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(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 332: Rethinking City and Commuter Transportation

May 6, 2021

This week we’re joined by Christopher Puchalsky and Andrew Simpson of the Philadelphia Office of Technology, Infrastructure, and Sustainability.  We talk about The Philadelphia Transit Plan, regional rail improvements, transit service levels, and agency coordination.

You can find a full (unedited for now) transcript below:

Jeff Wood (1m 28s):
Chris Puchalski and Andrew Simpson. Welcome to the talking ways podcast to be here. Jeff. Thanks. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? We’ll start with Chris and then, and then we’ll go to Andrew.

Christopher Puchalsky (1m 47s):
Yeah, sure. Hi, I’m Chris Puchalsky. I’m the director of policy and strategic initiatives at Otis that’s. The city of Philadelphia is office of transportation, infrastructure and sustainability. And I’ve been in this position for four and a half years before that I worked at MPO in the Philadelphia region, DVR PC, and then I’ve got a PhD in urban transportation systems engineering from Penn. And before that, I actually spent a few years in the automotive industry. So I worked for the Ford motor company, designing automobiles for a few years, you know, great experience having mechanical engineering undergrad, but at some point, got the idea in my head that you know, what we do to need cleaner cars.

Christopher Puchalsky (2m 30s):
We would probably also need less cars in our cities, you know, from the various cities that I fell in love with, including Philadelphia, just thinking about them, that they would probably work better if we had less cars driving around them.

Andrew Simpson (2m 42s):
Andrew Simpson, I am the transit policy planner at Otis. So I work for Chris and work on all things, kind of transit related. I sit with our complete streets team and try to bring a transit perspective to those projects. So I’m working on intersection redesign projects and bike lane projects, all sorts of complete streets, things bringing kind of SEPTA along and the transit perspective there. I originally am from Knoxville, Tennessee. So I grew up outside of Knoxville and then came to Philadelphia for my undergraduate degree at Penn and did urban studies there. And at that point I kind of realized, wait, this is something that people actually do like and stuff. That’s awesome. So I ended up going straight from undergrad into a planning degree pin planning and doing transportation.

Andrew Simpson (3m 27s):
And then starting at the city, working in this job,

Jeff Wood (3m 31s):
Do you all have a formative, like a transit experience or transportation experience from when you were a kid?

Andrew Simpson (3m 36s):
I would say for me, it was just kind of arriving somewhere where your, your life was not defined by, you know, a driver’s license or, or kind of growing up where there really was no transit, no sidewalks, no anything of that sort. So for me, it was just kind of eye-opening that you can basically live somewhere in just a completely different way than I’d ever experienced before. That kind of really just changed my perspective on everything.

Christopher Puchalsky (4m 1s):
I think I had three, I think it’s in growing up. I grew up on a small college campus in rural Pennsylvania and, you know, while I didn’t feel like I grew up in an urban environment, it was a place where you could, you could walk to just about anywhere you needed to go to, which isn’t exactly a transit experience like you asked, but it is an urban experience. Then when I came to Philadelphia, taking the subway for the first time, you know, especially the broad street line is a great subway line and it’s got great cars, you know, it’s got a super fleet and just the convenience of being able to take it from temple university, which is where I did my undergrad walking around downtown. And then I studied at temple university, Japan campus in Tokyo, and then the, just the seamless, mega regional mobility.

Christopher Puchalsky (4m 48s):
I found riding those trains was a real joy to me. So then I think so there’s some of my formative transit experiences,

Jeff Wood (4m 57s):
Is that frustrating to come back to the U S from being in Tokyo and getting back on your home system and being like, Hm, I kind of, that happens to me when I get home and I have to get on Bart. And I, I like Bart obviously, and I like uni, but when I go to other places I come back and I’m like, Hmm, I wish we had more.

Christopher Puchalsky (5m 13s):
Yeah. Yes it is. This was most clear to me when I went to Tokyo in 2010 for a trip and getting to the airport to come back home. I had this amazing seamless experience from where I was staying near Wayno. I took three different trains to get to the airport. It was seamless. I tagged in once I tagged out it’s three separate companies, totally transparent to me, everything worked well. It was clean. I got off, I flew into JFK and I took the air train to the aid station. And it really felt like, I mean, it’s like, it was like totally falling apart. You know, it was just terrible. I was like, wow, these don’t both feel like industrialized countries, you know, Tokyo certainly feels like it has nice infrastructure and New York and, you know, all, all, all American systems really struggle with state of good repair.

Jeff Wood (6m 5s):
I’ve had good experiences though in, in Philadelphia. So I I’ve flown into Philadelphia a couple of times and taking the train downtown. And I really liked that experience. I think that was a good one. So I would lie to you for, for a good airport to downtown experience, although that’s kind of a rare trip, I think for a lot of folks that live in the region, obviously. Yeah.

Christopher Puchalsky (6m 21s):
I think we do have good bones and I think this is what we tried to point out in our plan. And while it only goes every half hour, it is a really great service from the airport that takes you right downtown. So bringing it back to our transit plan that we’re going to talk about, you know, there’s a lot of legacy investments in Philadelphia, and I think some of it is just making them work better. Yes.

