In the six weeks I spent in Paris over the summer, I came to greatly appreciate the Parisian transportation network. I took note of several innovations that I thought could be excellently applied to my hometown of Philadelphia.
One of the more striking features of the city is the absolute proliferation of subway lines, which crisscross the entirety of the metropolis. It is rare to be more than a few blocks from a subway stop; the service is efficient and very popular among city-dwellers.
While it is nice to fantasize about what it would be like if our city was like this, Philadelphia isn’t going to be digging new subway lines anytime soon. It is incredibly expensive to construct new subway track and there certainly isn’t enough economic incentive to do it at a point in time where our city is still losing population. However, the Parisians did something very smart to increase their subway network without having to dig out an entire new line, and it is something Philadelphia is admirably suited for.
THE FRENCH SYSTEM
It’s called the Réseau Express Régional, and it is essentially a series of existing regional rail lines that have been converted for subway service. Centered on a number of large underground stations in the center of Paris, the line soon goes above ground and makes stops to outlying areas of the city. The key difference between this system and regular regional rail service is that it is totally integrated with the subway system. You pay only a subway token to use it, it runs every 10-15 minutes, and you can transfer to regular subway lines for free.
Every time I rode the RER, which was fairly frequently, I always envisioned what a similar system would be like in Philadelphia. While we are obviously not the same city as Paris, we do already have a cluster of three major underground regional rail stations downtown, and we have several regional rail lines that only operate within Philadelphia. Imagine operating a RER style service along the two regional rail lines that service Chestnut Hill in the Northwest or to Somerton in the Northeast.
All of these places are already well connected to Center City by a regional rail line, but service is hourly and expensive – two things that don’t make sense for short trips from one neighborhood to another. There would have to be a lot of modifications to fully integrate subway service into these areas. They would need to be more frequent, smaller trains, new turnstile ticketing at train stations, and a restructuring of Center City stations for easy transfer to existing subway lines. It would not be cheap, but it would not be wholly impractical either, and at the end of the day the increased service would bring Philadelphia’s many different quarters much closer together.
WON’T HAPPEN HERE
While SEPTA may lose money in the short term by decreasing the price of a ticket on these lines to that of a subway token, the increase in ridership that goes along with increasing service would undoubtedly make up for this. Think of the convenience of being able to get on the subway at Temple and transfer to a train that went to Manayunk every few minutes, all for one token. I think many students would take advantage of a system like this, as the entire city of Paris already has.
Sadly, in its own way, an idea like this is about as likely as SEPTA digging a whole new subway line. Innovations at SEPTA rarely come down to issues of money or whether a system has been proven to work, but more to a general lack of foresight at the authority itself. While SEPTA often raises valid points about why it would be difficult to integrate a new initiative, the agency is never willing to risk those difficulties for the benefit of increased service for its riders, and income for itself. Maybe if SEPTA was willing to look at what was already being done in other cities around the world, it would be able to see the huge potential it has a transit agency.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at email@example.com.