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Being a Philadelphia native, I have years of experience commuting to different parts of the city using various methods of transportation and during different types of weather. When choosing a mode of transportation, the choice usually comes down to taking public transit or driving a car. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to traveling to Center City, no option is ideal at this point in time. For years before the pandemic, I commuted to Center City regularly for school, work, and more. While I am used to the commute, it has always been a difficult one no matter what route or mode of transportation is taken. It has only become more difficult during the pandemic. Each mode of transportation has major issues when attempting to commute to Center City.
Taking public transit to Center City is definitely less expensive than ride-sharing services or using your own car. However, of the transportation options I will discuss, it has been the worst to take. First, there are not enough buses and other transit routes. Certain neighborhoods are completely inaccessible by our public transit system. While some neighborhoods have no nearby public transit route available for multiple blocks, others have buses that only come on the hour or do not run every day. If you live in one of these neighborhoods, it is difficult to rely on public transit. It also means people living outside that neighborhood cannot access that area by public transit easily. Some days, it can be next to impossible to commute by public transit if the bus that goes through a neighborhood does not run that day and the next closest route is located far away by standards of walking distance. This is especially if that further route does not run often. Additionally, some routes stop running in the evening, making it hard to rely on public transit to get home if you work a late shift or take evening college classes as a commuter student.
The buses that run less frequently make commutes take more time and make commuting more difficult if you also have to transfer between buses. Sometimes, I would take a bus that runs on the hour and have to wait for a half-hour or more for the bus I want to transfer to due to the schedules of two routes not lining up well. Even if there is a regularly scheduled bus to take, sometimes a particular bus never shows up, comes so early I miss it, or is significantly delayed. In the winter, it is not unusual for ice on the tracks to also cause delays or pauses in service on the various trains and subway lines. I have lost count of how many times I have gotten stranded in extreme weather conditions after either the bus or the train ran into an issue and did not show up on time. Once, I stood on a corner for a long period of time on a summer day where the temperature was close to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit due to the bus I planned to transfer to being delayed. Another time, I was stuck in a trolley station for over an hour in a snowstorm because the station had become overcrowded after the city’s schools suddenly had an early dismissal due to the storm. There were more people in the station than the trolley could fit due to the schools dismissing all at once. The storm was so intense that you could not see well enough to cross the street safely, so walking to another public transit station was also not a viable option. Teachers and students together waited out the storm underground in the trolley station. Some of this could have been prevented by the school district canceling school sooner that day or not dismissing every school in the area at the same time, but even under normal conditions pre-pandemic, there were also many times the buses, trains, and trolleys would become overcrowded with students and other commuters. Sometimes, certain routes became so crowded pre-pandemic that not a single additional passenger could board and everyone waiting at the stop would have to take the next bus or train, adding further time to their commutes.
The unreliableness of Philadelphia’s public transit system has caused me to cancel appointments or be late arriving somewhere sometimes due to major delays. One time before I owned a car, the bus I was planning to take to a doctor’s appointment broke down and the next one would not arrive for an hour. That next bus would have caused me to be significantly late to the appointment, even though the first bus would have gotten me there early. I had to call to cancel the appointment from the bus stop and walk back home. Some doctors have few openings in appointments, making having to cancel for a reason out of my control like this even worse. Another time after I bought my first car, a similar situation happened where the bus never arrived when I planned to take public transit to a meeting in Center City. While it would have been less expensive to take public transit than park in Center City, I simply walked to my car after the bus did not show up and was still on time by driving down immediately. There have also been times I did not apply to certain jobs prior to owning a car simply because there was not a public transit route to take me there, even if the job was less than an hour away driving. Additionally, it usually takes more time to commute by public transit than by driving. For example, there is a particular commute that only takes about a half-hour driving, but over an hour by public transit due to the bus running infrequently and having to stop often to pick up passengers. Previously, multiple commutes to different parts of the city and surrounding areas have taken me over twice the amount of time each by public transit than they do by driving.
During the pandemic, ridership for public transit has greatly decreased. In combination with low ridership, multiple types of safety issues have also caused at least one station to close and a local bus route to no longer run as late at night. For people who need these closed routes to commute to and from work, they are now forced to drive or use ride-sharing services. It seems that trust in our public transit system has greatly decreased, exacerbating the low ridership problem. As ridership decreases, so does revenue, leading to less available money to make repairs and address safety concerns. The last time I rode public transit, there were multiple types of human bodily fluids in the train cars and station that had not been cleaned up. Especially during a pandemic, it did not feel safe to ride for that issue alone. On top of this, it has been hard to purchase and maintain Key Cards in order to ride public transit. Key Cards replaced tokens a few years ago as the means for paying the public transit fares. Lately, some of the offices for purchasing the Key Cards and refilling them have been closed. Unlike the old token system, the Key Cards expire and cost money to replace and transfer your balance to a new card. When traveling with multiple people, each person needs their own Key Card instead of being able to share a bag of tokens, meaning the replacement fee for expired Key Cards makes it more difficult to travel as a family by public transit. These fees further deter people from wanting to take public transit. The less you ride, the less it feels worth paying to replace an expired Key Card. If people are staying home more during the pandemic, they are riding less and may start to question whether to just let the Key Card expire or pay the replacement fee.
In addition to being difficult to take with multiple people, it is also hard to travel by public transit if you are traveling with a large amount of items, such as when coming home from grocery shopping, compared to being able to store those items in the trunk or back seat of a car.
Owning a car has made shopping much easier, especially when buying in bulk or picking up a larger item. I have also used my car to help friends move in and out of college dorms, which is next to impossible to do by public transit unless you take very few items.
Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are another transportation option, though not a very good one. These services eliminate the issue of being unable to access certain parts of Philadelphia by public transit since you can travel to any address with ride-sharing. There are still some safety issues with ride-sharing, since you are getting into a stranger’s car. However, when I have used ride-sharing, I have yet to encounter a driver that was in any way problematic. If anything, the riders I have met are usually kind, professional, and good at small talk. One issue with ride-sharing compared to owning your own car is if you realize you forgot something at home after entering the car, you cannot easily go back for it. With ride-sharing, you also have to wait for the transportation to arrive, instead of being able to leave immediately in your own vehicle. Wait times can vary significantly. However, the main issue with ride-sharing is how expensive it is. Especially during certain times a day, the cost of a single trip from Center City to various other parts of Philadelphia or the surrounding suburbs can be more than I pay for a whole tank of gas for my car.
Especially pre-pandemic when I was commuting to work or school almost every single day, owning my own car was definitely cheaper than using a ride-sharing service. It also gives me more control to have my own car. I can go somewhere wherever I want and not have to wait for my ride to arrive. I do not have to worry about what the driver will be like if I am the one driving or letting someone I know drive my car. I know exactly how much space I have available in my car instead of waiting to see what type of car will show up when trying to move items via ride-sharing. Owning a car is expensive, but it provides more freedom of movement than public transit or ride-sharing. I can make last-minute plans more easily when using my own car and I am not limited by what time the last bus of the day comes when making plans to spend time with friends or family one evening away from home. I used to stress so much about being unable to go certain places before when limited to public transit or would have to say no to invitations to go somewhere late at night simply because of when certain buses stop running. Now, I can change my plans or add a sudden stop along the way after already leaving the house as long as I use my car. I can head straight to my car on rainy days instead of waiting on street corners, hoping desperately the bus comes on time. So often, I also previously had to depend on people I know who have their own car being willing to give me a ride to go certain places and there were times no one was available. Now, I can almost always use my car to travel wherever I want at any time of day, which relieves so much stress. However, using my car to commute still includes some issues.
The main issue with using my own car to get around is how expensive gas, car insurance, and repairs can be. My car has become my main financial expense at this point in my life. Sometimes, I start to question how long I will be able to afford to own a car long-term and stress about how much I have spent so far on it. Multiple times, I have started to deeply question if the cost is worth it. However, I also absolutely love my car and the issues it eliminates compared to using other modes of transportation. Especially when I first started driving it, I felt a strong sense of joy from the freedom and stress reduction it gave me.
An issue with driving that the city could intervene with is how much the roads in multiple places have become in disrepair. Especially this year, I have noticed many potholes that developed over the winter have yet to be repaired months later. There are also many places where construction has been done, but the road was not resurfaced, leading to bumps where patches are present and small holes. Between the construction and potholes, this keeps throwing off the alignment on my car quickly, therefore increasing repair costs. There are also many areas where the lines in the road need repainting due to construction or the old paint has faded significantly, making it hard to see where the lanes are and therefore making driving on those roads less safe. If they are not repainted, then another design choice needs to be made to make the lanes more visible.
The only other significant issue with driving is how expensive it is to park in Center City. Many other parts of the city have free or significantly less expensive parking. Parking in Center City usually costs more than taking public transit. Additionally, some areas limit how long you can park or have no nearby parking. Multiple Center City parking lots lately have been overcrowded due to people avoiding public transit. Some lots have been so full that no one entering can park until another car leaves, though luckily these lots tend to have a continuous flow of traffic in and out. However, the issues with parking and construction on the major roads connecting me to Center City have caused me to avoid Center City lately. I used to love visiting Center City, but it has become more difficult to get to than anywhere else I travel to.
Part of the reason parking is supposedly so expensive and limited is to deter people from driving to Center City in the hopes of reducing highway congestion and being more environmentally friendly by having people take public transit instead. However, the environmentally friendly argument has major flaws. During the pandemic, I have often seen buses pass by with no passengers or very few people riding. Public transit is only more environmentally friendly if people actually ride it. Additionally, there are accessibility issues with public transit. Along with certain areas not being serviced by our public transit system, there are also stations that are not as disability-friendly as they could be. It is not unusual for there to be broken elevators or for the elevators to be much further away in some stations than the stairs. The trolleys have no way to enter them without walking up stairs, unless this has changed since I last rode. I also ran into an issue with the subways when I had an ear infection where riding was simply too loud and painful, but I was able to handle driving. For people with certain auditory sensitivities, I am sure this is a constant problem. Additionally, I have lost count of how many times the recording and screen that says which station is next on the Market-Frankford Line or what station the train has arrived at mentions the wrong station, which is a problem for those who depend on it to know where they are. While driving is not an accessible option for everyone, neither is public transit. At least for me, the issues I have with public transit tend to be eliminated by driving, except the financial cost. Owning my own car and driving it to get around has been the best transportation option for me lately, though it is not without flaws. It is just better than the alternatives. Especially until the current major construction projects on our city’s highways and other roads are complete and parking becomes more available, driving to Center City is very difficult, but taking public transit or ride-sharing is worse.
My hope for this piece is not simply to complain about transportation issues in Philadelphia. Instead, I wish that my reflection on these issues based on my years of experience will help highlight them and help motivate us to improve transportation in the city long-term. I often hear others complain about commuting to the city in the city and how stressful it is. It does not have to be this way in the future if we work to improve transportation in the city and make it accessible for everyone financially, disability-wise, etc.