Jeff Wood (6m 43s):
Let’s dive in. I want to learn a little bit more about Philadelphia itself and how the region works together. You all are with Otis, which is the city. There’s also SEPTA, there’s DVR PC. How do all those organizations kind of work together and how does the regional transportation kind of outlook look at the moment?

Christopher Puchalsky (6m 59s):
I think they all work together fairly well. I think we’ve got the best relationship with our transit providers and especially staff to our largest one. Then, you know, maybe in the entire history of the system, you know, we’ve got really productive working relationships at all levels. And, you know, again with our regional partners, but I think where the outlook is, you know, funding is a real significant challenge for us. So we’ve got much lower capital funding than, than most other systems. Our side is at least per capita. And so we really struggle just making the state of good repair projects work or something like the trolley project, which is essentially a state of good repair plus modernization project.

Christopher Puchalsky (7m 43s):
Just delivering. Those are a real challenge, let alone any kind of system expansion. But I think the partnerships at least are there and they’re strong

Jeff Wood (7m 53s):
Or with the city, obviously the city has control of the streets, but how much, you know, impact you all have on the transit system and SEPTA and all and all this stuff that goes along in the region overall. Yeah,

Christopher Puchalsky (8m 2s):
I think a fair amount, our bosses, one of the two board members from the city of Philadelphia. So the city has two board members, all the suburban counties each have two board members also. So while the representation isn’t quite equitable, at least it’s there. And, you know, we’re able to have the conversation at the right level, you know, when we need to have it. So I think we have a fair amount of influence. I think the other thing is, you know, good, good ideas have influence. So we, we tried to take the best ideas that we’ve had. And, you know, we talked to quite a few SEPTA staff, quite a few times to get what we thought were the best ideas internally and put it in our plan.

Jeff Wood (8m 42s):
So at the top level of what should we know about the Philadelphia transit plan?

Christopher Puchalsky (8m 46s):
So we did a general transportation strategy a few years ago called connect. And while it really set the guidelines for what we wanted to do in a five to 10 year period, it really didn’t go in depth. And we saw what other cities had done Seattle, especially in being able to advance the ball by having a city transit plan. And it really opened our eyes like, Oh, w we don’t just have to outsource our transit planning to our transit agency. Obviously they need to be a close partner in it. But we started on this path because we saw that we needed one also in, when we did some work with Jarrett Walker, early bus network, redesign feasibility study, I’ll call it. They pointed that as a need that the city controls a significant amount of the decisions that make transit successful or not.

Christopher Puchalsky (9m 30s):
So it’s like, Oh, we really do need to come to the table with ideas. And then maybe Andrew can talk about this more. But when we started doing them, the background research for the plan, we found a pattern in the history of Philadelphia is that when the city came to the table with ideas, like really great stuff has happened over the last a hundred years. And then when we were not leading the way progress has not been made.

Andrew Simpson (9m 53s):
Yeah. So going back to the early turn of the century, building of the subways, that era where you had a lot of private operators, didn’t have just one large regional government agency, or it’s my government agency. It was kind of the city that took a lot of leadership on building out the subway infrastructure and developing the plans for that. So we kind of drew on that over a hundred year history now, looking back on, on those projects and that leadership and that came to fruition, they brought in kind of leaders of civil society and organizations and industry, and got a lot built. And, you know, certainly not nearly as much as they had wanted to, but a lot, but all of those good bones really were built in that era.

Andrew Simpson (10m 33s):
And then as we saw with, you know, some of the Jim of Philly’s planning history that at bacon work of the 1960s, which was really kind of prominent, comprehensive planning that was done in Philadelphia under bacon, we saw the formation of the center city, commuter tunnel come up in the city’s comprehensive document. That was really kind of a lauded and comprehensive plan. And you know, that project doesn’t get built for 20 years or more. And it’s, it’s a long way off, but it, the seeds of it really came out of that era. It was kind of probably kind of crazy to think about uniting two competing train services at that point, but then opportunity presented itself later on and city took a leadership role in getting that built and actually forming it, which is one of our biggest assets we have now.

Andrew Simpson (11m 22s):
It’s like, that’s, that’s the key to, you know, that frequent regional rail service that we talked about. Yeah. I think you’re making Boston jealous. They’re trying to connect their North and South stations. And that connection to Seattle is interesting too. I mean, I noticed in the report, you know, if you were to try to build out what you all have today, do you mentioned that Seattle, you know, would have to pay $73 billion, which obviously they’re not going to have at the moment. So that base is really important. It seems like to what you all are trying to do.

Christopher Puchalsky (11m 50s):
Yeah. I think it was even worse than that almost. I think they’re going to however many $77 billion and they’ll end up with a system that’s a quarter of our size. So the regional reach of the transit system is truly impressive. So that’s great where we see the need for more immediate investment, those in the bus system. And that’s where we can actually learn something from Seattle instead, how to make our bus system work better. We got about half of our riders taking the bus now, and that, that just hasn’t been invested in, I mean, not nothing at all, but not the same kind of investments that have been made in the rail system. So we think that’s the real low hanging fruit. And that’s also the most equitable policy really is to start putting some investment in the bus system.

Christopher Puchalsky (12m 32s):
When you look at who rides the bus.

