This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. to include a statement from Convention officials.
In 2015, Philadelphia was vying for the Democratic National Convention with Brooklyn and Columbus, Ohio, in what was considered a tight race. According to Democratic officials, an important aspect separated Philadelphia from the other two, particularly Brooklyn: logistics. The Democratic National Committee promised a smooth operation here.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned as the DNC chairman under pressure Sunday, said after Philadelphia was announced as the choice the committee had wanted to “ensure a city could transport and house attendees seamlessly.” She also noted delegates and media could stay at 18,500 hotel rooms within a 15-minute walk of the Wells Fargo Center (Billy Penn found there are actually zero in that distance).
Ed Rendell, the former Mayor and chair of the Philadelphia Host Committee, described the trip between Center City and the Wells Fargo Center as taking seven or eight minutes and that the city would make Broad Street a one-way thoroughfare to simplify busy times for delegates.
“First and foremost, you want to do no harm,” he said in 2015, adding that Philadelphia had passed a risk-averse checklist. “Secondly, you want those delegates to leave the building flying.”
Nothing ran seamlessly the first day of the convention. Trips between Center City and the convention on Uber, which has a partnership with the DNC, took an hour. Bad traffic on I-95 — due in part to security measures — bothered commuters and attendees. The Broad Street Line was packed in the mid-afternoon and then had to temporarily shut down in South Philly because of protesters. Two-hour lines for food were the norm inside the Wells Fargo Center, and attendees endured long waits after the convention on their way out of the secured perimeter.
How did Philadelphia go from being the DNC’s safe pick to a day-one disaster? Some of it has to do with bad luck: A massive thunderstorm, thousands of protesters blocking SEPTA, a 10-car pileup on the highway. In other ways, the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) appears to have failed in adequately preparing the Wells Fargo Center and informing delegates and media about best practices getting to the convention and dealing with security around it.
Billy Penn tried to question the DNCC about its preparations for the event and possible changes after the first day, but the DNCC didn’t want to talk about logistics. Convention press secretary Lee Whack initially refused to comment; other convention officials would not discuss logistical problems at a press conference this morning.
“Every Convention of this magnitude has some logistical complexities,” Whack said in a prepared statement after the initial publishing of this story. “However, we are working and will continue working closely throughout the week with all our volunteers and our local and national partners to make adjustments so that transportation, traffic flow in the Wells Fargo Center and other issues are streamlined to improve the Convention experience for all in attendance.”
Jammed up on the highway and in Center City
Sunday night before the convention, I-95 was already backed up. Things got worse Monday morning. While a major accident certainly didn’t help, neither did truck drivers’ failures to follow security precautions instituted by the Secret Service.
Trucks weighing five tons or more were not allowed to pass between exit 13 by the airport and exit 22 by the Vine Street Expressway. Gene Blaum, a spokesperson for PennDOT, said truck drivers had been warned in advance on signs and online. But so many truck drivers were violating the order that over the weekend a new traffic pattern had to be instituted and a lane closed. State police have continued to pull over trucks that make it past the exit 13 and exit 22 checkpoints.
The highway problems might be less of a worry if Philadelphia really had 18,500 hotel rooms within a 15-minute walk of the Wells Fargo Center. Every delegate plus thousands of others could have been close to the convention. Instead, several delegations are staying in the suburbs, including at hotels south of exit 13, in the area where backups were happening. Some members of the media stayed deep in the suburbs as well. The Wall Street Journal was stationed in Trevose. Paul Gigot, editorial page editor and vice president of the WSJ, described the 90-plus minutes it took to arrive at the Wells Fargo Center via shuttle bus the longest commute he’d experienced in 28 years of covering political conventions.
Center City travel wasn’t much better. Uber had been designated by the DNCC as the official ride-sharing service, but trips from downtown to South Philly were taking an hour, with long waits after the convention, too. The Uber lot is a long walk from the Wells Fargo Center entrance. In Cleveland, delegates and reporters could take cabs to within about 50 yards of Quicken Loans Arena’s entrance.
Part of the Uber problem, at least early on Monday, had to deal with credentials each driver needed to take passengers to the convention. Many drivers didn’t obtain a needed credential, leading to longer rides. By midday, Uber had started a different credential system that lessened the problem.
