Through the Looking Glass

It looks like transit, sounds like money, and smells like politics. It must be Philly’s Girard Streetcar Line.

Philadelphia is home to over 118 miles of bona fide, in-the-asphalt, exposed streetcar rails, the greatest quantity in the country. Many are not in regular use but they are left in place and uncovered and, like a strip tease, leave open the titillating possibility that regular streetcar service will return. On route 15, the Girard Street Line, it has. The green, silver and cream PCC cars hit the rails September 4, 2005 after a 13-year absence. Ridership is high, the city is happy to finally have these rolling museums back in service, and the area around Girard is slowly revitalizing. But for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) that operates the route things could not be much worse.

[This story originally appeared in Trip Planner Magazine in 2009]

Philadelphia was one of America’s great streetcar cities.   An order of Nearside streetcars acquired between 1911 and 1913 represented the “largest single group of standardized cars ever acquired by any property anywhere in the world.”[i] Philly once had the longest and the shortest streetcar routes in the world, the 25.5-mile round trip route 23 from downtown to Chestnut Hill and the 1.5-mile round trip route 62. At its peak in 1911, the city boasted 3,999 streetcars on 678 miles of track (by comparison, today SEPTA has 1,360 buses in its fleet). As of 1965, Philadelphia still had 480 PCC cars, the most of any American city.

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A route 15 bus, gorgeous and historic, rolls through Philly where it gets stuck in traffic and takes 10 minutes to unload a passenger in a wheelchair. About a third of the former bus stops cannot be served because they are ADA non-compliant.  Photo by author.

But in Philly, as elsewhere, the streetcar fast became a relic. As soon as automobiles entered city traffic they began blocking the path of streetcars; soon engineers adopted the opposing view that streetcars were interfering with the progress of automobile. In a 1924 essay titled “Philadelphia’s Traffic Problems and Their Solution,” J. Borton Weeks wrote of the friction between streetcars and autos:

“Surface railway cars in the business district of a great city constitute a great economic waste. Every inch of usable space on the downtown streets is of high value. . . If the car tracks were removed and auto bus lines instituted, the bus would stop, as it does in London, flush to the curb, unloading and loading its passengers directly from the sidewalk and still leaving two open lanes of travel, with complete safety to the bus users. With existing conditions, the street car today, the instant it stops, completely blocks at least two of the three lanes of travel.”[ii]

By the 1990s, Philadelphia was a member of a very small club. The City of Brotherly Love, Boston and New Orleans, were the only cities with original streetcar lines in regular service and Philadelphia still had much of its surface streetcar track in place. The last of Philly’s surface streetcar routes, 15, 23, and 56, were suspended—ostensibly temporarily—in 1992, ironically at about the same time the rest of the country was catching the streetcar bug. Later that same year the SEPTA board made an agreement with then-Mayor Ed Rendell to restore streetcar service to those routes after resolving a budget crisis. It could not have taken long for SEPTA to get used to the money it was saving by operating buses, roughly $2 million per-year per-route. Streetcars did not enter service again until route 15 was reinstated at the end of 2005.

The Girard Streetcar is a fascinating story of nostalgia colliding with politics. A group of active and vocal citizens known as Trolley Jollies was intent on seeing streetcar service returned to the three lines suspended in 1992. Residents of Chestnut Hill, a cute turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb at the end of route 23 with wine shops and other boutique storefronts, went so far as to charter a 1947 PCC car to take them to a September 1997 Philadelphia City Council special hearing on the status of the three lines. The journey to the meeting did not augur well for streetcar service: even the police escort was powerless against the delivery truck parked on the tracks. At this three-hour meeting citizens leaned on their transit agency and at the end of it, then General Manager Jack Leary announced SEPTA’s plan to restore the Girard Line.

Trolley Jollies

The derisively christened “Trolley Jollies” put stickers all over town asking for the return of the streetcars.  Photo by author.