Jeff Wood (12m 34s):
Yeah. That’s really hard too, because some of the stuff that you are suggesting like bus lanes and some of the other investments, those are hard politically. Do you expect a lot of pushback from that? Or is it going to be easier going forward because you have a plan? How is that investment going to be made? Yes,

Christopher Puchalsky (12m 47s):
Yes, we expect so a few different pieces there. We’ve gotten, I think some pretty good experience and we’re learning every day about how to get complete streets and bike projects done. So the learning that has happened in the team, that’s called over the last five years, about ways that projects move forward and way, the ways that they don’t in a system that is it, Philadelphia is probably in some ways a city that runs less on, you know, here’s a great idea. Let’s take it. It’s much more on relationships and transactions and you know, every place is relational. I think Philly is just so, so relational the way the politics are. And so it’s hard to come in with this great best practice, that idea you might expect as a planner that, that just, of course everyone’s gonna see it, you know, and I don’t mean to be like, Oh, that happens automatically other places.

Christopher Puchalsky (13m 38s):
I know it doesn’t, but I think to a larger degree, you really got to go through the slog of convincing, you know, doing the really block by block conversation. I think Chicago is probably similar is probably the city that’s most similar to Philadelphia that way. But I think we’ve learned a lot that is going to help us get to some of these really difficult trade-offs. And I think the trade-offs are more difficult in Philadelphia. Some of our major transit streets in this city are 26 feet between the curves. So you’ve got, we currently have a parking lane and two moving lanes, which don’t really fit, you know, especially when you got a nine and a half foot lane that is moving 180 inch bus down the street, you know, and you’ve got maybe a bus coming every minute at the peak.

Christopher Puchalsky (14m 21s):
That’s really hard to make work. And then when you want to take a lane away from traffic, it’s even tougher, but I think we’re in a decent position to go forward. And that plan really has helped. And I think the other piece is advocacy. You know, I think we got the plan. That’s one thing that we need and it’s been really well received by a bunch of people. I think the other piece that we need is the advocacy. So something that we realized a few years ago when we put it in that connect plan that we talked about, and that we talk a little bit about in the transit plans, just how important the advocacy is to moving things forward. And I think our advocacy scene, especially around transit has really started to come together at the beginning of this administration, call it, you know, six, seven years ago, the, the bike advocates were together, right.

Christopher Puchalsky (15m 7s):
Which is why I think they’re able to get some priorities put in place, but the transit advocates just weren’t there. And we saw situations. My favorite example is when once a few years ago we were talking about a bus stop that has illegal parking, that was blocking the, you know, the passengers from being able to see the bus coming down the street. And we was like, well, we wanted to block that off. So people physically couldn’t park there. And we said, how many people are there using it about 500 full days in this bus stop? And, you know, the council person who shall remain on named didn’t want to do it. Those are the two people illegally parking. They thought they would shout more than the 500 people a day. They’re using that bus.

Christopher Puchalsky (15m 48s):
And to the extent that we’re getting groups that are being able to organize and advocate for those 500 people, I think that part is starting to come together. And as we go to put these bus lines in over the next few years, I think we’ll have some community support that maybe we wouldn’t have had five and 10 years ago,

Andrew Simpson (16m 6s):
Just to add to that, Chris, I think one of the things that I hope the plan does, and we’ll see, I mean, we’re just getting into these projects now and getting them rolling, but is kind of, you know, using data in those methods that we have to, you know, really quantify and show the utility. I think that’s, that’s something that, you know, billing infrastructure for buses in Philadelphia, we have an advantage as compared to, you know, lots of other things where we have buses that are full of people are rolling down the street every five minutes, right? A lot of these projects we’re focusing and really in the plan, we really focus in on places where we have people riding now who has buses moving too slowly. And we’ve got data around that.

Andrew Simpson (16m 46s):
And I think with our advocates, and as we go forward, we, you know, start to assemble the stories and the personal elements of that and build narratives that I think are, hopefully, will be really convincing this. Isn’t like an abstract. Like if we build this, you know, the buses will come it’s that the buses are there and they’re there full of people who need to get the work, those people they deserve to get there on time and, and get about their lives. So I think that’s, that’s something I’m really hopeful for that. And we’ve laid the groundwork, I think, by doing this, as opposed to just kind of pulling something out of a hat and, and getting to it, we’ve really set out what our mission is and how we’re going to go about it. Yeah. And having those advocates seems like it’s been really important at other cities around the country, too. I mean, Miami, what they’ve done down there with frequent bus network planning and stuff like that.

Andrew Simpson (17m 29s):
So it seems like that’s, that’s super helpful to get to that point where you’re making sure that the people on the bus have a voice versus those two, two park drivers. And it’s really interesting to have that discussion about the 500 versus two here in California. We have, we just switched over from level of service to VMT on a lot of our sequel facilitation. And that was a hard slog to get people to talk about like the numbers of people traveling on a corridor in VMT versus that level of service number, which is, you know, obviously it’s what happens when you talk about congestion. And we were talking with Carol Martins about the sufficient accessibility and all that stuff. So I think it’s, it’s all connected to try to get to where you want to go.

