Philadelphia's growing traffic problems are slowing down SEPTA buses.

“What is concerning is the slowing down of our network that has occurred over a period of time and it is due to congestion,” SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel said at a City Council budget hearing Tuesday. “There’s a lot of people competing for Philadelphia’s relatively narrow street network.”

City Council members peppered Knueppel and SEPTA officials with questions as the transit authority requested $87.6 million in city funding for fiscal 2020, a 3% boost from last year. The new fiscal year begin July 1.

Upticks in delivery trucks, bicyclists, pedestrians, car services dropping off and picking up riders, and illegally parked and stopped vehicles in dedicated bus lanes hamper SEPTA routes.

SEPTA is conducting “three or four traffic studies” to analyze a number of different issues, said Michael Carroll, a SEPTA board member and deputy managing director of the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

Increases in the city’s population, employment and visitors to the Greater Center City area have led to more street congestion, a report from the Center City District found last year. A dramatic increase in deliveries — via trucks, cars and bicycles — and the emergence of ride-sharing services, like Uber and Lyft, also have contributed to clogged streets.

Travel time for buses riding from Broad Street to 23rd Street on Chestnut, Sansom and Walnut Streets increased by 25% to 40% between 2013 and 2017, the report found.

SEPTA is currently redesigning its bus schedule, which it has not done for decades, Knueppel said. Changes to optimize the bus network will take two to three years to implement.

SEPTA has had some success in combating traffic issues.

SEPTA partnered with the city and the Philadelphia Parking Authority for a four-month pilot program in September to increase enforcement along the heavily trafficked routes of Chestnut Street between 21st and 11th Streets, and Market Street between 7th Street and City Hall.

The program resulted in travel times improving 6.4% on Chestnut Street and 4% on Market Street.

Following the pilot program, SEPTA is looking to increasing enforcement with more officers on city streets, Carroll said, and potentially using automated enforcement.

Transfer fees

The elimination of transfer fees probably won't be free. 

The transit organization is considering doing away with the $1 transfer fee next year, but that would most likely come with a fare hike, Knueppel said. SEPTA hauled in $12 million last year from transfer fees. 

"We have to figure out," he said, "how to make it [eliminating transfer fees] neutral in terms of cost. ... Because if we lose income, we have to reduce service, and we don't want to do that."

Knueppel declined to elaborate on a fare hike.

SEPTA last increased fares in 2017, when a single cash fare increased from $2.25 to $2.50 and a discounted single ride, such as with a token, went from $1.80 to $2. 

Under questioning from at-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat, Carroll said SEPTA has never conducted a comprehensive study about the affordability of the transit system. 

The largest share of SEPTA's ridership comes from low-income riders, Gym said. She called for SEPTA to reduce fares for children and to increase affordability for low-income families. 

"We have to talk about a needs-based approach," Gym said, "that is based on a broader citywide understanding of need and SEPTA as a public good." 

Minority employees

SEPTA employees are becoming more racially diverse. 

Minorities and women make up 59% of SEPTA's management employees, up from 52% in 2014, Knueppel said. Of the transit organization's 9,500 total employees, 45% report to a minority or woman supervisor, up from 26% from five years ago.

SEPTA has 3,000 employees with less than five years of service as a result of a raft of retirements in recent years, Knueppel said. Diversity among those new hires is higher than the organization's average. 

"SEPTA is undergoing a very, very rapid change," he said. "We're seeing a really strong trend for diversity as we go forward."  

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