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Rachel Earnest will no longer take SEPTA around the city center as she is not convinced that she will be able to find her way out of the metro stations once she arrives
Before the pandemic, she often rode the Broad Street Line downtown, picking it up after driving to the Fern Rock Transportation Center from her home in Glenside. Earnest can walk for short periods, but a disability makes it imperative to minimize walking.
Previously, Earnest had relied on SEPTA to help her with this task, carefully planning her trips to destinations close to stops, measuring the steps to a bar or restaurant to make sure she could get there comfortably. In May 2021, after the vaccination, she eagerly left for the city center and a dose of normalcy. But after getting off at Walnut-Locust just south of City Hall, she found herself trapped. All the doors she remembered were sealed.
“When I got to the stop, all the obvious exits were closed,” recalls Earnest. “I ended up having to do four or five times more walking than expected. I ended up asking some homeless people, hey, can you get me out of here? Thank God someone took pity on me and pulled me out of the tunnels.
Earnest is not alone. The agency confirmed that at least 10 runners were trapped in the tunnels after going through a one-way turnstile, only to find street doors barred and locked.
Downtown railroad stations are connected to a vast and confusing contest system that runs beneath the heart of downtown Philadelphia. As commuter and tourist traffic disappeared with the pandemic in 2020, people living on the streets have increasingly used the tunnels for shelter. SEPTA closed access points and cordoned off huge areas of the basement.
“We had to toughen up the system, we had to shut it down until people started coming back to work, and we were able to deal with this public health crisis,” said Ken Divers, deputy director of transportation at SEPTA and head of agency efforts. in the face of rising anti-social behavior in the system.
Transit agencies are not designed to solve social problems of this magnitude at the best of times, and the challenge is greater under the fiscal stress brought on by a depressed clientele.
SEPTA is spending millions contracting social service organizations to help solve the problem, but the new maze of mysteriously locked doors, closed exits, and other hostile obstacles make the system less accessible to everyone.
“Homelessness has a huge impact on all public services like parks, libraries, public transportation, schools,” said Dennis Culhane, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “As a society, we bear these costs and their secondary impacts on services for the general population. It is extremely frustrating and very expensive too.
Other cities have also grappled with a pandemic surge in the number of people living in the system.
In a December 2020 survey of 115 transit agencies, half said they had experienced an increase in homelessness. New York’s new mayor has ordered police to clear the encampment system in an aggressive attempt to attract more bikers. In San Francisco, BART stations also closed the entrances to some stations where homeless people congregated (the agency denies the closures are related). BART has also increased spending on social services despite a looming budget crisis and appointed a new “homelessness czar.”
“A lot of companies are locking their system,” said Divers, the deputy director. “It’s so vulnerable people won’t get into their systems to apply for residency. Things have gotten so bad that they really need to protect the remaining runners they have. We haven’t even reached 50% of our pre-COVID-19 ridership levels yet. »
There is a strong momentum within SEPTA to pursue closures, to better combine cleaning and security resources. However, some runners say the lack of exits contributes greatly to a sense of danger underground.
Before the pandemic, Patricia Gillett rarely drove from her home in the far northeast to her job at City Hall, usually relying instead on the regional train. But since SEPTA started locking the exits, she no longer feels safe.
Her job has an irregular schedule and peak commuter times, when more entrances are open, are often not the times she needs to ride.
“When I go to Suburban Station, I encounter a maze trying to get to City Hall,” Gillett said. “I go down different hallways or through doors and they are blocked. There is a hodgepodge of times certain entrances would be open. As a fairly petite woman, my fear was of being stuck there by someone who could see that I had no other way out.
The vast majority of rider concerns about social conditions come from downtown locations, according to SEPTA calculations, with 54% of complaints on the Market-Frankford line referring to stations on 15th and 13th Streets.
Homelessness often tops the list. An email from SEPTA Chief of Police Thomas Nestel to agency leadership gives some idea of the extent of the concern.
“We are now at a tipping point where 20-30 complaints a day are coming in and crime is increasing in relation to the homeless, drug addicts and mentally ill,” Nestel wrote.
As ridership begins to return, “we are gradually opening up these areas,” SEPTA’s Divers said. The agency has also increased the number of signs explaining that entrances will be open and when.
Nearly all entrances to Jefferson Station are locked during off-peak hours, but they are now all covered with instructions on how to find the front door. Whether these panels are useful is another question. Several runners interviewed for this article found them confusing, though less inscrutable than their absence was last year.
“In the short term, we are looking at ways to improve signage in the lobby, and we are continually evaluating traffic, safety and related factors to determine when closed portions of the lobby can be reopened,” the doorman said. word of SEPTA, Andrew Busch.
Both Busch and Divers note that the agency has responded to passenger confusion, safety fears and concerns about people living in the system in various ways.
Last year, SEPTA hired up to 57 social workers to increase outreach to “vulnerable populations” at a cost of $3.6 million. In late February, the transit authority’s board voted to spend $6.7 million on 88 “guides” assigned to the two heavy rail lines and the concourses below downtown. They will be responsible for helping people navigate the system and reminding passengers of the basic rules. They will not be armed.
Transportation experts say SEPTA is in a serious bind. There are many reasons why ridership hasn’t rebounded, including the increased prevalence of remote work. But the visible decrease in public order, with increased smoking and drug use on trains, litter in the system (including syringes) and encampments in concourses, is also suppressing ridership.
Downtown closures are seen as a cheap and relatively easy way to exert control over an often chaotic environment.
“We expect transportation agencies to do too much with too little,” said Megan Ryerson, professor of transportation planning at Penn. “SEPTA does outreach, has social workers and works with the community on the ground. They also close entrances to conserve resources and provide security. That’s a lot to balance for an agency that also has to provide mobility for all Philadelphians.
Before COVID hit, Katarina Karris-Flores said she regularly used the SEPTA regional rail system to visit friends in the city instead of driving from the suburbs.
Arriving at Jefferson Station on her way home after seeing a friend in South Philly last December, she attempted to open the entrance. It was locked. So was the next, and the next.
“I panicked, ran around the building several times, checked several doors and all were locked,” Karris-Flores said. “I saw other people were in the same situation as me, we were all trying to figure out how to get into the station that night.”
Karris-Flores found the only door open just in time and the experience left her nervous.
“It definitely made me feel overwhelmed and frustrated because no one wants to miss a train ride home,” Karris-Flores said. “I really appreciate how convenient SEPTA is, but from there it makes me more hesitant to go back to Jefferson station.”
It’s the same sentiment expressed by Earnest, the pilot with reduced mobility.
“We’re coming into the spring and there will be beer gardens and other things to do in the evenings,” Earnest said. “But I wouldn’t consider going down to the city center now because I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to the streets from inside the station.”