Philadelphia Transit Plan: Underwhelming Regional Rail ambitions, and how to do more

The just published Philadelphia Transit Plan, prepared by the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS), generally conveys an excellent vision for transit in and around Philadelphia. It is focused on the adoption of best practice to improve the transit system, such as a simple network of frequent routes, stop consolidation and transit priority measures.

On regional rail, the document argues for serving a wider cross-section of riders by means of modern trains running at high frequencies throughout the day; eventually 15 minutes on most of the network. It correctly observes that the Center City tunnel is under-utilised and that frequent service “will likely require a similar number of staff members, just utilized differently”.

But when it comes to doing anything, a proactive tone shifts to waving hands about and making excuses. Worrying about union negotiations, and signalling capacity, and platform upgrades supposedly costing $2bn, the report asserts that “because of these large organizational and infrastructure needs, this vision cannot be implemented all at once. A plan will need to be developed and implemented incrementally over the next 20 or more years” . This is decidedly unambitious when the system has basically already been built, it’s mainly a matter of running the trains.

The North American article of faith that commuter rail is inherently expensive to run leads to the assertion that “Regional Rail may always have a higher fare than subway or bus service”. A cost of $8.98 per Regional Rail trip is quoted, versus $4.22 for bus. These numbers sound like exactly what one would expect from a regional rail system primarily carrying long peak commute trips, the costliest kind of trip to serve even without four-person crews. There appears little reason that measures suggested immediately beforehand to better utilise crews and fill trains up through the day shouldn’t lead towards a convergence.

The lack of ambition displayed is particularly frustrating given the two-year timescale on redesigning the SEPTA bus network. The 2020 Philadelphia Bus Network Choices Report states several times that integration with regional rail would improve mobility and reduce the need for redundant bus services. The 61 on Ridge Street is mentioned, noting that it cuts across the grid of frequent routes that might better use its resources, while Manayunk riders ought to benefit from faster regional rail. One could also point to the 28 buses per peak hour crawling along the Schuylkill Expressway, or the stacks of lines all converging on subway stations.

As it stands that costly status quo is to survive a once in a generation reshaping of the bus network. This would represent a missed opportunity to reallocate resources and create a network of lines crisscrossing the wider region and intersecting with frequent regional rail lines. This is a strong impetus to step up the ambition and create a strategy to deliver as much all-day regional rail frequency as possible within two years. This way, measures to improve regional rail and bus networks can be much greater than the sum of their parts.

Towards a frequent service (this decade)

To deliver better regional rail on an accelerated timescale, the city can look to the philosophy of tactical urbanism and seek quick and low-cost interventions to deliver more service in the near term. Two or three conductors can become one with minimal operational changes, modern platform humps can be installed atop of the existing concrete without a full rebuild, conflicts at junctions can be minimised by shaping service patterns around the infrastructure.

Interventions need not reflect the full twenty- or thirty-year vision; they need only to maximise the service that present resources can deliver. A reasonable starting point would be to get three car sets operating with only one conductor, and doubling the current 60- and 30-minute schedules plus extra service on key urban routes, by way of steps looking somewhat like the following:

  • Increase training from conductor to engineer with the aim of getting a ratio of one engineer to one conductor on the workforce. Unions should be proactively engaged with a plan for growth rather than contraction of rail service and the associated jobs.
  • Make use of the existing mini-high accessible platforms so that the second and third doors can open there with reasonably precise stopping positions ahead of the platform. Thus one conductor can open the fourth and fifth Silverliner IV doors, or raise the traps of the remaining two Silverliner V cars in between stations. This is a hell of a bodge, so next:
  • Develop a Haverford Hump; a modular raised platform segment that can be anchored to existing low platforms resembling a larger version of Great Britain’s glass-reinforced polymer Harrington Humps which cost a quarter of conventional methods. Thus level boarding can be provided for three-car trains, or the ultimate intended train length for a particular line. Where necessary, such can be installed in front of or up/downstream of historic station buildings to minimise disruption.
  • Pair lines based on both infrastructure and ridership: Some flowing from University City onto the center tracks through to Jenkintown, skipping North Broad, other line pairs taking the outer tracks and calling at North Broad. This leaves outbound trains to Norristown crossing multiple lines, hopefully grade separated eventually, but few other problematic conflicts.
  • Encourage off-board smartcard payment and move towards a sort of soft proof-of-payment system, with conductors checking smart cards and able to issue only an undiscounted all zones one-way ticket to riders without.
  • Begin to procure modern trains of the lightweight aluminium types recently made possible by changes to FRA regulations such as the Stadler FLIRT trains found in Texas, aiming to introduce these in step with line-by-line implementation of raised platforms. Off the shelf procurement without steps and traps will significantly lower costs.

