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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Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.
The Uber website proudly states that, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber's rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.” Such hype is common on corporate websites, but when the braggadocio is backed up by an article in the Wall Street Journal that discloses a valuation of $41 billion their ambitious words take on relevance.
As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.