I don’t know what the weirdest thing about the 55 is. Is it that there’s a one-seat bus ride between Olney and Doylestown, a distance of about 20 miles? Is it that this bus, which goes way out into the hinterlands, is a City Transit route? Is it that it uses 60-foot buses? Well, if you ever want to get to Doylestown on a budget (and you have a lot of time), this is the way to do it.
The bus was pretty busy as we headed up the commercial corridor of Broad Street. We merged onto Old York Road, and a few more people got on at the first stop there. “Ain’t no way I’m standing all the way to Doylestown!” a lady exclaimed as she took one of the remaining seats. There were more businesses along here, set in three-story buildings with apartments on top.
It got residential with a lot of rowhouses and a few big apartment buildings. Because of a one-way section going the wrong way, we had to take a right onto Chelten Ave, then a left onto Broad Street, and then a right onto Old York again, passing some businesses in the process. Cheltenham Ave marked the border between Philadelphia and the outside world (Cheltenham Township, in this case), and once we crossed it, the scenery changed dramatically.
Old York Road went from being a modest two-lane street to becoming a wide four-lane road with a concrete median. We flew past a ton of leafy single-family homes on the wide road, also passing a small Jewish college and some religious buildings. Going underneath Regional Rail just north of Elkins Park Station, we ran through a “downtown” area that would’ve been a lot nicer if the roads weren’t so big and wide.
There were more houses heading north, but also another college and a few synagogues. Crossing Township Line Road, we entered Abington Township briefly before leaving it for Jenkintown, which is its own entity (I will never understand how jurisdictional borders work in Pennsylvania). Although there was a bit of suburban sprawl at first, Old York Road soon shrunk down to two lanes through downtown Jenkintown, which was an area with lots of restaurants and a really cool one-screen independent movie theater.
As we left the core of downtown, we passed a few more goodies (a beautiful library and a game store) before the road got wide and we entered the wrong side of suburbia again. Businesses with giant parking lots abounded, clustered around the Noble Regional Rail station. We passed through downtown Abington Township, I guess, which felt less like a cute town center and more like a collection of buildings and parking lots that a giant road happens to pass through.
Entering pure sprawl again, we went by Abington Hospital, and two shopping plazas right next to each other with near-identical names (“Abington Shopping Center” and “Abington Towne Center”). From there, the road was just lined with little businesses, mostly chain restaurants, that were surrounded by parking lots. We eventually curved westward, passing Willow Grove Station, and now it was time for the Willow Grove Park Mall deviation.
Okay, so the paper schedule for the 55 has this cute inset showing what route buses take at the Willow Grove Park Mall. The problem is that it’s completely wrong, so don’t trust it. We turned onto Park Ave, running past a few municipal buildings next to the Willow Grove Shopping Center. We then turned onto Moreland Road alongside The Plaza at Willow Grove Park (and an adjacent and artificial-looking pond), and finally we looped around to the bus stop for the Willow Grove Park Mall. These shopping centers all sound exactly the same and it’s driving me crazy…
A majority of 55 trips terminate here, but ours was of course one of the infrequent ones that continues to Doylestown. We turned again onto Moreland Road, then we took Easton Road around the back of the Willow Grove Shopping Center. The route actually stays on Easton Road to continue north, and we left the shopping centers of Willow Grove behind for suburban businesses, offices, and houses.
We went under the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which had an elaborate toll-controlled intersection with Easton Road. The bus was just speeding down this wide (four lanes with a center turning lane) suburban road from there, occasionally dropping people off at some of the many stops. As we approached the massive Horsham Air Guard Station, it felt even more middle-of-nowhere because of the giant airfield next to the road!
My friend and I got off along here for reasons that will be divulged in the “Nearby and Noteworthy” segment, but 80 minutes later, we were back on another bus to continue the journey northward. As the airfield ended, we crossed County Line Road into Bucks County, passing larger suburban businesses with bigger parking lots. After going over Little Neshaminy Creek, we went by a “lifestyle center” (Valley Square) across the street from a more conventional shopping center (Warrington Plaza).
The scenery north of that was a hodgepodge of housing developments, industrial buildings, businesses with parking lots, shopping centers, and whatever else Warrington Township decided to throw our way. A school? Sure. A quarry? Why not. Two prisons? Bring ’em on!
