Getting to the largest mall in the United States from Philly is no small feat, at least until its rail link opens up (in 500 years). Do you brave the Schuylkill Expressway on the 124/125, or do you let the Norristown High Speed Line take you part of the way up? Or, if you’re feeling particularly unorthodox…why not take the 123?
Yes, rather than take the Norristown High Speed Line and transfer to the 124/125, why not just get a one-seat express ride from 69th Street to the mall? After all, the highways in the ‘burbs are less likely to experience traffic than the Surekill Distressway, right? I took the route on a Sunday, so there’s not a ton of traffic to begin with, but the route still had a few surprises up its sleeve.
We headed up the bus-only road through 69th Street’s huge SEPTA complex, which continued as we turned onto Victory Ave. Turning onto West Chester Pike, I’m sure everyone on the bus was reflecting on how much faster it would’ve been if the 123 boarded from the western side of 69th Street, but alas, it boards on the north side instead. I’m sure it’s a capacity thing, but the bus could save a solid two minutes just from not having to loop through the yard like it does!
West Chester Pike is a huge and important road, so there’s a lot on it (and since there are seven bus routes that use it coming out of 69th Street, I’ll become very familiar with it eventually). It’s four lanes wide with a big median (probably from its old trolley service) and when there’s no traffic, it moves quickly. We passed lots of businesses of various densities and with various parking lot sizes, while the side streets had apartments that started to become houses as we got further west.
Generally, the buildings got more suburban as we went along, despite a few promising retail blocks on occasion – West Chester Pike is such a wide and fast-moving road that any attempts at walkability are basically pointless. We dropped someone off at a shopping plaza, then we entered the woods, where it was a ton of trees and a few houses hidden behind them. Suddenly, we merged onto a highway ramp!
Now it was time for the route’s express portion on I-476, more commonly known as the “Blue Route”, even on the SEPTA map for the 123. The name has odd beginnings: it comes from a 1958 report discussing various possible routings for I-476, all represented with different colors. The one that ended up being built was the one colored blue on the map. I have no idea why that stuck, but sure!
So, what was the scenery along the Blue Route like? There wasn’t much of it. The highway spends a lot of its time running through parkland, so it was just trees on either side. Even when there weren’t parks, the highway was still lined with trees, while the neighborhoods it was running past had a lot of big houses with huge yards. Not that we could see them.
Right near Villanova, we suddenly started to slow down. The driver pulled over into the breakdown lane and stopped the bus. Everything went silent. “This thing’s not working,” the driver said as we sat there, cars whooshing past on the highway. How the heck were we gonna get out of this mess? Would we have to be towed away? Would they have to send another bus out?
Oh…a few minutes later, the engine started up again and we were able to pull back into the lane and keep going. I guess it just needed a break. That was less exciting than I was hoping it would be. We continued through the woods at normal speed again.
We navigated through a crazy interchange that was not only between I-476 and I-76, but it also had some weird off-ramps to nearby streets. We used it to get onto I-76, which surely by this point wouldn’t have traffic! Oh wait…this is the Schuylkill Expressway we’re talking about. Of course there was traffic.
We were able to escape at Exit 328, another crazy interchange with a ton of ramps going every which way. Coming onto the very wide Dekalb Pike, we soon turned onto Mall Boulevard, entering the King of Prussia Mall complex. The boulevard went under the mall and around it, then we pulled off into the mall’s bus terminal, arriving 13 minutes late.
Route: 123 (King of Prussia to 69th Street Transportation Center)
Ridership: The 123’s ridership is around the middle of the Suburban Division spectrum, with 902 riders per weekday. I will say that this one probably has an edge over other suburban routes, since I’ll bet weekend ridership is very similar to weekday. Honestly, the 123 is so shopping oriented that I wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday ridership was higher than weekday ridership!
Pros: I gotta say, I like the idea of this route. Its schedule is nice and easy to remember: mostly every half hour, leaving at the same times seven days a week. There are a few variations between days, such as longer trip times on weekdays to accommodate for rush hours, and a very strange occurrence on Saturdays where there are 9:50 PM and 9:52 PM trips from King of Prussia. I’m genuinely curious if the route gets the loads to necessitate that or if it’s just to get a bus back to 69th Street. Probably the latter.
Cons: I think it would make sense if the route was operated pick-up/drop-off only along West Chester Pike; it felt a little unnecessary to drop people off along the local section when other routes combine to make pretty frequent service along there, especially when the 123 is supposed to be an express. Also, don’t be surprised if your bus shows up to its destination later than it’s supposed to – the ride seems to often take longer than it’s scheduled to. I mean, despite our bus breaking down, the biggest source of delay was still the traffic on I-76, and as we know, traffic on that road can show up at any time. Finally, it would save a few minutes if the route boarded from 69th Street’s West Terminal instead of the North Terminal, but I assume capacity constraints won’t let that happen.
Nearby and Noteworthy: The mall. That’s about the only reason this route exists.
Final Verdict: 7/10
The 123 is a creative approach to attempting to solve the King of Prussia access problem. Although its routing isn’t completely free of traffic, it’s a heck of a lot better than taking I-76 all the way into Philly. If SEPTA could change the West Chester Pike service so people couldn’t use this route locally, that would make it even faster!
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