Medium-term interventions can then build on this toward full level boarding, infill stations, fully replacing existing heavy stainless steel cars, and 15 minute frequencies almost everywhere. I would propose planning for this by defining line pairs which call for ~80m trains (either four short articulated cars or three conventional cars) and which call for ~160m double sets and progressively building up the infrastructure on that basis.

The city’s report also calls for ‘regional express service’ overlaid on local service. This is largely unnecessary, except for the long and busy Keystone Line that calls for both frequent Villanova Locals and frequent expresses to Paoli and beyond. Elsewhere once high platforms and better-accelerating modern EMUs minimise the stop penalty, stretching fifteen-minute local frequencies as far out as possible becomes the greater priority pending at least threefold ridership growth.

Frequent locals towards Wilmington and Trenton don’t appear in the city’s plan, presumably owing to extortionate charges from Amtrak. This is a shame when the former could be a lifeline to the deprived community of Chester, and the latter parallels a very high-ridership bus in NE Philadelphia. Amtrak access charges are certainly a difficulty, but negotiation ought to be attempted. Potential inclusion in medium-term capital investments of grade separated turnbacks and the Swampoodle connection that avoid locals fouling Amtrak’s fast lines ought to serve as a decent bargaining chip.

I shall conclude by urging advocates for better transportation in the Philadelphia region not to settle for kicking the can down the road on regional rail service that should have been delivered in the 1980s, and instead to demand nimble interventions beginning immediately. There will undoubtedly be more hurdles than those I’ve discussed; none of them will be so difficult as to justify wasting the chance to create a fully integrated transit network beginning a year or two from now.

Phinding your way around Philadelphia: A proposal for SEPTA’s wayfinding design

Last year, SEPTA announced an intent to overhaul its signage to enable easier and more accessible transit wayfinding design. After decades of difficult to read signage in crudely compressed Helvetica on line color backgrounds, supplemented by ad hoc placement of a bewildering variety of newer signs installed by SEPTA and the city, local transit advocates can find hope of a more legible transit system.

This could go very right or very wrong. To yield much-needed benefits, a signage overhaul must start from first principles. A coherent transit agency image, making SEPTA’s signage and publicity readily identifiable among the visual clutter of Philadelphia’s streets and concourses. Thence the names, colors, letters and numbers assigned to each line. From there, wayfinding signage can be designed and placed with the necessary precision.

In this article I’ll make proposals for each step of the wayfinding process, in hope that advocates can get behind the degree of change Philadelphia’s transit system requires at this moment.

Wayfinding principles

A set of principles widely followed in wayfinding design should guide this process. Firstly, consistency. The names of lines, stations, places and directions must be defined and consistently applied. This way, what’s read on wayfinding signage matches the directions of maps, online journey planners, members of staff and so forth. For example, trains shall run Westbound to 69th Street and Eastbound to Frankford, avoiding the temptation to flip it to North and South as the line heads up Front Street.

Secondly, information hierarchy. Information stacked in one place is confusing; to avoid this a hierarchy of what the rider needs to know right now should be followed. To begin with, where the rider is and whether their intended line can be found there (station signs, bus stop flags). Then, within station complexes, directions to their intended line, followed by directions to the appropriate track for the required destination and/or service pattern (signage or departure screens). Finally, whether the vehicle arriving is the desired one (announcements and destination indicators).

We move down this hierarchy at the point of decision. The rider is first pointed towards the Broad Line, at the mezzanine they’re pointed towards northbound and southbound trains, and on the platform they’re pointed to the local, express and Ridge trains.

Visual identity

SEPTA’s visual identity has got rather confused. The bright and contemporary image cultivated in recent years around the bright turquoise key card, the new map and publicity campaigns haven’t been followed by vehicles and signage. The system itself maintains a disjointed appearance wherein line colours dominate, and the corporate livery uses the most generic possible red, white and blue scheme (based upon a flag of some sort, I believe).

An eye-catching bright orange dominates the contemporary image. I propose to run with it, along with the key card’s blue-green. A single bright shade of orange shall emblematise SEPTA in a monocolor version of the logo plus stripes and flashes elsewhere, with blue-green liberally used in various shades.

