Is Philly’s 24-Hour Subway Service the Wave of the Future?

This weekend, Philadelphia ran subways all night on two of its lines for the first time in 23 years, and ridership jumped. The city normally runs a night-owl bus that mirrors the subway between midnight and 5 a.m., but the early Sunday morning subway ridership this weekend was 35 percent higher than the average for the bus.

Blogger Conrad Benner pushed for 24/7 SEPTA service -- and got it. Photo: ##
Blogger Conrad Benner pushed for 24/7 SEPTA service. 24/2 is a pretty good start. Photo: ##

The return to overnight service on two lines doesn’t yet put Philly in the ranks of New York and Chicago, the only two U.S. cities with round-the-clock rail. After all, Philly’s all-night service experiment is only on weekends, only for the summer, and only on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines — at least for now. But there are reasons to think that improving late-night transit can be a boon for the entire system.

“Metropolitan areas across the United States — whether their primary mass transit system is a metro rail or a commuter train or a bus network — are recognizing that city residents can’t get by on great rush-hour service alone,” wrote Eric Jaffe in CityLab, then called Atlantic Cities, in February. “They need frequent, reliable transit all hours of the day and long into the night.”

Jaffe quoted transportation planner David King of Columbia University: “The growth in transit ridership is happening in the off-peak hours,” said King. “It’s strange. You get on a train at five o’clock in the morning and it’s jammed.”

Philly already had late-night transit — it was just a bus, rather than a train. But many people ignored that option, choosing instead to pay for a taxi or just making sure to be home before the subways closed at midnight. What is it about all-night subway service that draws them when the night-owl bus did not?

Maybe people feel safer waiting in a subway station in the wee hours, rather than a bus stop. But there’s a safety argument to be made for the night-owl bus too: Although the bus is supposed to follow the same limited-stop route as the subway, drivers are required to stop anywhere riders want to get off, meaning shorter walks.

Or maybe people prefer having one option that works no matter what time it is, rather than having to keep track of various schedules.

Those are probably factors, said transit planner Jarrett Walker, but it’s unfair to compare bus to rail in the first place. “Subways have higher ridership anyway because they serve denser markets at higher speeds and usually with higher reliability,” he said.

There are other reasons to hold off on making big assumptions based on the first weekend’s numbers. First of all, the summer schedule went into effect June 15, in the middle of the weekend, so we don’t even have a whole weekend’s worth of ridership numbers to work with — just one night.

“In addition, a minor equipment malfunction prevented us from collecting boarding data from three subway stations, which we think skewed the numbers just a bit (probably higher rather than lower),” said SEPTA’s Manuel Smith. “That has since been resolved.”

A public information blitz by SEPTA may have also contributed to a strong opening day, though increased nighttime travel during the summer may keep the ridership strong.

Smith thinks this upcoming weekend will be more telling.

But the question remains: Who were the new riders this weekend — people who shunned late-night bus service but embraced late-night subways? Philadelphia city planner Ariel Ben-Amos, who works in the city’s water department, says the answer may lie with the genesis of the project: It started with a 29-year-old blogger.

StreetsDept blogger Conrad Benner, a car-free (and “bike-averse”) Philly native, started a petition on in February asking SEPTA for 24/7 service. “Reliable public transportation — day or night — is one of the foundations of a flourishing, prosperous city,” he wrote. The petition never got much more than half the signatures it was aiming for, but it didn’t matter. Before he even had a chance to deliver the petition, the media started hounding SEPTA about it. According to the South Philly Review, SEPTA’s response was essentially, “Actually, we’re talking about it and planning to give it a try.”

Were white millennials like Benner the new late-night riders this weekend, coming home from hipster bars rather than graveyard shift jobs? Possibly. Ben-Amos says older riders tend to like the bus, since they don’t have to climb the stairs to the El and the buses kneel for them. “All of which actually suggests that you are serving a new market, which I think is the real story,” Ben-Amos told me. “Here you have SEPTA responding to a publicity / advocacy campaign to serve a new market segment, adapting to a new Philadelphia.”

19 thoughts on Is Philly’s 24-Hour Subway Service the Wave of the Future?

  1. Yes please! It dovetails nicely with PATCO’s 24/7 service into South Jersey. I’m hopeful it sends a signal to other SEPTA services that it’s ok to run later services to give people options for staying out late in the city.

  2. The biggest reason people choose the subway over the bus is that even after midnight when there’s very little traffic, the subway is faster. This should be fairly obvious. The bus is always going to be slower than a cab, whereas the subway MIGHT be faster than a cab, depending on how far you have to walk. Also it should be noted that Philly’s els and subways always ran 24/7/365 from their inception (the first section of the Market Street Line started running in 1907) just like in NYC, until SEPTA bustituted overnight service in 1990, when the city was a scary place at night and some stations were full of homeless encampments they wanted an excuse to remove. There has always been 24 hour service on trolley lines as well, only some of which has survived to this day and now that they’re mostly converted to bus routes. Back when Philly was full of factory workers they had to get to their third shifts, and the late night ridership numbers in that era were actually much higher than they are today. The subway in Philly is today very underutilized in general compared to the early 20th century.

  3. There’s a strong downside to 24 hour subway operation: reduced reliability and increased maintenance costs. If it’s only 2 days a week, maintenance needs can normally be reorganized, but 24 hour subway operation entails having to shut lines down at random and defering maintenance until a line can be accessed.

