A Bus Revolution outreach event at 69th Street Station (SEPTA)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Delco isn’t your typical suburb. The county’s eastern half is covered by a network of dense, walkable and transit friendly communities more like Philadelphia than those of the other collar counties. 

But instead of having a grid of frequent bus routes like in Philly, the 400,000+ residents of eastern Delaware County subsist off an infrequent, suburban hub-and-spoke system, making most transit trips long and inconvenient. Why?

Last spring, SEPTA and the consulting firm Nelson Nygaard asked that exact question.

As part of Bus Revolution, SEPTA’s first clean-slate bus network overhaul, they laid out a vision for a new Delco criss-crossed by straighter, more frequent routes. But after a year of revisions, the proposal is starting to look like the deeply flawed network it was meant to replace.

The current proposed network, released March 20, 2023. (Alex Davis)

Rules for Revolution

SEPTA’s board set two main rules for Bus Revolution’s planning team.

First, because Bus Revolution lacks an external funding source, the new system must be “cost neutral” — it must have the same number of service hours as the current one. So if you want to give a bus route twice as many trips per day, you’ll have to shorten it by half or steal buses from a route elsewhere.

Second, the ratio of bus service between the five SEPTA counties must stay roughly the same. So if you want to double service on a route in Delaware County, that puts other Delaware County bus trips on the chopping block.

Within these constraints, SEPTA can still improve conditions dramatically by changing how buses are deployed. Here’s a look at some of the proposals, their achievements and their missed opportunities.

The plan offers more frequency

Today, Delco has two frequent bus routes (every 15 minutes) and eight half-hourly routes (ignoring routes that graze the county border). In SEPTA’s proposal, Delco would have five frequent routes and four half-hourly routes*. In addition, every route currently running less-than-hourly service would be upgraded to at least hourly. To do this, the team eliminated some sections with low ridership, like the 119 on US-322. They also cut routes serving trips that could be made on other routes, like the 123 from 69th Street to KOP Mall.

*Proposed routes 915 and 904 would be coordinated to provide half-hourly service along State Rd, bringing the effective number to five half-hourly routes.

Not every frequency boost worsens a route somewhere else. Many of the county’s routes were straightened, freeing up service hours and speeding travel times. And fewer routes covering the same area makes a system that’s easier to understand.

Not everyone is going to Philly

Designing Delco’s bus network is a balance between “radial” routes radiating out of 69th Street and “crosstown” routes running perpendicular to the radial routes. At the moment, crosstown service is weak. The current system has a clearly prioritized axis of travel, and those traveling perpendicular to it have to wait up to 60 minutes for their route, if it exists at all. At first, SEPTA wanted to change this.

(Alex Davis)

Delco’s existing conditions review highlighted crosstown gaps, saying, “The density of eastern Delaware County can support a bus network grid. Adding north-south service will improve connections with the Airport, serve more major corridors, facilitate transfers and enable reduced duplication particularly in and out of 69th Street.”

In Bus Revolution’s first draft, released in October 2022, all but one of Delco’s crosstown routes featured half-hourly service. But in the second draft from last month, five crosstown routes were dropped from half-hourly to hourly, and a sixth was eliminated entirely. What happened?

According to Dan Nemiroff, Bus Revolution’s project manager, SEPTA had overestimated Delco’s existing service hours by 8%. Meanwhile, in the last year, SEPTA’s actual service levels in Delco have dropped another 8%. In response, the team reduced Delco’s proposed hours by 14.5%. But the cuts were targeted, and not every route lost hours.

Proposed routes 553 (currently route 108, from 69th St to the Airport), 907 (69th St to Chester and Delaware) and 952 (South Philly to Chester) all saw increases from the previous draft.

SEPTA is trying to invest in the county’s highest ridership corridors, but SEPTA should also invest in dense crosstown corridors that could have high ridership, if only they were well served.

Consider the 903, a route proposed to run from Ardmore to Havertown on the Ardmore Busway, continuing to the airport via Lansdowne Ave. By cutting across the grain of the bus network, it would provide transfers to 11 different transit lines and travel through Delco’s densest neighborhoods. But instead of investing in this core route, SEPTA has proposed running the route hourly, with half-hourly service at rush hour.

