Welcome to SEPTA’s busiest bus route, the 18! And I know what you might be thinking: “You stupid hack-fraud idiot, the busiest route is the 23! Duh!” But oh no, my dear detractor: because the 23 was split in two, the 18 now gets more daily riders! Let’s take a full trip on it and see if it truly deserves to be the new king of the SEPTA bus network.
It’s interesting for SEPTA’s busiest route to be shaped like a big U (with some squiggles on one end, but we’ll get to that) that doesn’t go anywhere near Center City. A crosstown service, it begins at Fox Chase, runs down to Olney Ave, goes straight across, and then makes its way back north to Cedarbrook Plaza. My friend and I began at the Fox Chase Loop, which is exclusive to the 18; from there, we headed down Oxford Ave, quickly leaving the pedestrian-oriented businesses around the train station for more suburban affairs with parking lots.
We had to wait for a train to pass at an oddly-shaped level crossing with the Fox Chase Line, which bizarrely gets a bus stop, too. Oxford Ave was then sandwiched between the train track and people’s backyards without even a sidewalk, but we soon reentered civilization and got that basic amenity back. The neighborhood was mostly duplex houses, but a few businesses were around, too.
Cottman Ave was a major intersection dominated by a monument and the bright lights of Chuck’s Alibi, a seafood restaurant, with other businesses too. We merged onto Rising Sun Ave here, which was a major commercial street, playing host to a ton of different shops in one- and two-story buildings. There were a few residential blocks, too, with housing stock ranging from narrow single-family houses to big apartment developments.
We passed the Knorr Street Loop, which still has old trolley tracks in it, but is only used by a few late-night and early-morning 18 trips. The constant businesses along Rising Sun continued as we kept gaining riders, some going for short distances and others staying on. We went by a park that took up multiple city blocks, and within it was a recreation center and a library.
Aside from a few churches and a school, it was all commercial along the road until Adams Ave – here, we got to see a small shopping plaza, a large shopping plaza, and an even larger factory. We travelled through the woods for a bit as Rising Sun Ave crossed Tacony Creek, and on the other side, we made a right onto Olney Ave. The street passed some rowhouses and a school before crossing over the Fox Chase Line and going by a long, skinny shopping center.
Olney Ave became mostly residential after that one shopping center, lined with rowhouses and duplexes all with slightly different looks. The businesses mostly showed up at major intersections, particularly at the retail powerhouse of 5th Street. The road went under the SEPTA Main Line, which had a park next to it, and we passed more rowhouses and parking lots for Einstein Medical Center.
Olney Transportation Center at Broad Street was of course a major stop, with nearly everyone on the bus getting off and new people getting on. There are no fewer than three schools around here, plus LaSalle University, so this part of the route gets super busy at around 3 PM. We went by those schools after crossing Broad Street, as well as a park and some more houses.
LaSalle had a decently large footprint, with college-related buildings for at least a few blocks. A shopping plaza was the last place before the road became dominated again by regular ol’ rowhouses (and became Chew Ave). Neighborhood-oriented businesses popped up sometimes, too. We went by the fringes of the giant and beautiful Awbury Arboretum, and Washington Lane Station on the Chestnut Hill East Line soon followed.
A small park and a small school came between the rowhouses that followed, and then…then it was time for the squiggly part of the route I mentioned earlier. It all started when we bizarrely turned onto Phil Ellena Street, an incredibly local residential road with a big median in the middle. We took that up to the end and then did some tight turns onto Vernon Road, passing the Chestnut Hill East Line’s Stenton Station.
Vernon Road changed massively on the other side of the train tracks, turning to a leafy neighborhood with big stone houses. This was brief – it got denser again when we took a right onto Stenton Ave. Then a left onto Upsal Street. Then a left onto Thouron Street. Then a right onto Pleasant Street. Then a left onto Michener Ave. Do you see why I hate this part of the route???
But it somehow gets worse. You know how SEPTA loves to have as many complicated variants as possible? Well…during the evening rush, every bus that originates at Fox Chase terminates at the intersection of Wadsworth and Michener. The only ones that run all the way to Cedarbrook Plaza begin at Olney and travel via the “express” routing, which is just a more direct route with limited stops until it rejoins the locals at Stenton and Upsal. So my friend and I had to leave the bus and wait for one of those “express” runs in order to complete the route.
The express trip came soon, luckily, because the 18 runs every two seconds at rush hour, and it allowed us to continue on the ridiculously roundabout route we had already begun. We took a right on Roumfort Road, a right onto Cheltenham Ave, and finally did a drawn-out deviation within Cedarbrook Plaza in order to get to the final stop. Bear in mind that all of those twists and turns were in local residential neighborhoods, too – Cedarbrook Plaza was the first business we had seen in quite a while. And in order to get back, we would have to do all those squiggles again, since none of the more direct routes that serve the plaza were coming anytime soon.
