Students wait to take the Broad Street Line subway at City Hall Station — the line’s busiest station — during the morning rush hour. Photo courtesy SEPTA.
The bell ushering in the new academic year has rung and across the country children have headed back to school. For millions of students, getting to and from school means taking the bus. For those kids in major cities, that doesn’t mean the typical yellow bus, but a public transit bus, or even the subway.
In Philadelphia, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) transports approximately 58,000 of 134,000 public school students from a variety of grade levels every day, many using more than one mode of transit. Add to that 58,000 the thousands of parochial, private and charter school students commuting on public transit and you have close to 100,000 students using the SEPTA trains, buses and trolleys throughout the day, sometimes at the height of the morning and late afternoon rush hours.
For some adults who aren’t frequent transit riders, the thought of children traveling to and from school via a city bus or subway may seem daunting. But planning and collaboration between transit organizations, school districts and families can make the transition to using public transportation an easy one.
SEPTA recently launched its online School Trip Planner. Using the tool, students who are moving to new institutions as a result of school closures simply look up their previous schools to find routes that service their new institution.
“It gives three, four, five options, whether it’s the bus, trolley or the subway,” said Ron Hopkins, SEPTA assistant GM for operations. “We’ll tell you what station it is.”
Students and parents can click on the name of the new school to find route options from their homes. In a matter of seconds, the trip planner will provide the best travel routes. The agency’s regular online trip planner can also assist students who are attending other schools this year. SEPTA and the School District of Philadelphia encouraged parents and children to map out their routes before classes started and take “trial runs” to become familiar with stops, travel times and options.
And, to make using public transit an even more viable travel option for all students leaving their neighborhoods, since 2007, SEPTA has offered limited use Student Weekday Passes. The program was designed to provide free school-related transportation to Philadelphia middle and secondary school students, Mondays through Fridays from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Prior to this, the school district required parents to purchase school tokens for their children. The district estimates the total quantity of passes needed for each school week and submits the order and payment to SEPTA. Passes are provided to the district in bulk and distributed to students by their schools. SEPTA calculates the number of passes actually used for travel for a specific week and credits the district for the unused passes.
Offering extra travel assistance to students is not only good public service, it also helps public transit organizations cultivate the next generation of riders.
“For many of these kids, this is their first real exposure to our buses, trains and trolleys,” said Hopkins. “If we can teach them at a young age how convenient and reliable our service is, we may gain lifelong SEPTA customers.”
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The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Regional (commuter) Rail system was inherited from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads and the infrastructure in many sections of the system has been serving the Philadelphia area for more than 100 years. Fifteen years ago, overhead catenary system (OCS) failures were a common occurrence on SEPTA Regional Rail, a result of fatigue cracks and wear. The all too common OCS failures were frustrating for SEPTA customers who occasionally found it difficult to depend on train service for their travels and for SEPTA, whose crews were constantly working to repair and maintain the system.
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Tech-enabled ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft already appear to be acting as a complement to public transit. Uber analyzed its Los Angeles trip data to in this light. Over the course of a month, Uber found that 22 percent of trips taken near Metro stations took place during rush hour (between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday). This data could be telling us that people are using Uber like they might use bikeshare, as a last-mile and first-mile connection to transit.
Driverless cars have been in the news for quite some time. Last September, I speculated in PC 360, an insurance trade magazine, that insurance premiums for autos could decrease by as much as 40% over the next five years as autonomous cars made travel much safer. I increased my estimate to a 75% decrease in insurance premiums by extending the timeline to 15 years. When I wrote those two articles, I remember thinking how much of a personal paradigm shift was needed to accept a driverless car as safe. Now, it appears that driverless buses are in the near future as well.
What do transit authorities like SEPTA, MBTA, MTA and BART have in common other than transporting thousands, even millions of riders every day? All were recently ranked as four of the U.S.’s 500 “Best Employers” by Forbes magazine.
SEPTA, MBTA, MTA and BART were among 25 organizations included in Forbes’ “Transportation & Logistics” category, along with Southwest Airlines, Amtrak, CSX, Union Pacific and Greyhound. In fact, SEPTA (#33) and MBTA (#49) placed higher than Apple (#55) and SEPTA was the highest ranked company in Pennsylvania.