Can 13 minutes convince Philadelphia drivers sitting in traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard to ditch their cars and opt for public transit? SEPTA and the city certainly are hoping so.
SEPTA’s Direct Bus service is scheduled to start rolling this fall, shortening the 47 minutes, on average, it takes the Route 14 bus to go 10.8 miles from Neshaminy Mall to the Frankford Transportation Center to a projected 34 minutes. Instead of the 70 to 80 stops made by Route 14 buses, which carry 12,000 riders a day, Direct Bus will make just eight, about 1.5 miles apart.
“Thirteen minutes does make a difference,” said Angela Dixon, director of planning for the city. “When you’re trying to make connections and trying to get to appointments, trying to get to school, trying to get to jobs, every minute counts.”
SEPTA is hoping the new service, which will run every 10 minutes during rush hours, will attract 2,000 to 4,500 new riders a day, easing traffic congestion along the 12-lane highway, which is often cited as one of the most dangerous streets for pedestrians.
It’s not light rail, which is incredibly expensive to build and disruptive to surrounding businesses, but Dixon said Direct Bus is a “good intermediate step.” Consideration of a light rail project—which has been bandied about often in the past—will come up again in the “2040 visioning study, which is ready to kick off,” she said.
Planning for the project began several years ago with a Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission study.
“We looked at both "true" BRT [bus rapid transit], with a bus running in its own dedicated right-of-way as well as lighter treatments that included everything from transit signal priority to all-door boarding,” said Dan Nemiroff, senior operations planner for SEPTA’s Service Planning Department. “The program that was created looked at making long-term impactful changes to the boulevard but also developed a series of short-term implementation pieces, one of which was our Direct Bus service [called enhanced bus service at the time].”
The city broke ground in July on plazas at five of the eight Direct Bus stops.
“We’re adding on-street amenities that you haven’t seen in Philadelphia until now,” Dixon said.
That includes a large plaza with space for waiting at each stop, as well as two shelters, one for local service and one for express. Express bus-riders can also expect to find benches, solar-powered trash cans, lighting and basic landscaping, like trees, as well as pylons displaying maps and information on Direct Bus and local routes.
The plazas themselves will be outside the roadway at points where “we have some wider public right of way. We wanted to make sure we’re allowing for abundant clearance from pedestrian walkways,” she said.
The stops—Frankford Transportation Center, Cottman Avenue, Rhawn Avenue, Welsh Road, Grant Avenue, Red Lion Road in the City and the Neshaminy Interplex and the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem Township in Bucks County‑‑account for half of all passenger activity along the route. They also intersect with other SEPTA routes, making transfers easy. Once Direct Bus gets rolling, service along the more circuitous Route 14 will be reduced by 20 percent, Nemiroff said.
Nemiroff said the $2 million project is being funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, with $1.9 million of the funding covering the new shelters. No new buses are being purchased for Direct Bus. SEPTA plans to take some of the articulated, 60-foot buses it currently has and wrap them in new designs for the service, which will cost the same as nonexpress service, $2.50 a ride.
Efforts were made to alert property owners about the construction ahead of time and to make sure vehicular access to driveways would not be impeded, Nemiroff said.
“The configuration of the Boulevard will stay the same. Keep in mind that the overarching [Transportation Department] grant is looking at a wholesale reconfiguration of the boulevard, but the goal of our project was to get something in place during the lifetime of the study,” Nemiroff said.
Don Brennan, director of marketing for the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said at least five of the stops—Cottman Avenue, Rhawn Street, Welsh Road, Grant Avenue and Red Lion Road—“seem to me to be ideal in terms of bringing new customers and new employees who rely on public transit to these businesses."
Nemiroff said there was no opposition to the project, but Brennan said the chamber has not yet polled its members on their feelings about the service, so it’s difficult to judge how much support there is among business owners.
"Two of the greatest concerns I am aware of along this stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard is safety and congestion,” he said. “Some of the most dangerous intersections in the state exist along this portion of the boulevard, and although progress has been made in making it safer, we still have work to do."
Twenty of the 50 people who died along that stretch of road between 2011 and 2016 were pedestrians, many of them killed as they dashed across the roadway to catch a bus, PennDOT statistics show.
Dixon said safety has been a major concern from the get-go. The boulevard has six lanes in each direction, with the outer three local lanes on each side separated from the inner three express lanes by a median. Just the volume of traffic alone, at 36 million cars a year, presents a danger to pedestrians, Dixon said. The plazas are hoped to give riders a safer place to stand.
The Direct Bus service covers about half the length of Roosevelt Boulevard and SEPTA is still evaluating whether to extend the service.
“Our focus right now is on getting the boulevard Direct [Bus service] implemented,” Nemiroff said.