Argh, these long routes that run across the entirety of the City of Philadelphia will be the death of me! After my rather disappointing experience on the 47M, it was of course time to tackle that route’s M-less cousin. I did it by way of an awkward out-and-back: I got a northbound 47 from the end of the 47M and took it all the way up to the loop at 5th-Godfrey, just to turn around and come back!
The 47 is the only bus that uses the loop at 5th-Godfrey, probably because its location is…not great. I mean, it’s not really the loop’s fault, granted. It’s just that if Fern Rock Transportation Center had an entrance to the east, the 47 would be within a five minute walk from there and could maybe even terminate at some loop on the east side of the complex. But nope, that’s not the case, so buses are stuck running up to this loop at Godfrey Ave – a fifteen minute walk from Fern Rock.
Well, okay, “infrastructure” might be a bit of a stretch – there’s one shelter with scratched up windows, peeling paint, and little graffiti messages. The rest of the loop is pretty much just an asphalt expanse where buses can hang out, plus a little building with operator bathrooms. Despite the shabby nature of the shelter, though, you can’t deny that SEPTA tries to keep this place clean: a transit employee was sweeping around not only the loop itself, but also the sidewalk and curb! For a relatively insignificant bus loop, I’m impressed!
There are a few other connections here, but routes that don’t use the loop only get signs. The K stops here on its roundabout tour of far North Philadelphia, while the 57 and the 70 both run to Fern Rock (so you can transfer from the 47 if you want to go there!), as well as to their southern and eastern destinations respectively. Ultimately there’s not a ton to this loop, but it does its job reasonably well, even if an eastbound Fern Rock entrance would be a lot better. 5/10.
The 47 starts out in a neighborhood with some fantastic ornate rowhouse architecture, so it was fun to cruise down 5th Street past the variety of dwellings. It was more than houses, though: we went by the expansive Fisher Park, and many of the two-story buildings along 5th Street had local businesses on the ground floor. Some other highlights included a church, an elementary school, and a Korean funeral home.
As we continued south, 5th Street solidified itself as one of the main commercial thoroughfares of North Philadelphia. A huge variety of businesses lined the bottom floors of every building along the street, some of which were open and some of which had grates locking their entrances. There was a huge variety of architecture too – some of the buildings were impressive in their grandiosity!
It was a pretty consistent stream of businesses for a while, broken pretty much only by the fancy stone arch that carries the Fox Chase Line, a garden next to a church, and the occasional pure residence. Also, between Rockland Street and Roosevelt Boulevard, there was a fully residential block for some reason! Oh, and Roosevelt Boulevard…it actually felt slightly less insane to cross because the middle six lanes were on an overpass. It was the highway it’s always wanted to be!
We got more retail in the blocks following Roosevelt Boulevard, but it became a little less consistent, with multiple houses in a row between each business. There were also a couple of schools, a supermarket, and some industrial buildings clustered around an abandoned railway line. At the intersection with Rising Sun Ave, 5th Street became one-way in the northbound direction, so we had to merge onto Rising Sun to get to…GASP!…6th Street!
One of our first activities on 6th Street was crossing Erie Ave and the old trolley tracks along it (RIP). Continuing past there, we were on a one-lane one-way street lined mostly with dense, packed rowhouses (a fact that did not bode well for us given that a garbage truck was ahead – that slowed us down a lot). A block after an ornate church, we crossed the Northeast Corridor, which was surrounded by industrial buildings. The rowhouses continued south of there, though, with very few gaps between the buildings.
We passed an intense industrial building as we cruised down a slight hill past Allegheny, and a colorful elementary school came next. That was quite different from the next school we passed, which was an abandoned school, complete with a “for sale” sign posted outside! If you’re interested in buying the property, check out PHLschoolsales.com…except don’t, because the website doesn’t appear to be up anymore. Maybe the school’s been bought?