Most of the route’s trips would involve transfers, meaning riders won’t be able to dodge long waits by planning their trips around the schedule. A commuter transferring from a half-hourly route would have to wait up to 30 minutes on the same corner every single day. That’s a last resort transit service, and the riders of this core route deserve better.

Some service hours are not being used well

To restore the 903 to half-hourly service all day, we need to find 3,820 annual service hours. Thankfully, there are some places in the proposal where Delco service hours aren’t being used wisely. Draft schedules for the new routes have been released on the Transit App, which I used to estimate the service hours spent on each section.

First is the 108 to UPS.

Currently, a combination of the 68 and 108 provide hourly service from 69th Street to the UPS Air Hub south of the airport. There are also service boosts during shift changes, adding up to 30 round trips on a weekday. For a single employment center, this is a reasonable amount of service, but under the current bus revolution proposal, the 108 would provide half-hourly service all day on top of hourly service from the 68.

Using the published travel time of 15 minutes from the airport to UPS, SEPTA could save 7,103 service hours annually by cutting the 108 back to the airport, more than enough to fix the 903. UPS commuters would still get frequent service at shift changes, and access to West Philly by transferring to the G on Passyunk Avenue.

If SEPTA isn’t ready to trim the 108, they could unsquiggle the 914.

In the first draft, SEPTA created an hourly route to cover the gap between the 101 and 102 trolleys. This route was reasonably direct, but in the second draft, they brought back a punishingly long 11 minute loop into the residential neighborhood of Folcroft, currently part of the 115.

(Alex Davis)

SEPTA had long planned to eliminate the Folcroft loop, with an early assessment describing it as having “consistently low ridership.” Their first draft served the neighborhood with the 914 touching Folcroft’s corner instead, which put the vast majority of Folcroft’s residents within half a mile of a stop. This was a far more sensible solution, and while the resurrected loop would spare a small number of Folcroft riders a 10 minute walk, it would subject every person on the bus to an 11 minute longer trip, both directions, every day, forever. An hourly bus is inconvenient, but a bus that takes 11 minutes to go nowhere is a slap in the face. Reverting to the first design would save 2,417 service hours for use on other routes like the 903, and it would make the 914 a route that respects riders’ time. The decision makes itself.

Bus Revolution is a team effort

So far, local governments in Delaware County have treated Bus Revolution as a project internal to SEPTA. Over the next year, that will have to change, because local governments are responsible for maintaining bus shelters.

Shelters are a massive improvement for any bus stop, but they are especially important at transfer points, where wait times are determined entirely by the bus schedule. Every corner shown on the map above currently has bus service and will be a key transfer point after Bus Revolution. 

Unfortunately, most of the townships and boroughs in charge of those stops have long neglected their responsibility to provide shelters. If you live in one of the towns in red or orange text, make some noise. Let your local leaders know it’s finally time to pony up the $6,000 and buy you a bus shelter.

(Alex Davis)

PennDOT isn’t off the hook either. They’re in charge of West Chester Pike, Baltimore Pike, MacDade Boulevard and Lansdowne Avenue, where Delco’s core routes will run. These roads are perfectly suited for bus signal priority, queue jump lanes, or even *gasp* bus lanes. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission already published a plan to bring queue jump lanes to West Chester Pike. PennDOT, the ball is in your court.

And you, the person reading this, have power too.

Learn about how Bus Revolution will impact your neighborhood, and let SEPTA know what you think at septabusrevolution.com. I can promise you that they read every comment, and take riders’ ideas seriously. Critiques are welcome, but SEPTA also needs our political support to get the job done.

We have an opportunity that no other generation of SEPTA riders ever got, to redraw our bus system from scratch and create a network more people can rely on and build their lives around. We can create a county where car ownership is optional, where climate goals are within reach and people (other than me) look forward to their transit trip. Getting there will require radical changes to our bus network that will make some people unhappy, but transformative change is never easy. Let’s build the best possible network that 389,000 service hours can buy, because Delco deserves the best.

Special thanks to Michael Noda.

Avatar photo

Alex Davis is an urban planning student at Rutgers University.