From SEPTA’s perspective, route 15 is better as a bus route. The streetcar is an anachronism: motorists initially did not realize they needed to stop for streetcar passengers exiting the center-lane vehicle into traffic; people living along the route are upset that they have lost some parking spaces to make room for the train; tall service trucks frequently tear down the wires that power the vehicles.   “On-time performance for trolleys is about 10%,” then General Manager Faye Moore said in our May 2007 interview (although a more current figure is 60%).   “Cars block the lane and the trolley can’t get through.” Automobiles are not allowed to use the streetcar lane save for one crucial exception: when making unprotected left turns. That is a little like saying, “I don’t smoke much, only when I party,” and you are Paris Hilton.

Worst of all, the Girard Line was reconstituted on pre-ADA infrastructure in an anno ADA America. Here is how Steven D’Antonio, manager of city service planning, described the problem:

“The islands where people stand were there from the days when streetcars were common. They are very narrow and we have to serve people in wheelchairs in the middle of a small island. The bus route [of 15] was completely ADA compliant, but [for the streetcar] about a third of the stops had to be discontinued because there is no safe place to accommodate loading and unloading.”

Moreover, the wheelchair lift retrofitted on the 60-year-old cars is a schedule killer. The lift “is very time consuming. The driver leaves his seat out the front door, walks to the back, uses a key to lower the lift, and loads the wheelchair which goes on sideways, taking some time to maneuver in place. He then goes back inside the front door, walks to rear through the crowd to get the wheelchair and secures it in place before going back to his seat and driving away. Sometimes the next car is right behind and there is no way to pass.” It can take ten minutes to load one chair.

SEPTA, however, is at a real disadvantage in arguing with the public about this route because Girard is so productive, carrying 3.2 million passengers in 2006. Of the true American streetcars only the F Market Line (5.1 million trips) is busier. SEPTA board member Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon said at a press conference when Girard was launched, “Returning streetcars to Route 23, let alone Route 56, depends on the success of Route 15. The real issue for us is the financial viability of running these trolleys. If the ridership is great on [route 15], then I think it would bode well for us to look at the other lines.” [iii] A Trolley Jolly seeing the ridership on Girard may conclude that route 23 streetcar service is imminent, hence the stickers seen all around Chestnut Hill reading “Where is the Streetcar SEPTA Promised?”

Ridership numbers in a great transit city like Philadelphia can be misleading. Girard was a streetcar line, then a bus line, then a streetcar line again, but “route 15 never went away,” says Mr. D’Antonio. “Only the mode changed.” Route 15 operates between an elevated rail and a subway line, through transit dependent neighborhoods, and is five blocks from Temple University and its 34,000 students. They would have to coat the handrails with swine flu syrup to keep people from riding it.

“The trolley-jollies want the trolleys,” said Ms. Moore, “but they don’t ride them. Our riders say they want to get to work on time.” Interviews with route 15 passengers confirmed this. Monica Allen was typical, waiting on an island in front of a Rite Aid: “The trolley is okay, it looks nice, but the buses are usually more on time.” A streetcar operator who requested anonymity put it more bluntly: “Most of the passengers don’t care if it’s a bus or a trolley. If you pulled up in a horse and buggy people would get on it.” In fact, ridership was higher on route 15 in 2004, the last year it was bus-only, even though SEPTA’s overall ridership was higher in 2006.

In restarting streetcar service SEPTA worked to prevent a gaping wound from opening in the budget. The original plan was to bid for modern, low-floor cars but they decided to renovate the PCC cars as a less expensive alternative. Still, the restoration cost of a PCC car was $1 million, compared to $600,000 for a new bus and per-vehicle-mile maintenance costs are $4.88 compared to $3.01 for buses. These come on top of the requirement that SEPTA maintains both the rails and the road within 18 inches of any track, even where trains are no longer running; any place a pothole opens near the rails, SEPTA—not the city of Philadelphia—fixes it. And of course, the 15% FTA spare ratio prevents keeping extra buses in reserve for problems with a streetcar.