Andrew Simpson (18m 9s):
You all have, you know, 192 page plan for better transit and you’ve put a lot of work into it. And it’s very impressive. I must say, to go through the report and see all the work that you all put into it, how much does that help the advocates? They have something to look into, probably something that you all reached out to them to ask about as well, how much does that plan help you all push this kind of agenda forward? It helps a lot. It helps put down our priorities on paper and give people something that point to it gives them an opportunity, I think, to kind of advance what they’re pushing for. I hope

Christopher Puchalsky (18m 39s):
Helps a lot. You know, I hope that we’re, you know, worthy of our jobs and that we’re experts in the field. Yeah, no. And that, I hope this is a document for people who really care about transit, but you know, there’s a lot of ideas out there that, you know, we, we spent more than a year and a half and in some ways it was putting down ideas that have been gestating for, for me for over 20 years of, you know, being in Philadelphia and studying transit. So I hope it helps to focus on these are the best ways that we can improve transit, you know, both today and over the next 20 years already, we’ve seen a lot of quotes from advocates. So our biggest, we said that the bus projects are the most immediate projects that we can do to improve things.

Christopher Puchalsky (19m 21s):
But in terms of large infrastructure spending, we all projects is that trolley project redoing all of our trolley lines, which are at the end of their useful life, is our top big infrastructure priority. And that’s already gotten picked up as a talking point among a lot of our different advocacy groups.

Andrew Simpson (19m 38s):
Yeah. And just an additional there is that I think it sets a table for a conversation, which is really important for working with the advocates. And so they’re not starting from a blank slate of, you know, even if we don’t agree on a detail, we’ve got to, you know, put something out there that then we can have a, a longer-term discussion on, I think that’s really important. And it really, really makes those conversations, you know, evolved in a really positive way when we’re starting from, we agree on the framework here of, of improving transit and getting things going. And, and then we can really dive into the details and talk this out and we’ll learn something too, right. We’re going to evolve. We don’t certainly don’t believe that everything we said is going to be perfect. Right. But it’s about kicking off a process.

Christopher Puchalsky (20m 19s):
I think the other reason why it’s helped the plan and not so much the document itself, but the thinking that we had to put into what ended up in the document is helpful is not just saying what is our top one or three priorities, but what’s not on the list and why it’s not on the list. So I’ll give you a tough example. Here is bus electrification. You know, it’s something that we support in the document we think is important to the document. We also think for a city like Philadelphia, it’s not our top bus priority. Our top plus priority is busted planes. And probably after that low income fare program, you know, electrification is important, but being as underfunded as we are and the range, and just the state of technological development of Evie battery, electric buses today, that’s important on the list, but not our top priority.

Christopher Puchalsky (21m 7s):
And so when we come and meet with folks who, you know, they think that’s the top priority, you know, we, we can come to the table and have a, a great exchange with them, but we have done the thought, you know, to actually have that exchange instead of just, you know, kind of having a knee jerk yes. Or no reaction to what they’re bringing to us.

Jeff Wood (21m 25s):
That’s an interesting question about what the values are of the plan and what you need to get done and how many resources you have. I mean, you have so many good things in the plan. You have bus lanes, you have better fare structure, you have the bus network redesign trolley upgrades, but the basic value is as a really important part of that. And so what were the discussions like to make those decisions of whether or not to prioritize the bus electrification and move forward with those improvement projects like bustling?

Christopher Puchalsky (21m 50s):
That’s a great question. I wish it happened super cleanly, but of course, you know, there’s, nothing’s ever clean. There’s always thought that making involved in something like this, but as we’ve made the sausage, a few things became apparent. I’ll call out three and maybe Andrew will add onto it. I think the first thing is that we’re the poorest large city in America that has implications not only for who our residents are and what their needs are, but also what our budget situation is, you know, where we are a city and a County together. And there’s not there many examples. San Francisco is that way. San Francisco on a per capita basis has almost like three to four times. The budget that the city of Philadelphia has, that really matters, right.

Christopher Puchalsky (22m 31s):
And what we can afford and what we can’t afford. And to the degree that, you know, transit supported or not supported by the state, federal regional folks in terms of funding, that also really matters. So that’s why, in some ways we prioritize less expensive, but I think still very impactful things. And then the other two things I’ll say the biggest things are equity and climate. So what’s going to make the biggest climate impact, the quickest we thought, getting people on a bus, even if it’s a diesel hybrid bus is a huge improvement. That’s the, that’s the best way to make the fastest advancement in climate. And then the equity aspects of a majority minority city with, you know, 25, 26% poverty.

Christopher Puchalsky (23m 11s):
A lot of those folks are on the Boston. Think a survey we did a little while ago said that 46% of bus riders make under 25,000 a year. Right. So, you know, how are we going to give those people opportunity and access it? I think it’s, you know, serving them with how they’re riding today, not how you, maybe they could ride if they had a few billion dollars of investment,

Jeff Wood (23m 34s):
Is the discussion nationally a little frustrating then, because you know, they’re creating pots of money for certain investments, maybe even bus electrification for this new bill that they’re trying to get going. Is that frustrating kind, having those national

Andrew Simpson (23m 46s):
Discussions about these pots of money that might come your way. And then you’re saying that, you know, maybe that money should be spent on something else.

Christopher Puchalsky (23m 53s):
Well, I think we’ll have to see where it comes out at. I think it was a little bit, I was taken aback initially when I saw the size of the electrical vehicle investment versus the size of the transit investment. I’m hoping that the transit investment, you know, stays in there and stay strong. You know, it would be great to have the federal government help in electrifying the bus fleet. That would be great. So no complaints there, but we do have this massive backlog of repairs that we need to undertake. So when you have a $4.6 billion backlog and just your state of good repair needs in your transit systems, either, you really got to make sure you’re trying to address those first before you’re making significant improvements.

