SEPTA Metro rebranding of rail services: insights into conceptualization of transit networks
SEPTA, the transit service in Southeastern Pennsylvania, centered on service to and within Philadelphia, operates the second most number of "modes" of any transit system in the US:
- regular bus
- trolley bus (electrified, not the fake trolleys often used in tourist areas)
- subway and elevated heavy rail
- the Norristown light rail
- regional commuter railroad service.
Rebranding SEPTA rapid transit services as SEPTA Metro. Last week, Philadelphia media reported that SEPTA will be introducing a rebrand ("SEPTA proposes renaming its city rail lines to help everyone get around," Philadelphia Inquirer), under a new Rail Transit Wayfinding Master Plan, calling its city and suburban rapid transit services "SEPTA Metro" with the aim of making it more understandable (or "legible" as Kevin Lynch would have said).
As part of its overall SEPTA Forward program, they are redesigning its bus network through a program called Bus Revolution. On the existing services map, they have changed line colors to reflect service frequency.
A few years back SEPTA released a nice trolley station design guide, Modern Trolley Station Deign Guide, which lay out some of the concepts for a trolley modernization program, along with new vehicles and improvements in the signaling system, a new railyard for maintenance (damaged by Amazon buying a property they were considering, "Amazon got land SEPTA wanted. Will it delay a much-needed trolley upgrade?," PI).
The RidePhiladelphia program of the Center City BID is a great example of transportation history interpretation, and the BID's public art bus shelter program is a good example of incorporating public art into transit infrastructure.
Media coverage seems to be all in on the change, but to my way of thinking important points are missed.
- An integrated transit/mobility system bringing together all the providers, modes, planning, and fares into one system. The way transit is done in Germany and to some extent in London and Paris is the model.
- Treating transit as "a design product" and ensuring that each and every element within the system of providing transit and mobility services is designed to be effective, efficient, successful, powerful and connected. Transit as a system must be complete, integrated, and legible. London was the pioneer on this dimension, beginning with Frank Pick as a design leader beginning in the early 1900s and most recently with the creation of the London Overground ("One big idea: Getting MARC and Metrorail to integrate fares, stations, and marketing systems, using London Overground as an example," 2015).
- An integrated branding system for lines (modes), wayfinding, signage, maps, etc. London is the best example of this, although NYC's subway system is a runner up.
- Providing transit equity and a transit-centric mobility system through a fare system that is zone focused, not mode specific. German systems are the best example. The point is to discourage car use as an element of transportation demand management, not to maximize fare revenue by mode.
Using zone-based fares, especially through a pass system, including all modes is the way to bring equity + transit-centric urbanism together, where transit is a service accessible to most everyone.
The SEPTA "change" illustrates this perfectly. Even if they are moving towards integrating the trolley, light rail, and heavy rail services more overtly into a "seamless" network calling it SEPTA Metro, renaming lines, simplifying the map, alongside station and wayfinding improvements, it's not particularly transformational, definitely not transformational in ways that will significantly increase ridership and change land use and mobility patterns.
They're redoing their branding. The challenge will be to see if they begin integrating additional services within the transit network, treating transit as a whole as a design product overall, and moving to a fully-zoned fare system incorporating intra-city regional rail services.
Fares versus zones and an equitable transit network. The SEPTA fare system remains very complicated, and is focused on charging by mode, with additional fees for transfers. Although SEPTA has a good system of fare passes that are cost effective for most services, there is a severe segregation between regional rail and the other services, and the fact is that these "commuter lines" serve many neighborhoods within Philadelphia (although the basic transit pass does allow free use of regional rail on weekends and holidays).
While this kind of segregation is typical, there are exceptions. For example, in Baltimore, passholders for MARC rail have free access to local transit services for no extra charge (it also includes Metrobus and RideOn in the DC area, because the Maryland Transit Administration also funds those services). Riders of the SoCal Metrolink rail system can transfer free to local transit services--there is a QR code printed on each ticket--whether or not they hold a monthly pass.
