Thanks to that SEPTA strike, the ninth of its kind since 1975, I found myself chasing after a yellow school bus for the first time since I started paying for my education.
While I am most certainly thankful that Temple curbed some of the hurt, being late for work and wearing a shirt and tie exacerbated my most frenetic and unpleasant public school memories. With my legs once again stuck to that familiar vinyl, I found myself daydreaming. High school had indeed returned.
I’m in a sophomore year of a different kind now; but, like those days in numbered grade levels, my dreaming was conveniently topical. With SEPTA on everyone’s tongue, I began to wonder how mass transit was viewed in other cities.
The Big Apple boasts the 24-hour-a-day New York Transit, the largest portion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Like many aspects of New York City, the Metro is an institution.
The 7 train, which runs through the borough of Queens, was part of the national consciousness in 2000 after former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker ridiculed the train for its diverse ridership.
Bryant Avondoglio, a sophomore at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, seems to think the Metro in Washington is the country’s best.
“I’ve heard it called one of the best in the world,” he said.
Anyone I questioned about mass transit in D.C. was quick to point out the strict no-food policy for the subway. Avondoglio said he once thought “a pregnant woman was tackled for trying to bring on a Snickers bar.”
Matthew C. Sheehan, a biology major at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who has frequented Boston’s “T,” America’s first subway, credits it for its cost.
At $1.25 a ride for the T – excluding some zones – and 60 cents for buses, the Massachussets Bay Transportation Authority is attractive to many. And that’s ignoring reduced prices for students and seniors.
Then there is old Philadelphia. As I fought with those bus windows that I have never been able to control, I thought I saw one of those once ubiquitous SEPTA buses. I once heard from a politician – who I don’t care to recall at an event I can’t remember – that mass transit makes a city. That means Philly is made of those retro, metro trolleys on Girard Avenue and the Market and Broad Street lines.
The first time I took my mother into the City Hall subway stop, she told me that the urine smell reminded her of her own subway-riding days in New York – before it cleaned up its act and became the capital of the world.
If we can just continue to figure out this contract nonsense, maybe Philadelphia can continue its ascent as the next great city. Reuniting Philadelphia and SEPTA is the first step. Every major city has a claim for its public transportation. New York’s the largest; D.C.’s the cleanest; Boston’s the cheapest. What is it going to be for Philadelphia?
It seems to me that mass transit does mean a lot more to a city than bus passes. Even if it is only because it can be a uniting factor for the most diverse populations this melting pot country of ours has.
Even though I don’t have to ride those Temple shuttles for now, I’m not so certain that I’ll never see them again.
Every SEPTA administrator and union worker needs to reevaluate what their roles mean to Philadelphia, a city that is undeniably searching for an identity as a growing urban power in a country full of them.
My Temple-funded SEPTA replacement lurched to a stop at Arch and Broad Streets for the last time, emitting those fumes any bus rider knows but can’t describe. I gave the bus driver a nod and he yelled after me, “who needs SEPTA?”
I didn’t turn around, but I knew the answer. Philadelphia.
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.