It was of the utmost importance that I rode the 3 on a Saturday or Sunday midday. You see, most of the time, it does indeed end at a SEPTA loop at 33rd-Cecil B. Moore, but on weekend middays…yes, weekend middays, it gets extended to the Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park. My parents were in town for Family Weekend, so my dad and I decided to do a father-son excursion to the park. Only children aged 10 and younger are allowed inside? Psh, I can pretend to be 10…

All right, it even says it on the destination sign!!

It’s a long trek to childlike wonder and fun, though – first we have to start at Frankford and suffer through the 3’s longgggg first half. You see, it travels directly underneath the El from Frankford all the way down to Berks, stopping every. Single. Block. And all the while you can hear the trains up above speeding by at a million miles an hour. Ugh…this section isn’t gonna ride itself, I suppose…

The gloomy shadow of the El isn’t always captured in these pictures, alas.

Alright, straight onto Frankford Ave we went, passing lots of businesses (some open, some permanently closed) with apartments on top of them, as well as the Jefferson Frankford Hospital. Cruising through the busy intersection around Margaret-Orthodo…er, Arrott Transportation Center, the street remained lined with retail, although many of the colorful signs led only to shuttered doors. Still, Saint Mark’s Church was an absolutely beautiful building, and its parking lot was home to a fantastic mural.

…but I was on the wrong side of the bus, so here’s a pizza joint.

We went under Church Station, merged onto Kensington Ave, and went by a few auto shops as we crossed Frankford Creek. The other side of the creek was suburban, with a lot of fast food restaurants surrounded by parking lots; I’ve always found it fascinating that this neighborhood just happens to have an elevated rapid transit station (Erie-Torresdale) right smack in the middle of it. It got industrial for a while, continuing after we went under the Northeast Corridor up until Tioga Station.

Some of that industry.

There was a park at Tioga, and from there, Kensington Ave once again became a major commercial corridor – a highlight was a huge factory converted to a furniture showcase. The next El station was at Allegheny, an infamous intersection known for having a basically decriminalized drug trade. There were so many people just hanging around here (including a massive crowd on the right side of the bus), and the intersection’s reputation meant that I couldn’t help theorizing what they might’ve been doing.

Crossing Allegheny.

We continued to Somerset Station, passing more retail (much of which was shuttered), a park with a charming library in the middle, and a few auto shops. The road went under an abandoned train line, and there were more businesses, a hospital, and a school on the other side. Huntingdon was the next El stop, and the one after, York-Dauphin, came with a slight left turn onto Front Street.

Shoot, wish I could’ve captured more of that mural on the left – it looks amazing!

It’s about at the turn onto Front where you start to see signs of gentrification – the buildings were in better shape, and there were new apartment constructions (of questionable architectural taste). We didn’t quite make it into true hipsterville, though, as we took a left onto Berks Street next to the station of the same name. Man, it sure was nice to escape the shadow of the El!

So excited to see sunlight again!

Berks had a wide variety of uses occupying its lots, from apartments (both old and new) to industrial buildings (some abandoned, some repurposed) to just empty tracts of land. We were supposed to turn onto 6th Street next to a supermarket to get down to Cecil B. Moore Ave, but…uh-oh, an emergency vehicle was blocking the one-way, one-lane road. This was unexpected.

Backing up!

The driver acted quickly, reversing out of the turn back onto Berks. Someone in the back of the bus was looking out the window behind us helping him out. “Keep going, keep going, keep going…hold up hold up hold up!” Through their incredible impromptu coordination, we reversed our way back onto Germantown Ave, using that to get onto Cecil B. Moore instead.

An abandoned, graffiti-covered building in front, but a brand new apartment down the street.

There were a few blocks of heavy industry, then a few blocks of one of North Philly’s weird suburban housing developments, then we went under the Regional Rail tracks and entered Temple University. Well-kept college buildings lined Cecil B. Moore, and a huge crowd was waiting for us when we arrived at Broad Street and its corresponding subway station. The driver opened the back doors to let people off, but people caught wind and started swarming in without paying. Oh well.

Crossing Broad Street.

We passed several blocks of student-oriented businesses west of Broad, but it got more residential the further we went. Still, probably because of the university’s proximity, modern apartments were dotted in between more classic Philly rowhouses. The few abandoned lots that were left are probably going to be built on very soon. There were a few more suburban residential developments to the north.