This author rode route 23 its entire length, following the tracks that would be a Chestnut Hill trolley. Having the longest streetcar route in the world again would make for lousy bragging rights. It is painfully slow, so much so that it became a one-way trip. The ride back on the train—and there is heavy rail parallel to the length of route 23— was faster and more comfortable. That 23 is the busiest route in the SEPTA system is politically problematic for the agency, because in the minds of some (a vocal “some”) high ridership makes a good candidate for streetcar. The city of Philadelphia insists on having the service while refusing to give SEPTA what it needs most to make it effective: a dedicated right-of-way for streetcars. Again Mr. D’Antonio: “When the agreement was signed the city agreed to help with enforcement [of cars on rails] but hasn’t come through.”

What is particularly frustrating for staff at SEPTA is that this is not an agency that has abandoned streetcars on the whole. There are still number of trolley routes—called subway-surface lines—in active service: routes 10, 11, 13, 34 and 36 operate on the street for over 80% of their length. When she was at SEPTA, Faye Moore said there was “talk from city hall about putting trolleys down Market Street to the waterfront. Guess what? That’s the same route that was used in 1915 and that is why we built the subways, to get the trolleys off the streets.” The subways cover that other 20%. “Ironically,” says Mr. D’Antonio, “these subway-surface lines are able to get on-time in the most congested part of the city, the downtown.”

Philadelphia’s streetcar trajectory has been unusual to say the least: saving stock and track when other cities were trashing them, canning three lines when other cities were building new ones. U.S. transit agencies have tended to over-predict demand on rail projects to disastrous financial results. Miami underestimated the cost-per-passenger for its Metro Rail at $1.73 compared to the actual of $16.77, an 872% difference. D.H. Pickrell studied ten systems, including Miami’s, and found the lowest per-passenger cost was twice the projection, and the typical cost 4 to 5 times as high.[iv] All other transit agencies have to build public support for rail long before the steel is ordered.

SEPTA’s problems with routes 15, 23, and 56 have been the opposite: citizens with a voice in the halls of power were, and are, screaming for streetcars, ridership was very high from day one, and the transit property had to be brought along, kicking and screaming, to operate the damn thing. This is Wonderland and the white rabbit is checking on-time performance.

When Girard reopened in 2005, SEPTA was under a state DOT mandate (Act 3, Act 26) to have a 50% farebox recovery ratio. Considering the constant demands for service and the added expense of the streetcars, it is easy to understand SEPTA’s reticence. Faye Moore spoke longingly of wanting an LRT for Philadelphia similar to New Jersey Transit’s enviable Hudson-Bergen, then coming on line, but a capital project like that would have knocked the farebox ratio completely out of whack. However, according to Richard Maloney, SEPTA director of public affairs, a new Act 44 of 2007 eased that standard, putting in place a series of performance measures by mode that would be compared with peers and corrective action taken if necessary.

Politics is the art of the possible, and much becomes possible in transit when citizen activists and city leaders are demanding more of it. This civic energy in favor of transit could be directed at other rail projects where buses are not an effective mode. Citizen activists and an accommodating government have applied pressure on the transit agency to run a mode not in its or its customers’ best interest. If those activists can make a “bad” project happen, imagine what would happen if they were enlisted in support of the good.

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If you enjoyed this essay please forward it to a friend and share on Facebook.  If you want to keep reading please try my novels:

Departure Day

The Wandering: Departure Day Book II

Ciphers: Departure Day Book III

Eisodus: Departure Day Book IV

Smoke

[i] Surface Cars of Philadelphia 1911-1965. Harold E. Cox. P.7

[ii] Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 116, The Automobile: Its Province and Its Problems. (Nov., 1924), pp. 235-240.

[iii] SEPTA: Route 23 Trolley’s Fate Riding on Girard Trolley, by MICHAEL J. MISHAK Chestnut Hill Local.com

[iv] D.H. Pickrell (1992), Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(2), 158-176.

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