Andrew Simpson (24m 32s):
I think it was really good to see, you know, fix it first and state of good repair kind of become important topics and something that, that there’s interest in. Because I think also what we went through with this is that as you’re doing those things, I like to say like one of the important reasons why you need to do 20, 30 year planning is so that as you’re fixing things and as you’re making those repairs and developing that infrastructure, that you’re moving towards something. So a lot of that state of good repair is also an opportunity to evolve the service and start meeting these other goals, you know, so that we’re fixing things the way we want them to be in the future and moving towards that. So I know it doesn’t always sound like the best, you know, it’s not a new project or not a new line or new something like that, but it does allow us to improve service and get people actually riding.

Andrew Simpson (25m 19s):
If we can increase frequency on our rail line, for example, that has set of good repair limitations. Like that’s a benefit to, to service and to ridership and meets our goals. So

Christopher Puchalsky (25m 29s):
To add on to what Andrew said, it’s the regional rail system. I think where this, this aspect of having sense of where you want to go is really important because they’re going to be investing in that system one way or the other over the next 30 years and making sure those divestments are aligned. So when the new vehicle fleet, the next vehicle fleet is procured, you want to make sure those vehicles service the kind of vision of where you want to go. Instead of maybe some kind of in-kind replacement that could work for a, a different, more commuter rail focus so that we want to have 15 minute frequencies on our regional rail lines that has implications about the style of vehicle and using more Metro style fleets for our regional rail services important.

Christopher Puchalsky (26m 12s):
So putting that stake in the ground of that, not only hopefully that influence does internally cetera, but one way we are interacting with them. We can have a reason to ask, ready to go. I think this is the best large infrastructure proposal we’ve ever seen in this country. That doesn’t mean that it can’t get better, but this is the best one in terms of the kinds of investments that are being made.

Andrew Simpson (26m 37s):
You mentioned regional rail. That was something that caught a lot of people’s attention, especially since there’s so many other large cities, at least they’re trying to do similar things. How is Philadelphia regional rail different than most cities in the United States?

Christopher Puchalsky (26m 49s):
I don’t think Philadelphia’s regional rail system is all that different than other cities. I think the one key differences are center city, commuter tunnel, and maybe the second one would be the degree to which we have electrification on our system. All of our lines are electrified because that we have this tunnel and we have this tunnel. That means you can have through running electric service, that touches five stations in the core of the city. So you get to a lot of different places without having to transfer. So that enables a lot of things, a lot of access. And so it means that if you would just increase the frequencies, you would have Metro style service to an incredibly large catchment area for something that’s maybe not feasible or as easily usable for other American cities.

Andrew Simpson (27m 37s):
Yeah. I think that, and then the Philadelphia region grew around the railroad. We have, you know, fairly dense suburban patterns, especially in the inner suburbs that really, I think over time, you know, can continue to grow around rail service. And, but, you know, we don’t have the issue of trying to adapt a freight corridor with no land use around it to passenger service, where we’ve kind of got a land use Mitch mismatch and trying to get people to a different place. Most of our suburban towns grew around their, their train station. So I think that’s also a big aspect of it and both the suburbs and, you know, parts of the city as well.

Christopher Puchalsky (28m 11s):
I think our, our stereotypical suburban corridor is called the main line, right? Maybe not even everybody knows on the main line, why it’s called the main line, but it was the main line of the Pennsylvania railroad. And it was largely settled in the late 18 hundreds. And to the extent that you’ve got, you know, a hundred plus year old, transit-oriented develop just waiting for more service. I think that’s the regional strength that we have.

Andrew Simpson (28m 35s):
Yeah. And it’s interesting to think about how you can improve that too. I mean, just because you have the tunnel, you have the ability to do that. Like you said, with the electrification and everything. I think that’s really exciting. Another thing that’s connected to that to a certain extent is in the connectivity realm is the fair policies, right? And trying to get people to connect between the buses and the trains without some sort of a penalty. That’s one thing I’ve been harping about that I wish I could see in the federal transportation bill or the infrastructure bill, which are two different things. Some people don’t quite understand that they’re going to be two different things, is that, you know, here in San Francisco, at least in the Bay area, we have 29 agencies. And so, you know, making, you know, those transfers are our penalties. And then the agencies also feel a little bit like they’re going to get shorted.

Andrew Simpson (29m 15s):
If the penalties are made less severe, so power, you all dealing with the fair transfer discussion and the fair policy implications of having a better system, maybe I’ll start with kind of how we organize this. So we’ve got, you know, fair platform and integration, I think is really important. And that’s mostly a technology and policy type issue. A lot of it, you know, accounting software, things like that, that have to happen. And then we’ve got, you know, how much things cost. And those are just to kind of break this out. That’s how we started. So on the first part about integration, we really think that SEPTA key, which is our kind of smart card program that works throughout the SEPTA system has kind of finished rolling out to regional rail over the last year, really allows you to keep a value in a virtual wallet and tap each time you ride.