A street right near Temple.

We had definitely escaped Temple’s influence by the time we got to the commercial intersection with Ridge Ave, where the retail ranged from dollar stores to check-cashing places to laundromats (and a bunch of vacant stores, too). A decent chunk of lots west of there were vacant, with a few abandoned rowhouses among the lived-in ones. The businesses along here served local needs, with many convenience stores and day cares.

The diagonal Ridge Ave.

Crossing the Northeast Corridor (again!), it was just a few more stops until we reached 33rd. “Last stop,” a passenger said to us as he got out. But my dad and I knew better: it was time to go to the playground! The bus turned onto 33rd for a block, then we swung a right onto Reservoir Drive, entering Fairmount Park. It was pretty bizarre speeding through the woods after having slowly trundled through the city for 45 minutes. The bus used a triangular road pattern to loop around, and we (as well as someone else who definitely exceeded the park’s age limit) got off the bus outside the playground’s driveway. The route map says it’s supposed to deviate right to the front gate, but that didn’t happen…

This bus is definitely out of its element here in the park!

Route: 3 (33rd-Cecil B. Moore to Frankford Transportation Center)

Ridership: The 3 barely makes SEPTA’s top 25 for ridership (at slot 25!), getting 8,557 riders per weekday. That averages out to about 50 people per trip, and since the route takes about 50 minutes end-to-end, it’s about a rider a minute! Not bad!

Pros: The crosstown portion of the 3 is really strong. Cecil B. Moore Ave is a really major street, and the heavy local ridership the route gets along here exemplifies that. It helps that this route actually has a decent schedule! Weekday service is fantastic, running at least every 15 minutes from 6 AM to 9 PM (although SEPTA didn’t give it a 15-15-5 timetable cover…weird), with a bus every 8-12 minutes at rush hour and every half hour at night until 2:30 AM. But weekend service isn’t bad either – for most of the day (mid-morning to evening) it’s a solid every 20 minutes, and it’s every half hour at the other times of the day. The Smith Memorial Playground variant doesn’t seem to get a ton of people and it does complicate the route, but it doesn’t actually affect the number of buses needed to run it, so I guess I can’t really complain.

Cons: The route gets about 10 boardings per service hour fewer at rush hour than it does middays, so it’s possible that peak service could be less frequent, with the resources redistributed to increase Saturday headways to every 15 minutes. Other than that, I really want to complain about the section underneath the El, but it does actually get decent ridership – not as good as the rest of the route, but buses on that section average about 15-20 riders on board at any one time. But…how many of them would still be on board if transfers were free? And the only non-wheelchair accessible El stop on the route is Arrott, which is being upgraded as we speak. Once that’s done, there’s no legal reason the service has to be run underneath the El, although backlash would be strong if SEPTA tried to remove the service. Hmm…

Nearby and Noteworthy: Well, even though I can’t visit it, the Smith Memorial Playground does look like a wonderful happyland for kids. For those of the non-child variety, Keystone Mini-Golf and Arcade looks like a ton of fun – you could take the 3 to Berks and 2nd, or just ride the El to Berks Station (which is most likely a lot faster).

Final Verdict: 7/10
The 3 is a surprisingly decent route, and I did not expect to say that going in. I mean, half of it is just duplication of the El! But that does still seem like the place where the most improvement could be made here. I couldn’t help comparing the 3 to the 5, which basically duplicates the El from Berks to 2nd…but it runs down the otherwise-unserved Frankford Ave north of that to Frankford Transportation Center. The 5 only runs every 22 minutes on weekdays and every half hour on weekends – maybe this less frequent service could run underneath the El instead, while the 3 could bring frequent service to Frankford Ave, a street that doesn’t currently have it? Something like this:

Now instead of two frequent routes overlapping each other (i.e. the 3 and the El on Kensington), you get two frequent corridors in Northeast Philly. The thing is, though, this plan would only make sense if transfers were free – passengers would still want to get between the two routes, and those coming from Frankford Ave would now have to transfer to the El at Berks to get into Center City (although it would be a faster trip, and it would take riders to far more places than the 5 does). The route along Kensington Ave would only really be useful for local service (barring transfers), but that’s how a lot of people use the 3 on that section already. Ultimately, free transfers are the most important thing to implement here; this route swap could be an interesting and beneficial byproduct of that, though.

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