Philly mascots welcome back the Phlash on its first day of the 2016 season

The Philly Phlash hit the streets this week, marking the earliest start ever for the bright purple buses that run in a loop from Penn’s Landing to the Art Museum, and it’s all thanks to Harrisburg.

No, really. The popular tourist shuttle — which last year gave 190,000 rides to and from city’s main attractions — covers nearly three quarters of its operating budget with money from the state, making it one of those (cough, uncommon, cough) cases where lawmakers in the capital OKed funding for something that mostly just benefits Philadelphia.

Credit for that, and for keeping the low-fare bus loop from disappearing entirely, goes to Jim Cuorato, president and CEO of the nonprofit Independence Visitor Center Corporation (IVCC).

Help from SEPTA

Credit: J. Fusco for Visit Philly

The Phlash was first introduced in 1994 by then-Mayor Ed Rendell, and was run by the Center City District starting in the late ‘90s. It was always subsidized — “In order to keep the fare at a price point attractive to visitors (currently $2 a ride or $5 for a day pass), a service like this needs a subsidy,” says Cuorato — but by 2011, the state grant that had been providing a subsidy for nearly than a decade was close to tapped out. Rendell was leaving the governor’s office, and additional money didn’t appear to be forthcoming.

So in 2012, when management of the route was transferred to the IVCC, the service was in danger of shutting down. That year and the next, it ran on a greatly reduced schedule and operated on a shoestring budget — weekends only, shorter hours, and fewer stops.

But Cuorato was convinced that making the shuttle robust again was important for Philadelphia tourism. In 2013, with help from allies at SEPTA, he was able to convince the legislature that the $2.4 billion transportation package it was considering should include an annual allotment for the Phlash. Passage of the bill, which was a pet priority of then-Gov. Tom Corbett, was far from a given, since it was mostly funded by a hike in the wholesale gas tax. Even though they were of the same party, the House GOP put up a massive fight against the Republican governor’s plan, but in the end they caved and the Phlash got its $900,000 cash infusion.

SEPTA kicked in another $250,000, and in 2014 the purple buses were back in action.

“I can’t say enough about the support we got from SEPTA,” Cuorato says. “In Harrisburg, they talked about how the Phlash complements their traditional bus routes, and lobbied for its survival. They don’t view us as competition.”

A boost for holiday tourism

Credit: Independence Visitor Center / Facebook

Actually, the buses weren’t exactly “back in action,” since the new funds allowed the IVCC to outsource operations to a transport company called Krapf’s, which brought in a whole new fleet. Instead of the quaint but rickety trolley-style jalopies that had been rattling along the streets for two decades, the Phlash was upgraded to new, modern vehicles with comfortable seats and temperature control.

Things went so well during the 2014 warm season that year that Cuorato decided to try something new: Running the buses during the holidays. He introduced daily service from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, which proved popular with visitors and locals alike. (While many ticket sales happen at the Visitor Center on Independence Mall, anyone can hop on a Phlash and pay the $2 fare; SEPTA passes are accepted and seniors always ride for free.)

Emboldened, Cuorato continued to experiment. In 2015, he expanded the route with more stops, including one at the Shops at Liberty Place. It turned out to be a serendipitous addition, since the skyscrapers are now home to the city’s highest observation deck, a serious tourist draw.

The Phlash isn’t officially a “tour bus” — i.e. there’s no narrative of what’s passing by the windows piped through the speakers — but drivers do go through a rigorous hospitality training program to make sure they’re equipped to answer visitors’ questions about where to go and what to see. An economic impact study is underway this year to try to determine just how much the service contributes to the local economy.

TripAdvisor approved

Credit: Flickr / natalie419

One Liberty Observation Deck is actually a sponsor of the Phlash this year, as are many of the venues that benefit from having people dropped off within a block or two of their locations.

There’s a stop at Penn’s Landing, which provides easy access to Spruce Street Harbor Park or RiverRink Winterfest. There’s one in Old City and another on Independence Mall (good for all that historic stuff) as the route heads up Market and makes stops by the Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market.

The loop then curves around City Hall to the Ben Franklin Parkway, where the Free Library, Academy of Natural Science, the Barnes and the Franklin Institute await. A stop at Eastern State Penitentiary pulls buses up to Fairmount Ave., and they then swoop around to the Art Museum and the Zoo before turning back on their return trip.

From now through May 1, the buses run Friday, Saturday, Sunday only. They then bump up to daily through Labor Day, scale back to weekends through November, and pick up to daily again for the holidays. Eventually, Cuorato hopes to extend service year-round, “but I have to be realistic,” he says. “A more achievable goal would be seven-days-a-week service from March 1 through December 31.”

No matter when it’s running, riders at any of the 22 stops should not have to wait any longer than 15 minutes.

“Maintaining those headways — making sure buses arrive every 15 minutes — is vitally important,” Cuorato says. “We could reduce the [$1.3 million operating budget] of the service by having them arrive less frequently, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective or useful.” That 15-minute timeframe isn’t based on any study, he admits, “but just my own experience. I wouldn’t wait any longer than that.”

Putting himself in the shoes of the visitor is one of Cuorato’s main management tactics, and it appears to work like a charm. He’s especially proud of the service’s high ratings on TripAdvisor.

“We got a Certificate of Excellence on there,” he says. “Go look it up.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.