Andrew Simpson (30m 2s):
You know, that’s a great step forward. It’s a major improvement over the past of buying tickets and having a token. And it’s made SEPTA feel like one holistic system in a way that it really never has since it was founded as a, you know, multiple systems mashed together. So that’s a big step forward, but you know, it’s not the end product, it’s not the end goal. So we, we really set the goalposts on an open and an equitable fair system where the instrument itself moves towards an open payment platform, allows us to integrate with the PATCO and New Jersey transit operators as the trans operators and the region, we all kind of moved towards an open platform. It allows that integration.

Andrew Simpson (30m 43s):
It makes, you know, making those transfers, whether it’s from a SEPTA bus to a regional rail train, easier, more doable, but also, you know, between other providers, we have one major provider and then a few others, but we want to see that grow.

Christopher Puchalsky (30m 56s):
We are more fortunate that we’ve got, say 95% of our ridership on a single system. It hasn’t always felt like a single system, but I think the key gets us there. And the other are the policy aspects, which are really difficult. We tried to walk this tightrope because we think transit agencies are actually in this tight rope condition where they’ve got to bring in revenue, right? You’ve got to have sufficient revenue to operate equitable service, yet equitable service. You know, you want the fairs to be low as possible. That is an inherent tension. And I think that is missed by a lot of the really well-meaning advocates who want free fares for all tight policies. I think that is an inequitable fair system is free fairness for all, because it doesn’t bring in revenue sufficient to provide the service.

Christopher Puchalsky (31m 42s):
I think where I’d like to see some type of federal intervention is operating support for large agencies. I think that’ll help. I think the other thing is this, having a low income fare program, you don’t have to have low fares for all. There’s, there’s a lot of people who that won’t affect their mode choice, right? So what you need for those folks is to have a service that’s really compelling, really strong benefit. The folks who are also very price sensitive, and the folks who are very price sensitive because of their income, you provide them a low income fare program. Our water department does that our, our gas utility does that other transit agencies do that. So if we can figure this out, I think that’s the way to get everybody on board.

Andrew Simpson (32m 22s):
Yeah. I’d love to see the feds. I know that they don’t want to get into the operating, but I think that’s the kind of a, not a backdoor way in, but a way in to, you know, backstop some of that to service levels through a fair policy or through, you know, paying for those penalties or anything like that, it seems like it’d be really helpful for larger to have this kind

Jeff Wood (32m 40s):
Of connective tissue through that funding. Because like you said, there’s, there’s a lot of folks that are looking for free transit, but if you get rid of $200 million of your budget, like, you know, muni would have to do here in Bay area, where are you going to get that $200 million? And then what if you want to it’s the service better service is actually more equitable than saying everybody get on the trains and buses, but Hey, we’re going to have $200 million less surface.

Christopher Puchalsky (33m 4s):
I think you’re absolutely right. And it’s 400 some million dollar service. Even if you had an extra $400 million, you wouldn’t want to just, you know, put it all into free fares. I don’t think that’s the most.

Jeff Wood (33m 16s):
Yeah. If you could expand the service even more, that’d be even more advantageous. It’s interesting to think about your access issues as well. I mean, one of the numbers that I saw in the report was the number of jobs you can reach from downtown on a regular weekday at noon versus on Sundays 451,000 jobs versus the 356,000 jobs. That’s a huge difference. And if you can put money towards service, that would get more people to more jobs on a Sunday, that’s a benefit as well. Oh yeah, just, that was a, an analysis of a hypothetical person in an Fairhill neighborhood in North Philly placed with, you know, high poverty and people need access. And like you said, it was a huge difference.

Jeff Wood (33m 57s):
The ability to you basically was lose access within 45 minutes to our second largest job center in university city. So you can, you know, maybe can still get to and from center city, but there are thousands and thousands of jobs just across the river that just because of frequency and that person doesn’t have access to, you know, we run the same lines on the weekend. We don’t, the routes don’t change, but just how often the bus comes when the train comes was defines, what you know, that person’s opportunity, which is

Christopher Puchalsky (34m 26s):
I’ll still align. Frequency is freedom. I think, you know, it’s, it’s that way a lot of places. And it’s that way in Philadelphia. I think one thing that Philadelphia doesn’t have as much as most places is a last mile problem. There are very few places that aren’t within a quarter mile walk or less from, you know, some kind of transit line, let alone a high-frequency transit line. So, so we have the access, it’s just making sure it’s there. When people needed, especially the folks who really rely on transit. We had a survey done with, by some of our economic empowerment folks. And they found that transportation in Philadelphia is the number one difficulty that people have in finding or keeping a job. And a lot of those folks, they’re not the briefcase folks who are going to center city, you know, to and from center city at rush hour.

Christopher Puchalsky (35m 12s):
They’re the folks who are traveling on the weekends or late at night. And that they’re the ones who need the high-frequency service that we don’t have today. The services is great. If you wanted to go into and out of downtown, you know, at rush hour on weekday, it’s last good if you want to go other places or at other times,

Jeff Wood (35m 29s):
That makes me think about the pandemic as well. And what that means for, you know, when we get back to not having to worry about people being close together again, and how important

Andrew Simpson (35m 38s):
It is to have service, to get people back to jobs, especially as we opened back up again, I’m curious how the pandemic changes your thinking about this, or, you know, how the plan actually helps maybe build back some of the economic benefits that work lost because of having to shut down and having to stay away from other folks.

