that way.

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.

A bridge never before travelled by a SEPTA route! (except for an old variant of the 12…)

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.

Some apartments and a few vacant lots.

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.

A near-identical photo to the one I took on the first trip, except the bus is a little further down the street.
Fittingly enough, my last 49 ride of the day was with the bus and driver that did the first trip! Here it is at Penn, just after I got off.

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…

Service Change: Transit in Baltimore

A Service Change??? Yes, I’m actually doing one. My friend and I visited Baltimore a few weekends ago, and I came in knowing I wanted to do a post – I had never been to the Charm City before, and I knew very little about its public transportation network, the MTA (whose website completely rips off the MBTA’s, incidentally). So join me in exploring this brand new city via transit!

After a long and predictably late Greyhound trip (not because of traffic, but because of a random 20-minute stop at a service plaza for seemingly no reason), we arrived at “Baltimore Downtown” station. Baltimore Downtown, huh? Yeah, it’s about a 40-minute walk to anywhere resembling a downtown. Apparently it was built where it was because of local opposition to putting it in the actual downtown, but it leaves it in such a horrible place! Your only transit options from here are the 73, which runs downtown but only comes every 45 minutes most of the time, and the 26, which is actually every 15 minutes on weekdays (every 35 on weekends), but it doesn’t go anywhere a tourist would want to go.

So we walked. The roads around the bus terminal are really pedestrian-unfriendly, but eventually we made our way into the Federal Hill neighborhood. Honestly, it felt like one of those neighborhoods that you can only fully enjoy if you’re over 21. But you know what can be enjoyed by anyone of any age?

THIS THING!!!!!!!

This, my friends, is the free Harbor Connector. It only runs at rush hour, and it operates three routes that do short-hauls across Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Patapsco River. We did the HC3, which runs from Federal Hill to Harbor East, a journey that takes about five minutes. The boat was adorable, the ridership was tiny, and it was a great introduction to the Charm City.

The cute inside.
The boat’s windows weren’t conducive to good photography, so here’s the view from Federal Hill.
The other side already?

After that wonderful ride, we walked through Fells Point (a truly wonderful, bustling neighborhood) and Canton (where we had dinner). We kept walking after dinner up to Eastern Ave and Conkling Street, in the neighborhood of Highlandtown. This was where we picked up the CityLink Blue, one of the twelve colored bus routes in Baltimore with frequent, 24-hour service.

Look, it even says so on the sign!

The colored CityLink routes represent absolutely amazing branding. MTA redesigned its bus network a few years back, and I have to say, the way they sold it was fantastic. But has it been successful? The numbers say no, and I was pretty mixed myself. The CityLink Blue is an exception, but a lot of their colored lines are as infrequent as every half hour on Sundays! That’s not frequent!

It looks empty now, but the bus was standing room only by the time we got downtown.

Also, I would’ve thought stop spacing would’ve seen big improvements with a redesign. But no – stops were wildly inconsistent, with reasonable lengths at some times and multiple stops on the same block at other times! And the on-time performance. Oh, geez, it’s bad. 67% systemwide. It shows – buses were late all the time. For a good look into the current state of the redesign, check out this article, which goes into much more detail on these issues.

I’m digging this starry night decor.

Hey, speaking of stop spacing, did you know that the CityLink Blue has an express section? And did you know that it comes right after our stop? Well…we accidentally missed our stop because the automatic announcement came late. So it was time to express to West Baltimore, a place that really didn’t look like a fun neighborhood to be in at night! At least the bus terminal there was spacious and well-lit – but we did have to get back somehow.

I do love those departure screens.

We discovered something else once we got here: MTA doesn’t give transfers. That’s right, they did a bus network redesign focusing on a high-frequency grid…but they don’t have transfers. Unless you bought your ticket on the app. Which we didn’t. We tried to explain to the driver of a CityLink Orange that we had missed our stop and we were trying to get back, but with headphones in, he bluntly said, “Doesn’t matter, you gotta pay.”

Nice aesthetic! You can’t see it in this picture, but the bus also had a skylight.
The bus after our local ride.

Next day! Time to ride the…Metro SubwayLink? Hang on, that’s what you’re calling it, MTA? It used to just be the Metro Subway, but they had to add “Link” to everything with the redesign, so now we get this cumbersome name that no one actually uses. I guess LA already took Metrolink, huh? Anyway, our underground journey began at Lexington Market Station, where we got a firsthand glimpse of the Metro’s graphic design:

That font looks too much like Impact for me not to hate it.

