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Thursday, 4 May 2006

SEPTA Fie! Semper Infidelis

By Richard Carreño

'Doors are closing. Frankford train making all stops.'

If you've ever heard that sonorous, recorded female voice, you're likely a paid-up initiate of SEPTA, a spooky subterranean world that evokes all the glamour of Monopoly's Reading. Like the game board railroad, SEPTA is perpetually impecunious, down-market, and, yet, most everyone seems to need it. Meet the good, the bad, and the ugly. OK. Mostly the bad and the ugly. As a dyslexic Marine might say, 'SEPTA Fie!'

Everyone has a pet SEPTA horror story. How about the Hooverville-like encampments by bums in some Center City subway-surface (Green Line) stops? The malodorous wafting of urine stain that pervades the Broad Street (Orange Line) subway? The pimped-up, teenaged thugs who harass fellow passengers on the El (Blue Line) each school day? Police? Forgetaboutit.

A female Center City friend, who works at Penn, tells me that there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't get the heebie jeebies when at Penn's Green Line station. That's the stop, as thousands of commuters know, inhabited by Penn's version of Quasimodo, an unfortunate who has all the good looks of his doppelganger from Notre Dame, as well as being blessed with the laser-like visual acuity of Charlie Manson.

A lot is made -- rightly -- of SEPTA's creepiness. That's, unfortunately, an upshot of a SEPTA board that never has to experience up close and personal the fiats and neglect it renders unto the thousands who ride America's sixth largest public transport network. It's also no mistake that SEPTA's middle-class board members are never actually seen underground, in a system noted nationally for conveying 'all the poor, all the time.'

Call it Philadelphia stasis. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg travels to work by subway. Ditto travel habits by London mayor Ken Livingstone. In Philadelphia? Mayor Street, of course, commutes in a gas-guzzling SUV mayor-mobile.

Former Philadelphian Tim O'Toole, a Conrail refugee, who now runs London's Underground and travels the Tube everywhere he goes, puts it this way: 'It's a religion with me. You have to eat where you cook.'

Is Philadelphia a wee out of touch, per chance? Item: SEPTA policy discourages buskers. Item: Has its board ever heard about advertising to enliven blank wall space. A newspaper agent? A candy stand? Basic services are nowhere to be found. Other nagging points: The unavailability of tokens. Making change. Seats that hardly fit the double-wide asses of many of SEPTA's oversized passengers. (Given the average avoirdupois of a regulation Philly Phatty, an 18-inch width seat would be just about right, up from the current 15-inch width). The beat goes on.

That's the bad stuff. It's also true that some of the transportation system's woes are a function of factors out of the board's immediate control.

Like visual. Like environmental. Like architectural. Like time warp. SEPTA's subways, stations, tunnels, and concourses are the ugliest of any major city's public transport network in the world. It might be 2006 above ground, but a descent into any Green Line station will quickly take you back to the 1920's, when that system was constructed. If the Depression-era is your morbid fun period, the Orange Line is just perfect. As for the wild and crazy 60's -- you know, stainless steel, psychedelic colors (in SEPTA's case, some kind of bluish) -- the El is your trip, man.

Perhaps SEPTA's board could do a bit about lighting. Only the Politburo in the old Soviet Union would be proud of SEPTA's interior illumination scheme -- every other light bulb blown out.

Don't take only my word it. Step forward Alan J. Heavens, The Inquirer's real estate editor, PATCO rider, and one of most astute observers of urban planning (move over Inga Saffron?), who weighed in recently describing that barren, scary wasteland in and about the Locust Street concourse. Listen up. But hold on. What Heavens has to say ain't pretty.

Summer in the city, anyone?

'In summer, the concourse is a much cooler route to PATCO and SEPTA trains than the above-ground alternative -- until you reach the stairwells.... [But] humidity makes the concrete surfaces [in the concourse] slippery, especially the sections that been coated with same gray paint that I used on my basement.

'The wetness grinds away at the structure, covering the aged tile walls with mold and mildew, scraping the paint off the steel beams and then coating them with rust, and leaching salts out of the concrete into icicles of efflorescence....

'Heavy rain turns sections of the concourse into lakes that have to be navigated. There are a few homeless people still asleep even at 9 AM, and they are shouted awake by police officers riding two-passenger mini-cars.

'There is refuse everywhere, but the homeless have limited responsibility for it. They don't throw the trash on top of the subway-exit turnstiles that remains there for weeks.'

Down boy, Alan! Down boy!

In its own schizoid way, SEPTA is trying for an extreme make-over. A new El westward over Market. A new Frankford Transportation Center opened not long ago. About the same time, the Church Street station underwent an overhaul. A new 56th Street station opened earlier this year. But, typically, SEPTA is off its meds.The El project is bogged down, mired in lawsuits, delays, and cost over-runs. The new stations, of course, are simply regurgitated replicas of past glories -- all red brick, all stainless steel, all the time.

Can SEPTA ever get it right? Something passenger friendly and architecturally inspiring? A tall order. But a model does already exist -- the 69th Street station, the El's western-most stop in Upper Darby. To my mind, the 69th Street Station, sorta neo-Romanesque, sorta neo-Byzantine, sorta neo-Italianate, has all the buzz of a proper inter-line facility. Built in 1906, SEPTA didn't mess with it. The station's main hall is barrelled-roofed, under a skylight, and rimmed with a second-story balcony.

Moreover, the station is busy with travelers and commerce, a peculiarity for a SEPTA facility. Almost 12 turnstiles are constantly spinning. There's -- count 'em -- a customer service information center, a ticket/token sales offer, restaurants, a news agent, a check-cashing joint, public toilets, a coffee shop, and a gift shop. There's more. They're all actually in service.

(This article, syndicated by Writers Clearinghouse, first appeared in the 3 May edition of the Weekly Press, Philadelphia).