Christopher Puchalsky (35m 56s):
So we started this plan before the pandemic and then the pandemic happened, and I don’t know about you, but I had some sky was falling kind of worries, you know, here and there, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. And then I think once everybody took a deep breath, we realized no cities still matter. Cities are still real and transit, especially in a place like Philadelphia that is as dense of a city as you’re going to find, you know, other than perhaps, you know, New York, Philadelphia is a European style city. It just does not work without transit. So we needed this work in order to make sure that Philadelphia not only recovers, but reimagines as it recovers. I think the pandemic really changed our thinking about regional rail, this idea that you need frequent service, you know, 15 minutes service that the commuter rail market isn’t there.

Christopher Puchalsky (36m 44s):
You really have to think not only for your regional rail, but for all your services, how do you serve a wide variety of trips at a wide variety of times of the day?

Andrew Simpson (36m 55s):
I would just say, you know, one of the critical things that I try to remind myself, remind everyone, when we talk about this is like buses, aren’t empty and people are still out there. And the people who rely on our service the most have continued riding because they’re essential to the operations of our entire society, right? So we have had just kind of ridership on commuter rail kind of fall off the cliff, but on city transit, you know, remained a lot stronger. Certainly we have reduced ridership and, and that’s good to means people were staying home and stuff. But for folks like myself, for us who have the kind of privilege to sit and work at our bedrooms for a year, I think in a city like Philadelphia has a really strong service economy and know those jobs aren’t going to work from home.

Andrew Simpson (37m 39s):
People still need to get around. And that’s just really important to keep in mind. I want to think about the future a little bit here. I know that there’s been a discussion about curb management, a lot in cities around the country. And especially as all these companies try to pop up and make you monetize the curb and all these other things, but how important is street management going to be in the future, especially with these coming advancements in technology, with the needs of, of urban places, for access for pedestrians and cyclists and things that maybe the tech companies aren’t thinking about because they’re too busy, worried about autonomous vehicles and delivery robots.

Christopher Puchalsky (38m 16s):
I think it’s important. I think this is something that we’ve honestly probably struggled a little bit with just to the degree that we’re a super underfunded, you know, transportation group, you know, it’s, it’s hard to keep this ball moving forward. We are moving it forward though. So we’re involved in the open mobility foundation and the curbside management. I think we, the tools that are there. So that’s why we’re working on proposing some automated enforcement tools is that we really need, and some smart loading zone, dynamic parking pricing tools that we need so that we can really manage the curb. I think that comes out of the transit work, but then interface does really well with our freight and delivery management tasks that we’re doing. It really matters.

Christopher Puchalsky (38m 56s):
We did a project on Chestnut street, which is again, one of these major downtown bus corridors. It has four different lines. All of them are frequent. So 15 minutes or better service throughout the day. It has a bus lane that was always blocked, always blocked, right? Cause there’s just no place for all the demand of the skyscrapers all around it, for those stopping to go, what we did to improve it was create more loading zones. So that was a transit strategy. So improving the curbside use was a strategy to get people on buses to the, to where they’re going faster, but we need to do more of that. And I think we need more of the tools, both from the state and from our own legislative body, in order to use technology to manage the curb.

Andrew Simpson (39m 41s):
Do you have a favorite part of the plan or a part that maybe people don’t talk about a lot, but you’re really super passionate about, or you dug in on it more than maybe you thought you were going to? My favorite part is part I spent probably the most time on as put together the whole bag of it, but spend a lot of time and a lot of energy in thinking about bus corridor prioritization kind of buried in there cause there’s a lot of content. And we took out a lot. We were debating about that. We have this an appendix, like, does anyone want to really dive into this data technical methods? So we didn’t do that, but we did do a lot of work, really digging into the data on buses. Just something I really love about it is we were able to really dive into a lot of bus data, both SEPTA and New Jersey transit and come up with some pretty cool methodology on understanding how many people are on a corridor, roughly who those people are.

Andrew Simpson (40m 31s):
And we were able to quantify with some great work by a company called eConsult, that they did for SEPTA. We were able to quantify the proportion of low-income riders on that corridor. And then we took it further and looked at average speeds and, and reliabilities where it was separating out speed and reliability. So, you know, sometimes you have a bus that is reliably slow. So we were able to kind of do some things there to really wait and prioritize these corridors. So the map showed up though, right? The best priority map with the green lines, right. That caught my eye. So yes, it’s a big part of the plan. The, the process was, was buried a bit more, but right.

Christopher Puchalsky (41m 7s):
I think my two favorite parts of the plan are one is the regional rail section part of it’s because of my academic training, there was a guy named Bukavu chick who was my,

Andrew Simpson (41m 16s):
This is to ask about, you said Penn. And I was like, I wonder if kind of a check was a part of your,

Christopher Puchalsky (41m 22s):
In some accounting, I was his last PhD student and it was great to be able to take a lot of ideas that were really his ideas that he had put down on paper in 1984 and just to, you know, update and restate them and to create this new vision. And then to take it a little further and say, there’s, there was a lot of interlinking pieces. You can’t just do one thing and get frequent service. You kind of got to do four things at once to get it and to be able to figure out and try to describe, you know, here here’s how the different pieces fit together. And if you can fit them together, there is tremendous value that gets unlocked. So that was probably my one favorite part in the second is this idea of extending the PATCO line.