Although the rebranding is clearly a step forward, SEPTA (and the media touting the changes) aren't focused on an even bigger picture and transforming the position and role of transit in the metropolitan area's land use and transportation planning paradigm, which would entail focusing on transportation demand management and urban design aimed at reducing car use, and treating "transit as a service that enables quality of life" (sustainable mobility and urbanism).
Note: in fairness to SEPTA, the transit wayfinding study is a wayfinding initiative, not a complete rethinking of transit as a network, nor transit as a service, nor as an element of equity, nor as an enabler of walkable urbanism and the foundation of sustainable mobility.Photo by Platte C.
The German transit model. Interestingly, while Germany is as committed as the US to automobility and the importance of the automotive industry as a key economic driver (VW + Merceders + BMW), they didn't see cities and transit as oppositional to automobility in the same way as in the US where rail-based transit systems were dismembered even before GM + Standard Oil + Firestone + others started buying up rail-based transit systems and converting them to buses.
Sure, Germany built fast freeways before the US, but rather than disinvest in or eliminate transit, they invested in and expanded transit simultaneously.
In the early 1960s, transport officials in Hamburg figured out that the best way to encourage transit use was make the system of services and fares super easy to use--transparent to the user--and they created a system called Verkehrsverbund (VV)--transport association, to bring this about ("The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," 2017; "Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated regional public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland," Ralph Buehler, John Pucher & Oliver Dümmler, International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (2018)).
Transit equity using zones, not a mode based system, for fares. The key in the German system is the fare system is organized into zones, and it is the zone (distance traveled) that determines your fare, not the mode you use or the number of segments of your trip involving different modes.
In the US most systems charge by both mode and distance. Typically bus is the cheapest, subway service costs more, and railroad transport costs the most. While distance is the basis of zone-based approaches, the German system focuses on the complete trip, end to end, not the number of modes you use to accomplish the trip.
In the German model, fares are based on zone, not mode, so the type of service you use isn't an issue. If a train is more efficient take the train. If a bus works better, take the bus. If you need both, take both. The cost is based on the trip, not the mode.
SEPTA has changed the brand of its trolley, heavy rail and light rail services, the map, and station signage, but not how they conceptualize the place of transit within the land use and transportation planning paradigm of Metropolitan Philadelphia. Hamburg's transport association extends beyond the boundaries of the Hamburg City State to areas of two adjoining German states.
The current SEPTA map includes all rail services as primary elements, while the regional rail services are somewhat de-emphasized in the new map.
Zones accomplish two goals simultaneously: transit equity + a sustainable mobility centric land use and transportation planning paradigm.
Metropolitan Philadelphia needs a transport association. Metropolitan Philadelphia has a complicated set of independent transit services, despite the region having a pretty visionary MPO, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
Separately, the Delaware River Port Authority (PATCO) provides a single line of heavy rail service into Philadelphia from Camden County. (Interestingly, PATCO is to Philadelphia the same way PATH, the NJ-based rapid transit service is to New York City, although PATH also is a bigger local transit provider within Greater Network, with more lines and many more stations.)
A couple small bus services operate in part of SEPTA's Pennsylvania service area. In Delaware, DART provides connecting services for the four SEPTA stops in that state. Amtrak also provides services between these states on the Northeast Corridor.
For the most part, these local services and fare systems aren't integrated. If you're traveling to NJ from Philadelphia, for the most part you'll have to transfer to NJ Transit to get to your final destination. Same from the other direction, although NJT has many services that do cross the border to serve Philadelphia.
Patco's fare card works on SEPTA, although not regional rail. SEPTA's card does not yet work on PATCO. NJ Transit fare products don't work on SEPTA or PATCO. None of these fare systems work on DART.
(The DC and Baltimore fare card systems are integrated, with the exception of railroad services. Bus systems in Massachusetts outside of Boston use the MBTA Charlie card system so they interoperate. Ontario ports the Toronto-area fare media system to other cities across the province. The PATH network in NJ/NY works with the NYC Metrocard for single fares.)
While not necessarily integrating services like how it could be done in Greater NYC ("New York could use congestion charging to begin better integration of transit service between New York City and New Jersey," 2019) or in Maryland and Virginia ("The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," 2017), a transport association in Metropolitan Philadelphia could start off by focusing on the planning principles laid out in the MPO's Connections 2045: Plan for Greater Philadelphia, especially the last:
- livable communities
- economic development and growth
- creating an integrated, multimodal transportation network.