The stairs here didn’t actually go underground, they just led to a submerged courtyard where the real entrance was. Once inside, I was impressed at how big and high-capacity the station was. It felt like one of the grandiose stops on the Second Avenue Subway in New York, except a lot less aesthetically pleasing, and with far fewer riders. Also, with smooth jazz. Yes, MTA plays smooth jazz at every single rail station, reminding me of just how much I hate the soprano saxophone. And if you’re a complete masochist, you can stream that wonderful music 24/7 right here!

It’s so big!

One of the faregates was just open, so everyone was going through that one, although you do have to swipe again when you leave. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, since it’s a fixed fare, but maybe it’s to prevent fare-dodging. Then again, these people going through the open gate without paying seemed to know what they were doing. Anyway, Lexington Market has a much easier way to fare-dodge: the elevator to the platform is outside of fare control! How that works, I have no idea, but a cashier did ask someone walking toward it if they had a ticket.

Down on the platform.

The Metro SubwayLink began operation in 1983. That should give you an idea of what the station design is like. I do have to give Lexington Market some credit for having interesting artwork, though. The litter on the tracks was a little less appealing, but it did make me feel like I was back in Philly!

Not very photogenic, is it?

At this point, I should probably mention that the Metro SubwayLink consists of just one line with fourteen stops. Yeah, it’s a lot easier to figure out why barely anyone uses this thing once you know that. Heck, on weekends, it only runs every 15 minutes! That’s horrible for a heavy rail metro line! The most frequent it gets is every 8 minutes at rush hour.

The real question is: is it dated enough to be cool?

I’ll give this to the Metro: its seats were super comfortable. But the whole thing felt like it was stuck in 1983, right down to the announcements coming over the tinny, low-quality speakers. Also, the last crossover on the line was three stops away from Johns Hopkins, so for the eastern three stops, trains have to run on the wrong track. Umm…what? Maybe there’s a crossover past Johns Hopkins that they use on weekdays, but as far as I saw, all trains are forced to use this ridiculous arrangement! Talk about a capacity constraint.

Hey, we’re outside!

The main problem with the Metro is that it…well…doesn’t really go anywhere. The eight underground stops serve actual neighborhoods, but the six that are above ground (which form a larger proportion of the line’s length, since the stops are much further apart) are mostly just park-and-rides. Indeed, after Old Court (the second-to-last stop), the line spends three miles in the middle of a freeway running through the woods to the last stop, Owings Mills, which only really serves a newly-built lifestyle center. Want to get anywhere else from there, you better have a car.

Okay, the freeway section is a blast, though, not gonna lie.

From Owings Mills, we took the train back to Old Court and hopped on a bus route, the 83. This is one of the “Metro feeder” routes, which used to get an “M-” prefix before the redesign. The 83 runs down Reisterstown Road, essentially serving the actual civilization that the Metro misses, before terminating at Mondawmin Station (the first underground one on the Metro).

Our train leaving Old Court.
The long walkway at Old Court.
The 83 picking people up at the busy Mondawmin busway.

Our next transit-related expedition began in Charles Village, home to Johns Hopkins University. It involved taking the 51 bus to Towson, then the 93 to Hunt Valley. Neither of these were especially noteworthy trips, but why were we taking these buses? To get to the Light RailLink, of course! Ah, okay, that name doesn’t really work either…

Hunt Valley Station.

This light rail line is fascinating. It runs up to Hunt Valley, the northernmost point on the entire local MTA network (including bus, aside from the 93 which goes a tiny bit further north), to serve…a suburban shopping mall. It’s a very nice suburban shopping mall, but there’s really nothing else here! It seems to generate ridership, though, so they’re doing something right. I’ll bet trains get empty after the mall closes, though.

A completely different train, but it was my best picture of the light rail interior.

These high-floor trains have seen better days. They feel just as dated as the Metro, but they have the added bonus of chipping paint on the outside! Also, it seems like the light rail’s schedule is completely unreliable. I mean, the weekend we were here, they were doing single-tracking up at Hunt Valley and running a shuttle train from there to Timonium, which threw all the schedules on their head. And of course, MTA didn’t put any signs up. The operator didn’t tell us anything until he came out and kicked everyone off at Timonium. No one knew what was going on. It was a complete mess.

Chaos at Timonium.

The line from Hunt Valley to Timonium consists of snaking through industrial areas making a ton of stops that saw very little ridership on a Saturday. Once we got on the train to continue from Timonium, there were two more industrial stops, then the line ran through the complete middle of nowhere without stopping! Since it’s following an old rail right-of-way, it bypasses actual places where people want to go, like Towson. The line even runs through a downtown (Ruxton), but there’s no stop there because of local opposition when the line was being built. It was a very scenic ride (I didn’t take any pictures for some reason, unfortunately), but not a useful one.

