For a relatively simple and relatively short North Philadelphia crosstown, my 54 sure did get packed. I guess we’ll find out at the end if that’s normal or not…

The bus making its way down narrow Cambria Street.

I got on an eastbound bus a few blocks from the end of the route and just stayed on to head westbound again. Even though the intersection of Richmond and Cambria is considered to be the first stop, we looped around to Richmond and Somerset to lay over. The stop was surrounded by dirt from the ongoing I-95 construction, while the highway overhead was the source of a ton of dripping mystery liquid. Great place to hang out!

Another shot of the bus, this time in apocalypseland.

Once we headed off again down Somerset Street, we immediately entered a real neighborhood after escaping the underbelly of the highway. The street was lined with well-kept rowhouses, along with occasional corner restaurants. Around Aramingo Ave, things took a turn for the industrial, with big scrapyards and abandoned factories appearing everywhere.

A typical rowhouse-lined side street.

The houses came back as we approached the El on Kensington Ave. We turned to run underneath it as a triple-bunch of 54s passed in the other direction (yikes); the road passed a few businesses, a few houses, and a few industrial lots as it went under some train tracks. Once on the other side of the tracks, we turned onto Lehigh Ave, a four-lane road with one of those weird do-whatever-you-want lanes in the middle.

That is a very narrow street.

Temple University Hospital occupied a huge tract of land, but even the street’s smaller lots were diverse: there were rowhouses, of course (some with retail), but you also had some apartment developments and a bunch of comparatively newer retail with parking lots out front. Some fast food restaurants and an abandoned supermarket showed up at the intersection with American Street, and a few blocks later, we passed a park opposite an elementary school.

Wow, great parking jobs there.

At 5th Street, we passed some fake palm trees radiating from the wonderful Centro Musico, previously seen in our 39 review. A beautifully renovated library appeared at 6th Street, then after a supermarket, we got rowhouses for a stretch (plus some striking churches and cathedrals). Unfortunately, there were also vacant buildings and empty plots of land along here, too.

A string of businesses on Germantown Ave.

We crossed Broad Street at North Philadelphia Station, where the driver opened all the doors and it was an absolute free-for-all for the massive crowd of people waiting to get on. There were a few blocks of rowhouses and corner stores from there before we crossed under the Northeast Corridor and went by a park, a modern-looking church, and a grocery store. The rows returned after that, though, with many of them featuring businesses on the ground floors.

A street sandwiched between two churches.

Many of the buildings or lots were empty, but there were also signs of community investment, such as the second library on the trip, this one super new and modern. As we came alongside a cemetery, an interesting circular school showed up across the street from it. And it was at that point that we turned onto the residential 33rd Street, taking it for a few blocks down to the 33rd-Dauphin Loop.

The bus ahead of us was…colorful.

Route: 54 (Richmond-Cambria to 33rd-Dauphin)

Ridership: The 54 has excellent weekday ridership for a short-for-SEPTA-standards route, with 7,662 average riders (about 51 per trip). It’s also noteworthy that this route has the 4th best farebox recovery on the system, recouping 48% of its expenses with fare revenue. Finally, I have to mention the insane number of people my trip got: 139 over the course of about 50 minutes. The afternoon school rush in Philly is something else!

Pros: Ah, it’s the little things in life – isn’t it lovely how Lehigh Ave is a two-way street, so the route pretty much cuts a straight line across North Philly that’s the same in both directions? Beautiful. You do have the one-way segments on the route’s Port Richmond section, but that’s unavoidable. Adding to the 54’s simplicity, all trips do the exact same thing, barring the first eastbound (which begins at Broad) and a few supplemental school trips. Ridership on this thing is clearly great, representing the importance of Lehigh Ave as a major commercial corridor.

Cons: So given that it’s ridership is so good…what’s up with the schedule? Every 12 minutes at rush hour is fine, but every 16-17 during the day? Every 20 on Saturdays? Every 30 on Sundays??? Don’t get me started on how the route is every 45 minutes by 8:30 PM! Maybe I’m missing something here, but this route seems too important to give it a schedule like that. At least make it every 15 throughout the weekday! And this unfortunately seems like a situation where we can’t even redistribute resources – maybe buses could be taken off the rush to bolster the rest of the day, but it seems like the frequencies they’re running at are necessary at least for the end of school, if my trip is any indication.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Now that I’ve gone by it twice, I really feel like I have to check out Centro Musico. From instruments to CDs, the place just exudes charm and is clearly a neighborhood staple!

Final Verdict: 4/10
That schedule is rough. There are routes far less productive than the 54 that run way more frequently! Getting the weekday schedule to every 15 minutes all day is a start, and then lowering Sunday headways to every 20 is probably step 2. And I get that this is a case where, at least within the route itself, there are no resources to move around. But I can always dream…

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