Easton Road passed through an interchange with the ridiculously overbuilt Doylestown Bypass (it was originally going to be part of a longer highway), and then an interchange with the ridiculously overbuilt Route 202 (which yes, was originally meant to be longer). Suburbia lasted for a bit longer, but…wait. The road is narrower. It’s just two lanes now! And there are old-timey streetlights! This can only mean one thing…
Doylestown’s downtown is oriented more east-west than north-south, so we were only in it for a few blocks, but while we were there, it was beautiful. And even as we left the core of it, the houses were still dense and the street was walkable. It had to end at some point, though – the road got wide again, and we started passing a bunch of shopping centers and businesses with parking lots. Cross Keys Place was the one we pulled into to end the very long ride.
Route: 55 (Willow Grove and Doylestown to Olney Transportation Center)
Ridership: My Saturday trip got a bunch of people! There were a total of 78 riders up until Horsham when we got off, and when we boarded again, there were 27 for the ride continuing north. Of those 78 people on the first trip, 34 continued past the Willow Grove Park Mall, which is where most service ends. That makes me wonder if the Willow Grove trips get significantly fewer riders than the Doylestown ones. An interesting note about the 55 is that because it serves so many suburban job centers, the peak direction is actually away from Olney in the morning and towards Olney in the evening.
Pros: The trunk portion of the route to Willow Grove gets great service for such a suburban line: every 10-13 minutes at rush hour, every 18-20 minutes middays, every 20 minutes on Saturdays, and every 30 minutes on Sundays. The route runs super early and late, too, with the last trip on weekdays leaving Olney at 2:37 AM, and the first one leaving at 4:29 AM! Finally, the route itself is completely straight aside from the one deviation at Willow Grove Park Mall (which is a big enough destination to justify it), and it provides a good way for people to get out to suburban retail jobs.
Cons: Once you get north of Willow Grove, the service drops dramatically. First of all, there’s a stupid number of complicated variants on weekdays, to the point where I don’t even want to count them for fear of missing one. Looks like…8? Maybe more? I’m not sure. Anyway, a lot of these variants are limited trips to industrial parks that do make reasonable sense, such as Willow Grove Industrial Commons (which is really close to the 22 as the crow flies, but a 40-minute walk in actuality) and a 2:37 AM trip to UPS when nothing else runs there. Some of the more annoying ones are the trips to Valley Square about halfway between Willow Grove and Doylestown that just run whenever they want, and the once-a-day afternoon trip that deviates to Warrington Industrial Park. If you’re gonna make people walk in the morning anyway, then why not remove the afternoon trip to simplify the service at least a little bit? And from what I can gather from the load profile, even some of the variants that seem to make sense don’t get people. The bus that arrives at Willow Grove Industrial Commons at 7:14 seems to get around 4 riders, and the one that arrives at 11:36 apparently gets zero!
All of these variants also serve to take away service from Doylestown, which gets pretty screwed over. On weekdays it’s (approximately) every hour, which is passable, but every 80 minutes on Saturdays and every 90 minutes on Sundays is really bad service. Retail doesn’t close on weekends! I know it would take a lot more service hours to operate since Doylestown is way out there, but every 60 minutes minimum on weekends would be at least somewhat usable for these suburban areas with surprisingly strong transit demand.
Nearby and Noteworthy: I’ve talked about Jenkintown and Doylestown (the latter of which I will almost certainly gush about when I review its station), but what was that destination we got off the bus in Horsham for? The Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum. This amazing museum is cheap to visit, and it covers a forgotten piece of aviation history that was supposed to be the next big thing: the autogyro, which I had never heard of before visiting the museum. The volunteers inside are incredibly nice and knowledgeable, too. I cannot recommend this place enough.
Final Verdict: 5/10
Service south of Willow Grove is about a 7, and service north of Willow Grove is about a 3 or 4, so I averaged the two out. The route north of Willow Grove just gets far too complicated and infrequent to be a usable transit service. But there are ways to fix it! First of all, this route uses 60-foot buses, but no trip exceeds about 53 people, which a 60-footer can easily handle. A rush hour with service every 15 minutes instead of every 12-ish should be able to handle those loads just fine. And where do the gained service hours go? Towards better Doylestown service, of course! Like I said, 60 minutes minimum would provide a usable service for the people that go up beyond Willow Grove, which was a surprising amount. If 30-odd people per trip are willing to use a bus that runs every 80 minutes, a bus that comes every 60 could probably attract a few more. Even if not (weekday trips seem to average around 20 according to the load profile), it sure would make their lives easier.
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