Monday, March 27, 2017

How the overworked, unstable El, Philadelphia’s transportation aorta, just might be saving the city


Mark Dent, Anna Orso and Cassie Owens 
report for BillyPenn:

The creaky, overburdened Market-Frankford Line has as important a place among millennials, immigration, and swanky restaurants as keys to Philadelphia's early 21st century turnaround.

For the next few weeks, the Inquirer and Billy Penn will be teaming up with stories like this to show how important the El has become to the city’s continued growth — and examine why the fruits of that growth have not benefited more stops along the way.

THE RISE OF THE EL
 

I rode the El from end to end for the first time
 


Jesse Hein bought a new house with his husband about a year ago in Kensington near York Street. The rowhouse — just a few blocks away from the Berks Street station on the Market-Frankford line — had only been on the market a month. Hein, a communications professional at a Center City healthcare company, said its proximity to the El is one of the main reasons he chose the area.

Today, Hein concedes, he probably couldn’t afford a home like that in his neighborhood because of skyrocketing prices and the flurry of development. Hein, 29, drives only four or five times a year. He realizes he couldn’t operate without the El.

“It was absolutely awful during the SEPTA strike, and it sounds silly, but it really threw everything into chaos,” he said. “When the El is messed up, it really throws my day into a tailspin pretty hard.”

Any time there’s even a minor disturbance on the El, a domino effect can stall riders and overburden platforms along the 13-mile stretch from Frankford to Upper Darby. Buses are pressed into service as ad hoc shuttles — easing the load on the tracks, but clogging already-gridlocked streets of the old city.

If you’re a commuter, a patient headed toward the doctor or a student on the way to class, SEPTA can absolutely ruin your day: When the El goes out, Philly slows down.

But the crises on an overworked, aging infrastructure underscore how valuable the Market-Frankford Line is to Philadelphia. For years, the city shed population and appeared headed toward the fate of Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Cleveland. Around 2000, this changed. Experts pointed to any number of factors, including immigrants, empty-nesters, and millennials, and civic leaders bragged about a restaurant scene drawing national envy, beer gardens and even Jay Z and his “Made In America” festival.

New numbers from the transit agency tell a different story. The creaky, overburdened Market-Frankford Line has as important a place among millennials, immigration, and swanky restaurants as keys to the city’s early 21st century turnaround. Its cars carry more people than they have in decades. That’s why the Inquirer teamed up with Billy Penn to write about how important the El has become to the city’s continued growth — and examine why the fruits of that growth have not benefited more stops along the way.
Change along the rails

Much of Philly’s resurgence straddles the Market-Frankford Line. Take away the census tracts abutting the El, and Philly’s average annual growth rate the last few years is only about 0.4 percent. Clustered around the El, it’s 1.5 percent, a rate surpassing the performance of most American big cities.

Richard Montanez, chief traffic and street lighting engineer of the Streets Department, called the El one of the city’s “aortas.”

“It is a major lifeline in the city of Philadelphia,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the city could be what the city is without it.”

Read the full story here


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