By Chris Bordelon
SEPTA has recently claimed that its “engagement” efforts for its “Bus Revolution” project showed that “people strongly support bus only lanes” on Roosevelt Boulevard and other roads in Northeast Philadelphia. “Opportunities” identified by SEPTA’s public outreach include “Rapid Bus improvements, including [public] transit priority measures” on major roads like “Frankford Avenue, Roosevelt Boulevard, Castor Avenue, Bustleton Avenue, and Cottman Avenue.” According to SEPTA, “transit priority measures” are exclusive bus-only travel lanes, bus-only turn lanes and systems allowing buses to control nearby traffic signals.
Plainly, these measures disadvantage people who ride in all motor vehicles except buses. What makes SEPTA confident that people in the Northeast support them? Not in-person outreach to Northeast residents. SEPTA’s “Bus Revolution” documents reveal that its in-person engagement efforts in the Northeast consisted of a one-day “pop-up” event at Torresdale and Cottman that drew 12 participants. That’s not many.
Such phony public outreach (which reminds me of similar fake public-participation processes put on recently by other City agencies) seems designed to produce a record that says whatever a public agency’s managers want it to say. Later, they can cite this bogus record as sham evidence of public opinion.
Would Northeast residents “strongly support” what SEPTA advocates if they were honestly consulted? The Northeast was largely planned for private vehicles, and most people rely upon them today. Distances in the Northeast aren’t comparable to distances elsewhere in Philadelphia. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have time and physical ability, you can’t often walk or bike to where you need to go — including bus and train stops — because where you need to go is too far away. You might sometimes use SEPTA, but no combination of public-transit options comes close to reaching everywhere you must commonly go.
Discrimination against private-vehicle passengers in favor of buses through “transit priority measures” would hobble Boulevard commuters and turn major Northeast arteries into mere two-lane roads, slowing local traffic and economic activity without solving the basic problem that the built environment poses for widespread reliance on public transit. SEPTA’s managers know that, but were probably following “Bus Revolution” marching orders. Results of their make-believe public “engagement” outreach had to reflect their political masters’ “strong … support” for bus-only lanes and the like.
The ideology that dictated SEPTA’s assertions was explained in a City policy paper published in 2018. The paper, “Connect: Philadelphia’s Strategic Transportation Plan,” decried private-vehicle use as a social evil, and argued for disadvantaging motorists on Philadelphia’s roads. Making it costlier for people to travel in their own vehicles would strike a blow for what “Connect” called “transportation equity.” Before the pandemic, the City conducted another false public-participation process for the Roosevelt Boulevard “Route for Change” project. Following poorly attended public meetings (those I attended appeared to have more City staff than bonafide participants) and a public-comment process in which comments and agency responses weren’t published, City officials recommended eliminating two or three of the Boulevard’s six lanes in each direction for private-vehicle travel, replacing one with a bus-only lane.
SEPTA and the City’s administration don’t regard Northeast residents as stakeholders in their own neighborhoods’ roads. Turning major roads into obstacle courses and forcing people to watch from their stopped vehicles as buses with two, one or no riders inside them whisk by in otherwise-empty bus lanes sounds like something that you’d do to the Northeast if you hated the people here. Indeed, it sounds inequitable. Traffic from massive distribution centers recently receiving City zoning permits will mean more, not less, need for travel lanes on the Northeast’s major roads.
What do Northeast Philadelphia’s elected representatives think? Hopefully more than they are saying. As far as I know, local elected officials said nothing publicly when the final Route for Change documents were published in May 2021. SEPTA’s recent plans have elicited no reaction from them so far. Electing to public office convicts, shredder-event emcees and persons who in practice represent out-of-town companies and property developers rather than local people has somehow still left us with somewhat livable neighborhoods. If incompetence, inaction, mendacity and ill will continue to prevail among the people we send into the corridors of power to confront proposals like SEPTA’s, our luck may not continue. ••
Chris Bordelon is president of the Somerton Civic Association.