  4. I don’t understand this argument. Why are occasional overnight shutdowns for work somehow worse than having no service at night whether work is being performed for not? (Unless you’re just arguing that it’s “easier” or “less confusing” to riders to simply not have a service than to sometimes have it and sometimes not?) If work needs to be done, they can simply go back to the Nite Owl buses while it’s happening, and go back to overnight subway service when it’s done, right? I don’t see why this is such an issue.

  5. It’s an issue because work always needs to be done. Busy tracks should probably be visually inspected once or twice a week, which takes hours. There are bulbs to change, litter to remove, leaks to patch, probably graffiti to remove, presumably test runs after changes are made, etc..

    Redundancy can kinda mitigate the needs for that. Careful planning of interlockings and modern automation/signalling is apparently working well in Copenhagen.

  6. I’ll take your word for it ’cause I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’d assume that SEPTA can do the same that the MTA does for its 2-track lines, right? The 2-tracked L train to Canarsie’s been running 24/7 for the better part of a century (with a couple weekends a year of outages for work of course), just like Philly did until 1990. New Yorkers complain about night and weekend service disruptions, but they wouldn’t trade 24/7 service for them. Copenhagen sounds like it has a great setup but it’d be a lot of money to add that to Philly’s subway where they still use tokens to pay the fare…

  7. I guess they can do the same, but for whatever reason the MTA never got a grip on keeping up with normal maintenance, so I don’t know if it’s such a great model for SEPTA. Broad Street might be a little easier than Market-Frankford since Broad Street is already quad-tracked. But even the MTA isn’t shy about shutting down two-track spurs for long weekends.

    And you’re right about Copenhagen: replicating that setup on an existing line is probably very expensive. And automation scarcely seems on the radar in older U.S. cities.

  8. Redundancy was just what I thought of, and it’s a subject on which I am directly opposite to what seems to be the Chicago Transit Authority’s view (though to be fair, lack of funding could be driving this). Nobody would tolerate having only one road on which you could drive from Chicago to Milwaukee or Evanston to Naperville; why is it acceptable to have only one transit route (if any!) between any two points?

    I was in London a few years ago at a time when a lot of repair work was happening on the Underground–whether scheduled or because of breakdowns I don’t know. There was quite a bit of griping; I wanted to say, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it!” What struck me was that we’d go into a station, we’d hear an announcement that the line we had planned to take was closed between where we were and where we wanted to go–and we’d go to the map, figure out the next best alternative, and within a few minutes we’d be on our way; I don’t think the total delay was ever more than 5 or 10 minutes.

    I guess it’s quixotic to hope that Chicago could ever have a system even a tenth as robust as London’s; but if you want resilience, you have to build in a certain level of redundancy.

  9. I’m happy that a couple years ago LA extended its Metro Rail and busway hours to 2am on weekends, but currently their Owl bus service is on a few scattered Local bus lines, instead of the more major Rapid bus lines. I’ve always felt that it makes more sense for a transit system’s rail and Rapids to function as its owl services, which would further distinguish the service these Rapids provide from the service the Local lines provide.

  10. Interestingly in Minneapolis/Saint Paul the Green Line will be running hourly owl service, and replaced the former 16 bus owl service which operated along that corridor.
    Generally, I’m of the school of thought that accessibility is much more important during the owl period than speed. You don’t necessarily want someone to walk half a mile, a mile, or more between widely spaced rapid or rail stops. But that means that choice riders will use taxis instead if they don’t want to slog around a bus.

  11. I’ve thought about this and come to the conclusion that it makes sense for the owl service to be the locals that parallel a rapid route. At night, a local can achieve speeds near that of a rapid during the day, and as calwatch mentioned in a different comment, at night people often put a premium on shorter walks from the stop to their destination. But the presence of a rapid normally indicates that a line generates enough traffic to keep a presence into the night.

  12. I thought about that but I think it’s easier for those who may be new to late-night riding to just remember that “Rapids run late”, as opposed to “the locals that parallel the Rapids run late”. Besides, I seem to recall that after 10pm the Rapid drivers have the discretion to make unscheduled stops (between their normal stops) upon request. This policy was advertised a few years ago, but mysteriously is no longer spoken of. Curious.

  13. I tend to favor 24-hour services running as a built-in feature of all “trunk lines” (in LA, I’d lean towards the Rapid buses, plus busways and Metro Rail) rather than as an add-on feature of some select local lines. I can however, see the benefit of more frequent stops, but I think it makes more sense for local stops to be on demand and for boardings to occur at the existing major stops that are built in to the Rapid service already and are more likely to be well populated in the wee hours.

  14. “On two of its lines…”? Hello? Those two lines *are* Philly’s entire “subway system,” which isn’t called that since one of them is an el, and those partially underground green routes are actually streetcars. You looked at a map before writing this, right?

  15. It’s worth noting that PATCO between South Jersey and Center City Philadelphia has been 24/7 for decades, and that some trolley lines (i.e. the green lines on the transit map) are also 24/7.

  16. In my mind maintenance is the only issue here. Everything else is a pro. It’s an issue in DC certainly when to do the maintenance given that most lines are in effective operation about 19 hours a day. I wonder if there are other creative options. Could you move the maintenance window depending on ridership. If there is more midnight-5 ridership on weekends could you do 10am-2pm maintenance and do bus bridges then when there are many other services operating as well? Maximizing ridership and ensuring high quality maintenance should be at the top of the list for planning the sytem by far.

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