More bizarre stuff ensued: on one side we had a makeshift tire shop set up in what appeared to be an abandoned lot, while on the other side, there was an abandoned reservoir that was elevated above the road! Check out an aerial shot of when it was filled – I can’t find anything more about it, but please let me know in the comments if you have any info! A modern library in the same block proved that the neighborhood wasn’t totally forgotten, though, and the rowhouses continued south of the wide Lehigh Ave.
Past Lehigh, the neighborhood grew less dense – there was a lot of vacant land here, taking up pretty much the same amount of space as the occupied land. It definitely used to be an area packed with rowhouses, but it seems like they started slowly disappearing in the 80s. Many of the lots were big enough (some took up nearly a whole block) that they could be used for other purposes, though: some had random vehicles parked in them, while one was being used as a community gathering space.
A weird little block of single family houses appeared after Dauphin Street, probably a “renewal” project. There were a few more when we turned onto Susquehanna Ave, which the bus is only supposed to use to get a few blocks over to 8th Street. I guess there must’ve been a detour, though, because we just kept on going! We ended up travelling two more blocks, taking a left onto 10th Street, which isn’t actually served by a SEPTA bus at this point!
We entered into the sphere of Temple University, although there was still some vacant land and an abandoned apartment development among the more modern student-centered apartments and businesses. We also ran directly next to Temple University Station, which no SEPTA buses actually do – the power of unscheduled detours, I guess! Student apartments brought us the last few blocks down to Cecil B. Moore Ave, which we used to get back to the normal route on 8th Street.
8th Street had an odd array of single-family and duplex houses, another case of “renewal” in a former rowhouse neighborhood. Parts of it hadn’t been touched, though – we also passed a vacant factory and some tracts of open land, as well as original, often standalone rowhouses that had been renovated. Prior to crossing Girard Ave and its streetcar tracks, we ran through Girard’s eponymous medical center.
The next few blocks were an interesting mix of new parks and undeveloped land. After we passed a gorgeous Ukrainian cathedral, the neighborhood grew dense again, with mid-20th century rowhouses and apartments. As the four-track SEPTA Main Line a half-block away descended into its tunnel, we crossed Spring Garden Street and entered a more industrial area. There were parking lots, factories, and warehouses galore!
Going under I-676, we went by Chinatown Station (blech) and the parking lots and brutalist buildings surrounding it. Despite getting closer and closer to Center City, there were still parking lots everywhere, including a big parking garage – er, excuse me, the “Parkade on 8th” – that we travelled beneath. The bus then passed the Gallery (or Fashion District…whatever) and the Disney Hole on Market Street.
Past Market, we…randomly took a left…onto Chestnut. Oh boy, another detour, and one with lots of traffic and confusion! We took Chestnut past its dense retail housed in tall Center City buildings, as well as through Independence Park past the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Finally we turned onto 4th Street, retracing territory covered earlier on the 57 by running past the colonial (and sometimes not-so-colonial) rowhouses of Society Hill.
We went through a cemetery between two churches, then we saw some weird and wonderful businesses on and around South Street. One block south of that, Bainbridge Street had a wide median dedicated mostly to parking, which we passed on narrow 4th Street – a rainbow of retail occupied the first stories of the rowhouses along here. The bus also seemed to be getting confused about the detour: we were signed “off duty”, and the screen up front was saying something about a route 42 pull-in? Bizarre.
South of Christian Street, we entered an apartment development that lasted until Washington Ave. Here, we finally started the trip back to our normal route by taking a right, picking someone up at 5th Street as we travelled down the wide road lined with more rowhouses and businesses (including an ethnic, mostly Asian shopping center). As we rejoined the regular route by turning onto 8th Street, the person who had boarded at 5th frantically pulled the stop request cord. “I thought you were a 64!” she exclaimed as she ran off the bus.
8th Street was generally residential, but it was dense (rowhouses galore!), with occasional small businesses on corners. As we continued down the one-way one-lane street, riders slowly siphoned away while the scenery went by, generally unchanging. Besides transfers to the 29 and 79 at Tasker/Morris and Snyder respectively, we also passed two school buildings right next to each other: one was still a school, while the other had been converted for other uses.
