Everyone who knows me knows that I have been fascinated by public transit from an early age. So fascinated, that I memorized the NYC Subway System by the time I was five. One of my earliest memories of coming to Washington when I was younger was riding Metro; a system so futuristic and different compared to New York. There were so many things I liked: the cool architecture of the stations with the iconic concrete roofs, the silent humming of the trains as they arrived (even during rush hour), and escalators EVERYWHERE (find me an 8 year old who doesn’t like escalators).
But beyond childhood fascination, I still like Metro despite its current problems (just try using the system on weekends, for example). I thought really hard about whether or not it would be fair to compare Metro to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s public transportation network, but since this blog compares two entirely different cities, I guess it would have to happen. Although in reality, pitting rag tag SEPTA against sleek Metro seems like an entirely unfair comparison. Oh well.
The Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) operates all of Philly’s public transit services: bus, rail, trolley, and subway. For a city of over 1.5 million people, SEPTA operates a whopping two subway lines; a north-south line that runs along Broad Street and an east-west line that runs along Market Street. The two lines meet at City Hall, and unless you are traveling somewhere along Broad or Market, the system is utterly useless. It’s also older, which means low ceilings and a lack of ADA compliant infrastructure at most stations, no countdown clocks, and station announcements that sound like white noise. It’s also the last remaining system that uses tokens (yes, they still exist). There are always talks of plans to improve and expand the system, such as an extension of the Broad Street Line to connect to the airport and the Roosevelt Boulevard Line, but a lack of funding for an already cash-strapped transit agency not only makes future capital construction nothing more than a pipe dream, but fixing current problems a formidable challenge. It’s why SEPTA’s slogan, “We’re Getting There” is so hilariously self-aware.
But on the plus side, SEPTA offers lots of supplementary service to go places the subway doesn’t. Trolleys run underground from Center City into West Philadelphia, serving the universities and the surrounding neighborhoods. The regional rail system, which runs daily, serves most of the outlying parts of the city, and good portions of the surrounding suburbs. There are buses that run on pretty much every street downtown and along major routes heading out, and another subway, the PATCO, connects Philadelphia to South Jersey. In the three years I have lived in Philly, I have only been sidelined by subway trackwork a handful of times, and for the most part, the trains run on time. Finally, it appears that tokens will in fact be replaced by a smart payment system that will actually give SEPTA one of the most advanced payment systems. So for what its worth, SEPTA’s improvements are coming, albeit one small step at a time.
Metro, on the other hand, is the nation’s second busiest rapid transit system and serves large swaths of DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Originally built in the 1970s with additions continuously built in recent years, it’s a modern system with futuristic stations (complete with escalators galore), quieter trains outfitted with rubber wheels, and easy to read and identify signage and wayfinding. The map, for example, can be easily understood by anyone with its bold lines and clearly marked transfer points. It’s also a distance-based system, which makes short trips around central DC cheap (while making longer trips out to the suburbs more expensive). Personally, I love how the grooves in the concrete in each station provide just enough space to install sound panels to reduce station and train noise.
Of course, Metro isn’t perfect. The identical stations may work from a branding perspective, but can truly throw off unfamiliar travelers and tourists who are trying to find their way. Constant elevator and escalator outages make travel for those who depend upon those services painful and annoying (there are at least several elevator outages along the system daily). The growth of daily ridership has put enormous strain upon the system, making rush hour into the city (and out of ) the city a painful ordeal. Even with the introduction of Rush+ service, congestion along the Orange, Blue, and Yellow lines continues to be a problem.
But Metro’s biggest downfall is it’s inability to decide whether or not it is an urban or suburban system. Metro’s extensions out into sort-of far-flung suburbs like Shady Grove and Vienna offer commuters a reliable means to travel into the city, but add traffic and strain to fellow commuters who travel short distances within the city or nearby. Additional commuter rail services like MARC and VRE help somewhat to alleviate traffic by serving Washington’s more distant and less Metro accessible suburbs, but the service is far less frequent and more expensive. So whereas SEPTA keeps short and long distance commuters separate by two different modes of transportation, Metro mixes both its long and short term riders in one mode, creating more traffic and congestion for all in its stations and onboard trains.
Of course, one thing that both SEPTA and Metro riders can agree upon is talking about how much their rapid transit system sucks and how terrible their service is. Popular DC blogs like Unsuck DC Metro and Fix WMATA routinely post about Metro’s deficiencies and operation issues. This post about getting a SEPTA pass exposes how antiquated the city’s payment system is and how many unnecessary hurdles one has to cross to use the system. Both cities have pledged to improve their respective networks. Philadelphia’s 2035 plan includes provisions for major rapid transit expansion, and the new Dilworth Plaza will greatly improve City Hall Station’s aesthetics. Metro’s new silver line is set to open next year, providing initial service to Tyson’s Corner and ultimate service to Dulles Airport and Loudon County. So while both systems provide slightly different functions and have quite the age gap, they may not be as different or as inequal as one might initially think.
However, nearly 20 years later, I still prefer my abundance of escalators.