Christopher Puchalsky (42m 5s):
That’s our one subway service that goes to New Jersey and is operated by its own agency, extending it westward across the river. We’ve got this enormous job center, our hospital complex, we’ve got Penn hospital and the children’s hospital there and it doesn’t have great transit access. And if we can extend it across the river, not only I think, do we get people from New Jersey, better transit access, but people on the market Frankfurt and the broad street line can transfer to the PATCO line and take it across. This was an idea that was proposed in the 19 teens fell off the radar proposed in the 1970s. Philadelphia didn’t have a great plan and it died.

Christopher Puchalsky (42m 46s):
I think because we didn’t have the right kind of leadership that would be able to like resurrect this idea, put it back on the table. And hopefully we’ll be able to move it forward through some kind of alternatives analysis so that not next year, but maybe the next great, amazing infrastructure package, you know, we’ll, we’ll be able to fund some kind of construction activity,

Jeff Wood (43m 6s):
Love that line because, or the plan line, the.dot dot, because you know, it’s not a typical, you know, suburb to city corridor. It connects the city with another employment center. And I think that that implementation of that type of grid is actually maybe more important sometimes than making those suburban to downtown connections. And so it’s a really interesting thinking about the future and, and hopefully more cities are going to do that because I think a lot of our post pandemic thinking, you know, who knows what’s going to happen actually with downtown jobs and things like that. But if we’re gonna serve the community as a whole, rather than just the downtown workers, there’s going to be more investments like that, that actually connect people with those jobs and create more access.

Christopher Puchalsky (43m 46s):
Yeah. I think this goes to the question of Metro design and I think the best Metro systems are those that look like you dropped a pile of spaghetti on a plate, right? Yeah. They just cross in so many different places. So when you look at Paris or London or Tokyo that we’re talking about, they, they look like a pile of spaghetti, right. And to the degree that we’ve got these kind of two lines, plus our trolley service, they, they just, you know, they don’t have that many crossing points being able to extend the PATCO line, I think would start to get us to this pile of spaghetti where it’s useful, not just going from, you know, to one place, but to, and from many places. So

Jeff Wood (44m 21s):
Success look like, how is that measured? What is success? Is it on a timeframe of some sort? Do you have a five, 10, 15 year frame for success? What

Christopher Puchalsky (44m 29s):
Does that look like? I think it’s gets to retire having implemented the whole plan and I can come to his retirement party and slap them on the back. I think that’s part of it.

Andrew Simpson (44m 39s):
I have some shorter term metrics. I think we’ve got some different goalposts here on the shorter term. We have some, you know, very specific measures that we want to track and keep the pulse of as far as ridership and accessibility to jobs and an equity focused version of that, and then access to frequent transit as well as bus speed. So those are kind of looking at the short term that we’re going to focus on, but I think the longer term is a lot harder to quantify.

Christopher Puchalsky (45m 6s):
Yeah. I think the short-term looks like we’ve implemented a few of these busts on the lanes in the city that we have planned. We have a low-income fair program probably piloted in the next three to five years. In the next three years, we have our trolley mod program, well underway, you know, design, if not construction has started, I think in 10 years it looks like we’ve got really thriving bus ridership that people are starting to say, we should upgrade these to some kind of heavier service. The trolleys are done and that some of these major subway extension projects, if they’re not in construction know, they’ve at least moved through the NEPA process and they’re ready to start applying for new starts or whatever the program is, you know, 10 years from now.

Jeff Wood (45m 51s):
Well, I feel like we could probably talk for another hour, but I want to be mindful of your time. Where can folks find the plan if they want to go and peruse it? I think actually folks should. There’s a lot of really good design stuff in there. There’s a lot of really good information. What’s the best place to get it.

Christopher Puchalsky (46m 3s):
If they Google Philadelphia transit plan, it will be the first link.

Jeff Wood (46m 8s):
Awesome. And where can folks find you all? If you want to be found

Christopher Puchalsky (46m 11s):
I’m on Twitter, but I’m really on Twitter.

Jeff Wood (46m 15s):
You

Christopher Puchalsky (46m 16s):
Can email us both at first name dot last name at Philadelphia gov. So, and we’d be happy to talk to anybody.

Andrew Simpson (46m 22s):
My Twitter it’s solely focused on the Sixers.

Jeff Wood (46m 27s):
I hope you all do well this year. My warriors aren’t so great. So

Christopher Puchalsky (46m 31s):
Well, we’re hoping that the Phillies are, you know, good, better, not terrible this year.

Jeff Wood (46m 38s):
That’s a whole other podcast, Philadelphia sports, and maybe there’s a sports and transportation podcast. Well, Chris and Andrew, thank you for joining us. We really appreciate your time. Thanks a little extra for taking interest. Thank you. And thanks for joining us. The talking head podcast is your project out the overhead wire on the web with you overhead wire.com. Sign up for a free trial, the overhead wire daily or 14 year old daily city’s news list by clicking the link at the top, right of the overhead wire.com. And please, please, please put the pod in a pitch on.com/the overhead wire many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, overclass Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Jeff Wood (47m 20s):
And you can always find the traditional home at USA dot Street’s blog.org. See you next time at talking headways.


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