Looking on Google Maps now, I can see I have reason to be jealous of the northbound route – 7th Street is lined with Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants! 8th was still mostly residential besides a few corner stores and another school. Eventually it brought us down to the wide Oregon Ave, which had lots of cars parked on the median in typical South Philly fashion. We took a left onto Oregon, running for a few blocks to our terminus at Whitman Plaza. Clearly, that garbage truck in North Philly along with the two detours delayed us a ton: there were two buses immediately behind us and two more not far behind!
Route: 47 (Whitman Plaza to 5th-Godfrey)
Ridership: Okay, this is function of both the route’s length and the fact that we ended up very late, but over the course of this roughly 95-minute weekday trip (scheduled for 70, oof), we got 160 riders. That’s insane! But the route is hugely successful in the overall numbers too: it is the single busiest bus route on SEPTA, getting a whopping 16,530 riders per day. And its length doesn’t do much to deter productivity either, with the route commanding a respectable 38% farebox recovery ratio, the 21st best on the system. This is because of its incredibly high turnover – people sure as heck aren’t taking this from end to end, but instead, there’s always a healthy number of riders on the vehicle getting on and off relatively frequently.
Pros: Well, let’s get it right of the bat that this is a powerhouse of a route. The 47 covers an absolutely insane amount of the city, all of it either dense or transit-dependent or both, and it’s able to command a huge amount of ridership because of it. A route like this deserves a useful schedule, and the 47 delivers, providing service every 5-7 minutes at rush hour, every 10 minutes during the day, every 12 minutes on Saturdays (despite the paper timetable saying “every 20 minutes or less”), and every 15 minutes on Sundays (or, again, “every 20 minutes or less”). On weekdays, buses also run at least every 20 minutes until 11 PM, while speedy overnight service is offered on a 45 minute headway seven days a week. Every bus does the whole trip, too – no variants to speak of (er…besides a few weird exceptions that don’t matter)!
Cons: I guess I’ll start out with some light schedule nitpicks, although they’re overall not too bad: Sunday morning service is every half hour until around 9 AM, and evening service on weekends could maybe stand to be at least every 20 minutes for longer. For SEPTA standards, though, the 47 has a fantastic schedule…except its peak service is weird. Looking at the chart on the last page of this PDF, we can see that productivity for the 47 is definitely lower during the peak than the midday, but the plot thickens when we check out its load profile – the South Philly part of the route is super peaky, but the north side seems to peak for school trips and that’s about it. I actually wonder if there could be some merit in short-turning some peak buses in Center City from South Philly (suggesting a variant, what have I become??), so that those extra resources saved can be used to improve service at other times. Of course, this is all based on pre-COVID data – you could very likely get rid of most extra peak service now and spread things evenly anyway.
That rush hour issue does tangentially relate to the 47’s other big issue: it is long as heck. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own, but a bus this lengthy and this well-used would really benefit from dedicated lanes, at least in Center City. In the 47’s case, this would require getting rid of parking or maybe banning cars from certain streets altogether, but if there was any route where doing that would be worth it, it’d be SEPTA’s busiest. Also, like always, fewer stops would be awesome – it’d be nice to be able to get from 5th-Godfrey to Whitman Plaza without having to make literally 100 stops in between (literally, I checked Google Maps – it’s 100 stops even!). And this all affects reliability, with the route sitting at a paltry 66% on-time rate!
Nearby and Noteworthy: It’s such a long route, and there’s so much to see here! There are very few points along the 47 where you’re not getting at least some retail on either the northbound or the southbound route.
Final Verdict: 6/10
You know, it is what it is. I feel like my default score for these long but well-used SEPTA routes tends to be a 6, but that’s just always where they tend to fall for me: there’s a lot to dislike about them, and the 47 is no exception, but at the end of the day, you’re still left with a mostly frequent and simple route that serves a lot of people. In other words, this route moves tens of thousands of riders per day, but it doesn’t necessarily move them well. Improvements would be awesome. Right, SEPTA?
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