Why SEPTA Ridership Isn’t Higher

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This new 40-story tower proposed for South Broad St in Philadelphia is going to be awesome, and one of the main reasons it’s going to be awesome is that it’ll grow ridership on the Broad Street subway line. The more people who can live along the Broad Street line the better for the performance of our transit system.

Carl Dranoff’s tower will have to get approval from City Council to rezone this parcel as CMX-5, from CMX-4, which would allow him to build taller and use more of the lot. But I wonder why everything along Broad Street and Market isn’t already zoned CMX-5.

The city’s political class claims to be very concerned about SEPTA’s fortunes lately, with the state transportation bill in the news, but I see zero City Council members showing interest in doing their part to help grow ridership on our rail transit system by allowing taller buildings along rail routes.

Here’s the zoning map. The square at the center is City Hall, and the streets dividing the rest of the city into four quandrants are Broad St (north and south) and Market St (east and west). The maroon colors are parcels zoned CMX-5 and CMX-4, the densest allowable zoning in the city:

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 10.40.03 AM

Sandy Smith wants to know why more Philadelphians don’t use the transit system, but is it such a mystery?

See how the maroon squares along Broad and Market start to peter out as they get further away from the center? You need to blame those yellow, orange, and red squares for lower-than-ideal transit ridership. The yellow squares say people are only allowed to build short-ish row-houses there, along the expensive heavy rail line, and that limits how many people can live close to the subway. If we want decent subway mode share in this city, City Council needs to color in a thick buffer of maroon squares on both sides of Broad and Market Sts, and up along the Delaware River into the river wards.

This should be a prerequisite for any talk of extending the Broad Street line south to the Navy Yard. Ten thousand people work at the Navy Yard, but the subway doesn’t go down that far, so lots of people drive.

A convenient line to the Navy Yard would explode land values along South Broad, because it would become more convenient for Navy Yard workers to live close to the subway, but housing development opportunities on Broad Street would still be restricted by the yellow squares, so we’d just see a lot of rent inflation and displacement instead of new building.

But if we colored them in maroon, then we’d see more construction of housing on the expensive land, and that would keep neighborhoods to either side of Broad more affordable than in our yellow square world, while also increasing ridership and political power behind calls for more frequent service.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

4 Responses to Why SEPTA Ridership Isn’t Higher

  1. The wonky reason why you don’t see more CMX-4 and CMX-5 is that CMX-3 is the only zoning class of these three that offers density/height credits and incentives for affordable housing alone. 4 and 5 offer that as well, but they start to mix in other goals like bike parking, etc. PCPC has been responding to political pressure for more affordable housing. CMX-3 in theory guarantees more of it. It’s not a very strong policy in my mind, but having sat down with PCPC representatives on some rezoning initiatives I’m involved with, this is the reason why.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Yeah that’s just bad policy reasoning. First of all, Broad Street isn’t an appropriate place to subsidize sub-market housing. The real equity position there is to maximize subway ridership, even if it means housing prices are somewhat higher on that specific street. Secondly, more construction on Broad would take pressure off the peripheral areas further away from transit. I’d be fine with a definition of affordable housing that means “kind of a far walk from transit stations.” That seems more sustainable and equitable than making renters and home buyers in pro-growth areas subsidize housing for their neighbors. And I don’t mean that in a libertarian way – the pro-growth areas are fighting housing scarcity. They’re doing the right thing. Why should they directly bear all the costs of housing subsidies? Why shouldn’t the subsidies come out of the pockets of the land speculators and people who aren’t building?

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