A train at Timonium. “BWI”, “Thurgood”, “Marshall”, and “Airport” all got their own individual slides on the headsign. You really can’t just say “Airport” with a plane symbol and call it a day?

The line didn’t enter proper civilization until Mount Royal a few blocks from Penn Station, the main MARC (Maryland commuter rail) and Amtrak station for the city. A few blocks was a little too much walking time, apparently, so MTA decided to build a light rail spur line there that runs every half hour. They also failed to put any signs up saying that it was replaced by buses on this day! So we wasted our time walking to Penn Station, but at least we got to see the…actually rather underwhelming main hall.

The outside is nice…
…but the main hall isn’t anything special…
…and it really falls apart by the time you get to the waiting area.
The very narrow light rail staircase.
The light rail platform. Also, ignore that “closed” sign – it’s for something else, not about the bus shuttle.

But hey, as long as we’re here, I’ll just talk about how we did get to ride the light rail shuttle! That’s right, on Sunday, we came down here on a whim not expecting anything, but a train was sitting right there! Now, the shuttle usually runs to Camden Yards, which is the other MARC station in Baltimore, but that station was (and is) being renovated. Thus, the shuttle was only running to…Mount Royal. It was a two minute ride with no one on board. Sweet.

Heading back to Penn Station.

Okay, back to Saturday. After our time had been wasted, we got back on the light rail at Mount Royal and entered the street-running downtown section. It was brutally slow. Even outside of downtown, it seemed like the trains would sit there for a while at each station doing nothing! Luckily, they would get a lot of speed in between stops, and south of downtown, the line has this awesome bridge over a body of water with a highway interchange over it! The light rail kinda swoops between it all.

Down at Glen Burnie/Cromwell.

The southern half of the light rail seems to be overall better-used, since it does actually serve places. Well, more so than the north, anyway. After Linthicum, it splits into two branches, each with half-hourly service. We took the Glen Burnie/Cromwell branch, which nearly makes it to downtown Glen Burnie, but stops a little under a mile before it.

Those screens only showed photos of old buses. I really hope MTA has something else planned for them, as cool as the photos were…

And where did we go from Cromwell? Annapolis. Yeah, MTA actually runs a bus to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. The bus ride felt like a long-distance RIPTA route with fewer highway sections and lower ridership. It was totally worth it, though – Annapolis was awesome. It has its own horrible little bus system, but we unfortunately never got the chance to ride it. At least I got one singular photo:

Hello, goodbye.

But we weren’t going to miss out on the other branch of the light rail! We decided to push the airport branch to the next day, Sunday, when…the light rail doesn’t start until 10:40 AM. Okay, scratch that, no way were we waiting that long for a train! One option was to take MARC to the airport and the light rail back, but I had a different idea…

Oho!

I love weird bus variants. The 75 is the only MTA bus route that serves the airport, but it usually begins at the Patapsco light rail station…except when the light rail isn’t running, like on Sunday mornings. At those times, it runs express into the city! The bus was 20 minutes late, but for an hourly service on a Sunday morning, it was pretty busy, with a full-seated load.

At the airport.
The train finally coming in.

After an excruciating wait with many other people, the train finally came, and we took it back into Baltimore. Our next destination was the B&O Railroad Museum, and to get to it, we were going to use downtown Baltimore’s free bus system, the Charm City Circulator. It has four routes serving different parts of downtown, and it seemed like it would be the happy fun tourist bus. That turned out not to be the case…

This doesn’t seem like the route’s regular bus.

“The tree spirit came. The tree spirit came and it opened my body and peed in my body. Then the tree spirit took my intestines and put feces in my intestines and trash in my mouth.” Well, for crazy ramblings, this lady was certainly being creative. But it was a bit of a relief when the ride was over.

Yeah…good riddance.
Long story short, the railroad museum was wonderful.

We did one more Charm City Circulator ride later on, this time on the Purple Line, which had much a much higher ratio of normal people who actually seemed like they were going somewhere. We also took a trip on the CityLink Navy to get back to the Greyhound station, but the walk from the bus turned out to be longer than expected. And that’s about it! I really enjoyed my time in Baltimore – it’s a great city, and it would be a blast to come back again. I leave you with a photo of the harbor from the top of the world’s tallest pentagonal building:

A whole 30 floors!