This is it. This is the big one. Center City to Chestnut Hill. Over ten miles of local streets. A myriad of different neighborhoods, buildings, and demographics. Let’s do it: the 23.

I’d better get comfortable – this will be a long ride.

As I mentioned in the last review, I chose Market Street as the transfer point between the 45 and the 23. The 23 actually begins a few blocks south on Locust Street, but very few people were on board when the bus arrived – Market was the big stop where lots of people got on. Once everyone was on, we took off down 11th Street, passing Jefferson Station and getting a glimpse of Reading Terminal Market a block away.

That view of City Hall never gets old!

We went under the Hilton’s Convention Center Garage, but not the Convention Center itself, whose three-block long building ends at 11th. We were in Chinatown as we went over the horrible Vine Street Expressway, but that more or less ended once we went under the rail viaduct that might eventually become part of the Rail Park. Right after that was a huge electric substation where the 45 officially terminates.

Oh look, it’s my 45 way down there!

As we crossed the wide Spring Garden Street, the neighborhood seemed to be in transition from old buildings in disrepair to brand new ones. The contrast continued as the scenery turned to row houses, until they got replaced by…duplex houses? What?? Okay, I guess there’s just a random suburban neighborhood in the middle of North Philadelphia. Sure.

This is interesting!

After we crossed Girard Ave with its vintage streetcars, it went back to row houses, but the cul-de-sac street pattern within the grid suggested that these were built later in Philadelphia’s life. And then, suddenly, the buildings started to get taller and more modern. Yes, it was time to travel through Temple University with its high-rise dorms, huge classroom buildings, and sports fields.

The Temple “skyline”, as it were.

The influence of the university more or less stopped once we went under the elevated Regional Rail tracks. Beautiful murals and gardens were set up next to the overpass, and there was a big park just after the crossing, but it was clear that we were starting to enter the heart of North Philadelphia. The buildings weren’t as well maintained, there were vacant lots in places, and everything generally felt more run-down.

You can see how quickly the neighborhood changed.

Suddenly, we turned onto Huntingdon Street for a short time, then made a left onto Germantown Ave. This was a very different part of the neighborhood – a commercial thoroughfare, Germantown Ave was lined with colorful and unique businesses. It was still very much North Philadelphia (lots of discount stores and check-cashing places, for example), but this street was more vibrant, more bustling.

A bad picture because we were turning, but here’s a look down Germantown Ave.

It turned back to apartments the further we went, though, and they were in pretty bad shape. Again, lots of vacant land between each building that was still standing, and the streetcar tracks in the middle of the road promised rail that may never come back. We went under the wide Northeast Corridor right of way, and on the other side, the apartments were supplemented by businesses, some industrial buildings, and a school. We also passed the modern Temple University Hospital.

A curving side street.

Germantown Ave generally runs in a diagonal through the street grid, so eventually we were gonna hit Broad Street. We finally did with a huge intersection between Germantown, Broad, and Erie, and it was busy. There were tons of businesses, people walking around every which way, two sets of abandoned streetcar tracks (aside from the old 23 ones, the 56 on Erie was once a trolley, too), a very busy Broad Street Line stop, and lots of passengers getting on the bus.

Crossing Broad and Erie.

Past that busy intersection, it went back to brick apartments, many of which had businesses on the first floor. A lot of the buildings were in disrepair, and a lot of the businesses were closed. We went over a railroad track, and though much of the retail was still closed, the buildings themselves started to be in better shape. There was another big change after we went under the Roosevelt Expressway and the apartments got more modern (like they were built in the past 10-20 years).

The buildings are definitely in better shape here (this is before crossing the Roosevelt Expressway).

We went under the complex system of railroad tracks next to Wayne Junction Station, and then, I’m very sad to say, we went on detour. The route would normally stay on Germantown Ave, passing various businesses of more or less the same ilk as before, albeit in more charming buildings. However, there was some sort of food festival going on, so we used Berkley Street to get onto Greene Street instead.

A side street from Greene. You can see how the neighborhood has changed a lot!

Greene Street was lined with apartments, but these were very different apartments from before; these ones were in great condition with big porches and gardens. We were now in the Germantown neighborhood, and it was clearly much different from North Philadelphia. At the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, we turned onto School House Lane, using it to get back onto Germantown Ave, rejoining the regular route.

