I was in Philadelphia last summer for about five days. I have few observations as a pedestrian: I stayed in West Philadelphia, in the gentrifying zone radiating out of University City, and traveled to Center City, and both neighborhoods seemed intimately familiar to me as a (former) New Yorker. The street widths and setbacks looked very much like those of New York; West Philadelphia could easily be an area of Brooklyn. The difference to me was in the public transit rather than the pedestrian experience.
In New York, the subway is for everyone. The same is true of Singapore and Vancouver. In Philadelphia, it is not the case. The city is about 40% white and 40% black. On the trains I took, the Market Street subway and the Subway-Surface Trolleys, nearly everyone was black. A friend who lived in Philadelphia for ten years has observed the same on the buses, and adds that white people on buses tend to be college students.
But there’s more to the story. I think it’s a commonplace that in American cities other than New York, blacks ride public transit more than whites. What I think is more important is that whites tend to ride transit at rush hour. When I rode the trains in Philadelphia at rush hour, there was still a clear black majority on the streetcar or the subway car, but there were a fair number of whites. In the off-peak, I was at times the only white person on a streetcar that was filled to its seated capacity. The aforementioned friend says she thinks she saw the same, but as she rarely rode at rush hour, she is not sure.
It is not hard to come up with explanations for the difference. In Philadelphia, as in the typical Rust Belt city, the white population is quite suburbanized, much more so than the black population. It is also substantially richer. Both contribute to car ownership, and to driving in whenever traffic allows; since traffic is worst at rush hour, that’s when we see the most white people on public transit. The people who ride the trains and the buses outside rush hour tend to be urban residents who do not own a car, and in a city with the income distribution and racial dynamics of Philadelphia, they are predominantly black.
This injects a racial element into a lot of transit planning, especially for commuter rail. North American commuter rail is designed exclusively for suburban residents, who in Philadelphia and similar cities are usually white and at least middle-class. This is why it gets away with such poor off-peak service: hourly on most SEPTA Regional Rail lines, hourly or even every two hours on the MBTA, hourly on most branches of the New York commuter rail network. Although New York itself doesn’t have the typical Rust Belt city demographics, its suburbs have typical Rust Belt suburb demographics, so the situation is the same. The same is true of Boston, when one remembers that a huge fraction of its urban white population is in Cambridge and Somerville. Philadelphia is only where this racial division is the most obvious even on the subway.
Everything about North American commuter rail screams “you’re better than the hoi polloi who ride the subway”: the seating arrangement maximizing seating rather than standing space, the park-and-rides, the fares, the lack of fare integration with local transit, the schedules. Since peak-only suburban transit serves precisely the niche that the traditional white suburban middle class is comfortable riding transit in, it is necessarily segregated. Its riders even fight to keep it that way: witness for example the opposition in Stamford to developing the Metro-North station and moving the parking 400 meters away. This article complaining about parking lot waits is typical of the species; these complaints persist despite very high spending on commuter rail parking lots, for example in Hicksville.
The same transit agencies that fudge or make up numbers to avoid serving minority neighborhoods also ignore the possibility of improving off-peak service. Although off-peak service is cheaper to provide than peak service – it requires no new vehicles or infrastructure and fewer split-shift crews – the plans for service expansion typically focus on more peak capacity, despite often high crowding levels on off-peak trains. This is worst on commuter rail, but also affects subway and bus systems. In New York, the MTA’s crowding guidelines call for setting off-peak frequency such that the average train on each line will have 25% more riders than seats at the most crowded point of its journey. As anyone who’s ridden trains in Manhattan in the evening knows, trains are quite often much more crowded than this average. The MTA needs to keep its losses to a reasonable minimum, and on the core lines the off-peak frequency is not bad; but why keep claiming that trains only have 25% more riders than cars? The MTA is by comparison more honest about its capacity problems on the Lexington express trains, for example in the Second Avenue Subway environmental impact statement.
Many of the problems of American transit systems are directly traceable to the fact that the managers don’t often ride the trains, and their peer group is not the same as the average transit user. This is why we see little concern for off-peak service, and practically none with off-peak service on the whitest and more suburban form of transit, commuter rail. None of these managers of course intends to be racist or classist, but they unwittingly are.