Route: 18 (Fox Chase to Cedarbrook Plaza)
Ridership: Well, like I’ve said already and will say many times more, it’s SEPTA’s busiest route! That turns out to equal a whopping 16,927 riders per weekday, although what does that mean on a trip-by-trip basis? My ride (the long one from Fox Chase to Wadsworth-Michener) got 56 people, which sounds like a lot, but…it was the evening rush, and we were on for a full hour. Hmmm. And what about the route’s load profile? Looks like the busiest any single trip gets is 60 people at one time. On an articulated bus. Meaning, like, a few standees. And that exceptionally busy trip is an outlier, with the vast majority getting a max of 50 people or lower. Again…hmmm.
Pros: This route is like…a giant butterfly, spreading out its wings from Olney Transportation Center to capture riders from both sides of Broad Street and bring them onto the Subway. Free transfers would make that goal easier, of course, but a ton of people still do it. The parts of the route that are straight are really good, and ridership is super high as a result. The route is also finally achieving “15 minutes MAX” status with the upcoming schedule change, with a brief every-17-minute stretch around 8 o’clock getting ironed out to be every 15 (wouldn’t it have been sad if SEPTA’s busiest route wasn’t a 15 minutes MAX service?). Indeed, the route as a whole is very frequent, with service every 15 minutes or better at most times on weekdays and Saturdays.
Cons: As usual, Sundays is where things fall apart to a degree. Every 20 minutes at best? Really? SEPTA’s busiest route should not run every 20 minutes! Also, weekdays have an insane amount of variants, from express runs to various short-turns to a single trip that ends at Rising Sun and Cottman Aves, which is apparently worth giving it its own timepoint on the schedule that’s entirely blank aside from that one trip. SEPTA’s busiest route should not be so complicated! And finally, we have that insane routing on the western side. I know it’s “serving” more by twisting around through the neighborhood, but this is simply not how good transit is run. SEPTA’s busiest route should not be so squiggly!
Nearby and Noteworthy: I think I linked most of the places that looked noteworthy in the post already, with one exception: the Skyline Restaurant. I don’t know why I zeroed in on this place (maybe it’s my love of skylines), but this diner near Chew and Chelten looks fantastic. It’s super homely, and the menu is very very cheap. I hope I can give it a try someday!
Final Verdict: 5/10
The 18 simply does not rise up to its status of being SEPTA’s busiest route. It’s not frequent at all times, it’s overly complicated, and the routing is all over the place. I seriously think, though, that straightening out the western portion can allow for all of the other puzzle pieces of a good transit route to slot into place. Check this out:
Yes, you’re obviously not serving everything by going straight down Vernon Road. For most of it, though, the straightened routing is less than a five-minute walk from its current path, aside from the part that goes further out near the end that is better covered by the H, an admittedly less frequent service. But if these sacrifices are made, running times can be shortened, which allows not only more service hours to play with (more on that in a sec), but also more reliable service. The 18’s on-time performance is a mediocre 79% at the moment, but that could be because it’s sometimes scheduled to take a shorter amount of time than Google’s driving directions! My updated running times make sure that never happens.
But yes, shorter running times also mean more spare service hours. What does that mean? Well, for starters, we can fix the Sunday service and have it be at least every 15 minutes. Awesome. Then let’s add owl service to the 18! Right now it runs from about 1:40 AM to 3:10 AM, which is such a small gap – why not throw in an hourly night service to make the route 24/7, since it’s so close already? Now, these might sound like fairly intensive changes given that we’re only shortening the run time a little bit, but I also propose cutting back on rush hour service. Not a lot, but the route is less productive at rush hour, with about ten boardings per service hour fewer than middays. My evening rush trip was not busy at all, not to mention there’s the underwhelming load profile data. The route is every 4-5 minutes at rush hour at the moment – cutting it back to every 6-7 will free up a lot of time, and it shouldn’t have that big of an effect on crowding. It would be nice to get rid of all the variants while we’re at it, but cutting the express services which save about ten minutes over the locals could be a hard sell.
Honestly, though, straightening up the routing on the western end alone allows for so many positive changes to be made for SEPTA’s busiest bus. This is clearly a ridership-oriented route, but that western part is trying as hard as it can to cover as much as possible. People just don’t want to travel in squiggles! I was also originally gonna make a full schedule for the new service, but, er, I have to pack for college. Maybe someday I’ll finish it. Heading back to Philly tomorrow!
Latest SEPTA News: Service Updates