As for the long waits after the convention, a source with knowledge of the situation explained that no cars, including Uber vehicles, were allowed by the Secret Service and DNCC to be near the Wells Fargo Center for about an hour while Bernie Sanders was at the arena. This further exacerbated delays.
Craig Ewer, a spokesperson for Uber, said the ride-sharing service has been discussing possible changes but declined to elaborate on specifics.
“Since Monday, we’ve seen a record-breaking number of trips completed and more drivers on the road in Philadelphia than ever before,” Ewer said in a statement. “We intend to work closely with the DNCC to further refine the pickup and drop-off experience at the convention site, and we encourage everyone in Center City to help reduce traffic congestion by taking uberPOOL.”
The Broad Street Line may have offered the quickest trip to the Wells Fargo Center. Still, SEPTA encountered problems. It didn’t start running express trains from Center City to AT&T Station until 4 p.m. Earlier in the afternoon, the subway cars were packed. Hundreds of people were boarding at City Hall, making it difficult for others to join at stops farther south.
Things got worse when protesters crowded AT&T Station at about 4:30. SEPTA had to cancel service from the Oregon Avenue stop to AT&T Station for about 30 minutes. After that, only credentialed passengers were allowed to make trips from Oregon Avenue to AT&T Station.
SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said the transit company would follow the same plan for express trains as Monday and would not add extra trains. As for the protester disruptions, there’s little SEPTA can do.
“It’s probably unlikely if that happens again the timing would be the same,” Busch said. “We certainly expected to have large crowds, and we have a lot of people in position to assist with it. But when law enforcement asks us for a security reason to stop service to the station that’s something we’re always going to comply with for everyone’s safety. Unfortunately it does cause an inconvenience.”
Escape from Wells Fargo
Once the programming had wrapped up and Bernie Sanders finished his speech Monday night, the thousands of delegates and spectators inside Wells Fargo poured out of their seats, down side staircases after flooding the escalators and out the front door — with no direction on where to go.
There were three exits out of the fenced-in area to exit the security perimeter, meaning those thousands of people were funneled through exits roughly 20 feet wide. Robert Hoback, spokesperson for the Secret Service, said the Secret Service had worked with enforcement partners and the DNC, and the groups settled on that limited number of exits.
As delegates neared the exits, they were asking each other where the Uber lot was. People were trying to find shuttle buses to Center City to no avail, and many of the people in Wells Fargo didn’t attempt to take the Broad Street Line that was stalled earlier in the day. Cars were backed up in all directions.
By nearly 1 a.m., hundreds of cars were still pulling out of the crowded parking lots, visitors reported waiting an hour to take an Uber and were trying to find shuttles back to their hotels. For the reporters at both conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the difference was clear: In Cleveland, folks could walk back to their hotels. In Philly, they had to find another way. And all this came after media were asked to evacuate the media tent because it couldn’t handle the thunderstorms.
Conditions inside the Wells Fargo Center earlier in the night weren’t much better and became quite crowded once the arena filled up ahead of First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. By 7 p.m., thousands of people filled the concourse area wandering around, searching for food and water Monday night as many of the usual food options weren’t open.
Delegates, reporters and volunteers waited in line for more than an hour — in some cases, two hours — for food like chicken fingers, hot dogs, pizza and bottled water. One delegate complained that she waited in line for an hour, only to find out that the stand she was at had run out of most of its food options. She settled for three sides of coleslaw.
A man who worked for the Wells Fargo Center was refilling condiments and lamented employees hadn’t started preparing food “until people started lining up,” though, he pointed out employees have known for months they’d be serving food for the Convention.
“Someone should be fired,” he said. “I hope it’s my boss.”
Is anything going to change?
At this point, it’s unlikely huge logistical changes can be made. The DNCC wouldn’t discuss problems faced Monday, and there’s little the Secret Service can do to adjust its security plan as it must accommodate high-profile speakers — like the president and vice president on Wednesday — with robust security details. Hoback said the system of three entrances and exits would remain the same. SEPTA said it’s sticking with its plans of increasing service levels at 4 p.m. and after the convention throughout the rest of the week.
Some problems were fixed organically, as I-95 traffic jams Tuesday morning weren’t backed up as far as they were Monday.
But one thing people complained about has changed. After conservative news sites pointed out there weren’t any American flags on the DNC stage Monday, at least two were added.