How SEPTA’s board commutes: Cars, walking…and a bit of public transit

A survey of the 15-member body sheds light on their travel habits.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Only one member of SEPTA’s board of directors commutes to work every day using the vast public transit system it oversees.

Outside of car commuting, which is most prevalent, Regional Rail is the most commonly tapped mode among the 15-person governing body. Members also say they take a variety of subways and trolleys on an occasional basis. About half rarely or never take a SEPTA bus, while the most regular user rides a bus twice a week.

Those are some of the findings of a Billy Penn survey of the board, which oversees a $2 billion annual budget and guides how resources are allocated throughout the transit network.

Each of the five counties SEPTA services can appoint two seats. The other five members are appointed by elected officials in Harrisburg, one by the governor and one each by the majority and minority leaders in the Pa. House and Senate.

Last year, Democrats wrested majority leadership from Republicans in Chester, Delaware, and Bucks Counties. SEPTA’s board members in those counties will likely flip from red to blue when the board’s term expires in two years.

These posts aren’t paid, but each board member receives a free SEPTA travel pass for individual use.

How often do they actually use it?

All 15 members fielded questions about their public transit habits, and how their personal use — or lack thereof — impacts their work on SEPTA’s governing body.

Two-thirds of SEPTA board members commute by car

Philly remains a car-crazed town where private vehicle commuters still outpace public transit takers, according to the most recent census data. Car commuting also rules the roads outside the city, where SEPTA routes are far scarcer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the board’s heavy suburban tilt means most members are car commuters. While two people said they live close enough to work to walk, two-thirds of appointees said they drive to the office most days.

Drivers include some board members who live and work in the city.

One of Philly’s two appointees, Deborah Mahler, said she mostly drives to City Hall from her home in Northwest Philadelphia due to her work schedule.

“There’s times I have to leave and go to meetings,” Mahler said. “It’s just easier.”

Mahler, the city’s deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney this month to fill one of the city’s long-vacant SEPTA board posts. To her public transit cred, she said she takes the Route 27 bus twice a week — which would make her the most active bus rider of the bunch, by a long shot.

Philly’s other SEPTA board member, Mike Carroll, was the only person who said he regularly commutes to work by public transit. He takes the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line into town every day.

When commuting to SEPTA board meetings, which are held monthly at the agency’s 12th and Market headquarters, many of the board members who live and represent the suburbs said they take Regional Rail.

Regional Rail is most popular, then BSL to the games

Regional Rail ridership overall increased modestly between 2013 and 2017, according to census data. SEPTA reported 119,000 daily riders on the commuter rail in its most recent report, while the intra-city transit network saw 526,000 daily riders.

In general, SEPTA riders overwhelmingly take the bus and subway, but Regional Rail is the preferred method of transit for the suburban-tilted board. All of the board members described using it occasionally, some with monthly regularity.

Their rides in and out of town are concentrated on a few lines: Norristown/Manayunk, Paoli-Thorndale, Warminster, Media/Elwyn, Chestnut Hill, Lansdale/Doysletown and West Trenton.

William J. Leonard, a partner at Obermayer law firm who serves as the SEPTA appointee for the Pa. Senate Minority Leader, walks to work in Center City, and he takes various Regional Rail lines to get outside of town — because he doesn’t drive.

“I ride SEPTA Regional Rail anytime I need to travel to the burbs, which puts all the rail lines in play for me,” Leonard said. “I ride them whenever I can. I do not own a car.”

When it comes to subway and trolley lines, three board members said they never or infrequently ride.

Six said their primary exposure to the subway comes from occasional trips on the Broad Street Line to the sports complexes in South Philly.

Five members said they take trolleys or the Norristown High Speed Line on at least a monthly basis, while just two members noted routine trips on the Market-Frankford Line.

No surprise: Buses get the least love

Subway ridership — particularly on the workhorse El — has made gains in recent years. Meanwhile, transit riders are taking tens of millions less bus trips than they did a decade ago.

Six of SEPTA’s 15 board members never or infrequently take a bus. Six ride occasionally. One noted a few trips on the Flash route to the Art Museum each year.

Carroll, from Philadelphia, said he tries to take one trip a month on the 23 bus.

Other routes occasionally travelled by board members include the 32, 44, 48 and the 90.

The transit authority has been overhauling its bus network for several years now, looking to drive ridership with fewer stops, faster rides and possibly ending the $1 transfer fee.

Some board members noted that their current habits don’t necessarily reflect their overall exposure to the SEPTA map. Joseph Brion, one of Chester County’s two appointees, doesn’t take buses now, but says he grew up in the city as a regular patron.

“I rode the bus all the time throughout the Northeast,” Brion said. “I would ride the bus to get to the El at Frankford and Bridge, and take the train into Center City.”

Kenneth Lawrence, a Montgomery County commissioner who sits on the board, also said he was a daily SEPTA rider for nearly nine years when he commuted to Temple University.

Guiding SEPTA through experience — and rider input

Whatever their personal transit habits may be, many board members said they use their time on SEPTA to note issues that face regular passengers.

Pat Deon, the SEPTA board chairman and one of two Bucks County appointees, said his approach to working on the SEPTA board is based on “doing everything possible to provide these life-line types of services” for people who rely on public transit.

“I always consider the circumstances of an employee who works at one of the hotels downtown,” Deon said.

“They live outside of Center City or commute in from Bucks County. To get to work every day, they need to take a bus to connect to the Market-Frankford Line, or ride Regional Rail.”

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Transit, SEPTA