Returning to Germantown Ave.

Clearly, Germantown Ave was still a major urban thoroughfare. It had gained lovely cobblestones since we left, but a lot of the retail along it was still closed. It didn’t seem like we were in a “nice” neighborhood yet, but we were getting closer. We passed a park, and as we continued along, a higher proportion of the retail became operational.

What appears to be a gorgeous old church (EDIT: Ira in the comments pointed out that this is Germantown’s old, beautiful, and vacant former town hall).

The number of historical sights also increased as we went on – we were going by a lot of historical societies and historic houses and whatnot. Indeed, it seemed like every building was a historical sight, especially combined with the cobblestoned road with trolley tracks in the middle! We went through a park past a historical mansion, and there were some rather large houses along the road for a bit.

And just like that, it feels like we’re in the suburbs!

The leafy road passed SEPTA’s Germantown District facility as the buildings continued to get more charming. It was distinctly urban again (back to apartments rather than houses), and now the businesses served very different purposes than what we had been seeing previously. No more discount stores or check-cashing places – now, there were playhouses, produce markets, and pet shops.

Some fancy apartments on a side street.

We passed a gigantic park that was part of a church, then we curved around past an old 23 PCC streetcar that had been converted into a diner. The street went under a disused rail right of way and past the start of a trail going into a really gigantic park, and now we were in Chestnut Hill. Yes…we had arrived in one of the richest urban neighborhoods in the country. This route really is dynamic. And it’s entirely within the boundaries of Philadelphia.

Some of the boutiques in downtown Chestnut Hill.

Chestnut Hill’s downtown was about as upscale as a downtown can be. Artist shops, clothing stores, and fancy restaurants were all prominent as we trundled down Germantown Ave through the neighborhood center. Once we passed Chestnut Hill West station, the bus turned into the Chestnut Hill Loop, and that was it. The end of a very interesting ride.

A hastily-taken shot, as I may or may not have been running for another bus…

Route: 23 (Center City – Chestnut Hill)

Ridership: This used to be the busiest bus route on SEPTA, but once it was split off from the 45, it has now dipped to second busiest behind the 18, although it’s by a very small margin. The 23 gets an average of 17,672 riders per weekday (the 18 gets 17,760), which is a ton. Indeed, my Saturday morning ride going outbound got a total of 96 riders! Wow! The bus was never too busy at any given time, though, since the ons and offs were spread out along the whole route.

Pros: Well geez, it certainly serves a lot, huh? The 23 passes through so many different neighborhoods with so many different atmospheres and demographics, it’s like a tour of Philadelphia. You’ll also never have to wait long for a bus – the route runs every ten minutes or better on weekdays until around 8 (when it starts slowly making its way down to every half hour), every 15 minutes or better on Saturdays, and every 20 minutes or better on Sundays. It even has Owl service every 40 minutes all night, although only from Chestnut Hill to a little past Broad and Erie (facilitating transfers to the Broad Street Owl).

Cons: This is a long, slow route. For example, it’s scheduled to take about an hour on Saturdays, but my trip ended up being 70 minutes. The length of the route also translates to some serious bunching. I mean, I saw three buses in a row going the other way! This is with a 15 minute headway, remember! If SEPTA actually had free transfers, the far better place to split the route with the 45 would be at Broad and Erie, since then both routes would actually be of reasonable length, and passengers could hop on the Broad Street Line there. Heck, it would save time to use that from points northwest instead of the really slow bus on local streets! Just another argument for dropping the transfer fee, SEPTA. And by the way, I’d just like to mention again that my “free” transfer from the 45 to the 23 didn’t work on Key!!!!

Nearby and Noteworthy: There’s a ton of noteworthy stuff on this route! From attractions in Center City to Temple University to historic Germantown to posh Chestnut Hill, the 23 serves many different parts of Philly. There’s something here for everyone.

Final Verdict: 6/10 
It’s a really important and busy route…but it’s so darn long. It’s one of the most consistently frequent routes on SEPTA…but it’s so darn unreliable. There are a lot of tradeoffs with the 23, and I think a 6 captures the love/hate relationship that I (and everyone else who rides this thing) has with it. Even though it was a fantastic tour of Philly’s many neighborhoods (especially combined with the 45), I was definitely ready to get off the bus once I arrived up at Chestnut Hill…

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