Besides integrating fare systems, maps, wayfinding, and then a bi-state zone system. they could work to plan for transit expansion using the best mode, regardless of operator and place. Plus, a greater focus on transit expansion, within Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, within New Jersey, and between the states.
Transit-based urban revitalization. Camden. With the idea of SEPTA creating a zone-based system for its Pennsylvania services, with the participation of New Jersey it could be extended to Camden City as a revitalization measure ("Behind the Camden Comeback," New Jersey Monthly, "'FOUNDATION PIECES': Camden chips away at the next phase of its economic growth," Philadelphia Business Journal).
To simplify the complexity, the Camden + SEPTA zone system could be applied only to rail-based services, either just PATCO, which is already integrated into the SEPTA Metro map, or with the addition of the NJ Transit Atlantic City Railroad Line and the River Line light rail).
But New Jersey should prioritize adding rail transit north of the River Line (which is proposed anyway as part of a new service, but that is years out ("Glassboro-Camden light rail proposal takes next step in South Jersey," Philadelphia Voice).
Perhaps the Camden section could be prioritized, the way that Bilbao added surface tram service ("Return to the Rails: The Motivations for Building a Modern Tramway in Bilbao Spain") and how Toyama City in Japan created an intra-city transit loop to intensify development in its core ("Brief follow up to intra-district transit proposal for Tysons: Toyama City Compact City initiative (Japan)").
Philadelphia. Rail transit expansion within Philadelphia should be a revitalization priority.
Separately from SEPTA, Philadelphia has created its own Transit Plan, and one of the recommendations is the extension of PATCO westward to the University District ("Faster buses, more Regional Rail, modern trolleys: Philly’s transit plan takes system to 2045," WHYY/NPR). Another is an infill station on the Market-Frankford Line, and one or more extensions for the Broad Street Line. PATCO is also restoring the Franklin Square station which should open next year after being closed for decades.
Along with other recommendations, the City Plan focuses on repositioning regional rail to a frequent service, focused on four lines that serve the most populated areas, including the creation of a new frequent service called the Silver Line, operating on existing lines, from Fern Rock to the Penn Medical Center.
Passenger rail is the road to a brighter future, Reading, Scranton and Allentown leaders say," Reading Eagle).
The regional rail system used to be broader, but when the three city railroad stations were connected, the underground tunnel connection required that all lines be electrified. Instead of electrifying the diesel-based lines, they shut them down. Some of these services would be restored under the Amtrak plan.
Plus, like I recommend for Maryland ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland"), Pennsylvania should create a statewide passenger rail program.
For example in the 1990s, there was an interesting proposal to extend service to Reading with a service called the Schuylkill Valley Metro. Such a proposal could be revived as part of broader rail transit planning.
Conclusion: Branding's (NOT) all you need for transit | Zone based fare systems are a key element. Recently, I wrote about the closure of the Pfizer research center in Ann Arbor and how it makes clear the reality about about economic development and startups--it's a lot easier when you already have potential products in the pipeline than if you're starting from scratch ("How the closure of a Pfizer research center in Ann Arbor, Michigan led to the development of a biotech sector there")
Similarly, the proposed SEPTA change illustrates the reality that just because you have control of a bunch of different transit modes in one agency, it doesn't mean that the agency acts like they are running a transit network versus operating a bunch of somewhat connected lines, which may or may not be well integrated.
So I am appreciative of SEPTA's move and the fawning media coverage, because it helped me clarify that transit equity and the sustainable mobility platform is a necessary additional to the three original points.
- An integrated transit/mobility system bringing together all the providers, modes, planning, and fares into one system.
- Treating transit as "a design product" and ensuring that each and every element within the system of providing transit and mobility services is designed to be effective, efficient, successful, powerful and connected.
- An integrated branding system for lines (modes), wayfinding, signage, maps, etc.
- Providing transit equity and a transit-centric mobility system through a fare system that is zone based, not mode specific.