This comes together to invoke the Philadelphia Transit Company’s historic green, orange and cream, along with the bluish greens seen throughout street furniture like station entrances and trolley shelters, not to mention the Eagles’ uniforms.

As for fonts, I propose Fira Sans be applied throughout. This contemporary typeface is a clean shaven version of the renowned FF Meta, which is used on recent concourse signage installed by the city. It offers excellent readability, with letter shapes easily distinguished, thus serving the aim of more accessible signage for all. Fira Sans also resembles Vialog, used by New Jersey Transit, thus being an excellent candidate for any regional harmonisation of wayfinding.

Line Identities

The present descriptive line names, while long-winded, are useful. It is immediately apparent where the Broad Street Line goes, and anyone that’s ever been beyond 69th Street can tell you where the Norristown High Speed Line goes.

A contemporary wayfinding scheme ought to retain these in a more concise form, alongside icons to replace the present indistinguishable pictograms. For these I propose to adopt line color bullets for rail lines, familiar to transit riders across North America, generally using single letters serving as an abbreviation of the line name:

BX Express and BR Ridge designations appear as service patterns once you’re down in the Broad Subway. Similarly, the 🅡 bullet points you to regional rail, while R-numbers (if SEPTA can manage to regularise through running) indicate the particular branch pairs. 🅛 is used for the Market Line as a homophone of ‘el’, yielding 🅜 for the Media Line (née Red Arrow).

One pictogram remains, representing the surface-subway lines with a simplified trolley, with each branch carrying a number as now. Upon redesign the bus network should yield the numbers 12 and 14 so that trolleys can gain a sequential block of numbers.

Bus Lines

Buses would benefit from the same descriptive line names – the 60 Allegheny, 79 Snyder, 52 Fifty-Second Street, and so on. With bus network changes, the opportunity should be taken to renumber more north-south lines on numbered streets like the 52, eking out further legibility.

Lines shall be represented with a rounded rectangular number bullet in shades of teal; a dark shade for frequent lines, a light shade for 30-minute lines and grey for hourly lines. This creates an intuitive color gradient and avoids the current pink, which is too close to the PATCO and Red Arrow colors.

Line Directions

Similar to the London Underground’s practice, lines shall have consistently applied cardinal directions and endpoint names. Signage shall give both, per the above image.

Endpoint names shall denote a place rather than a station. ‘Center City’ is the endpoint for lines terminating there plus inbound regional rail. The ‘Transportation Center’ suffix is dropped. Both the interurban to Norristown TC and the commuter rail to Elm Street are signed simply as ‘Norristown’; in the same way Media is simply ‘Media’. To avoid further confusion and costly signage changeovers, the endpoint of the southbound Broad local is given as South Philadelphia.


Recalling the consistency principle, signage should generally be modular in form, with a library containing signs pointing to each line in each direction, plus each station facility and so forth. Thus only exit locations, station names and similar need be added. This should help ensure that signage is reproduced properly.

And recalling information hierarchy, signage should follow the instructions Unimark gave to the NYC subway in their 1970 graphic standards manual: “The subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.” That is, at the points where paths towards different lines or different exits diverge.

Wherever possible, directional signage on platforms towards transfers and exits should face the rider exiting the train, to enable the immediate decision to go left or right. Station facilities (toilets, tickets, information desks) shall be signed only at the relevant decision points within the lobby/concourse areas. Bus transfers shall be indicated at the point of decision between different exits: A bus pictogram to indicate all routes; route numbers where different routes require different exits.

By the same token (or Key card), accessible routes shall be signed at the point where they diverge from the route given on mainstream signage. At this decision point, a stairway icon shall accompany non-accessible routes, and another sign shall point to the ramp or elevator. The relevant lines/exits shall be appended only where multiple step-free paths exist.

Station signs shall be simplified in order to maximise font size of the most important information — the station name. Route and direction of travel are communicated on other signage; no longer will directional information be most visible to the rider standing on the opposite platform. An orange stripe will identify station signage and draw the eye, tying into corporate identity without logos taking up space.


All of this should be accompanied by a set of maps, echoing the design language of other wayfinding materials and emphasising clarity. Modified geography shall be used to preserve the layout of the city while giving more space to dense areas.

On the rapid transit and regional rail map I’ve produced, a common and mode-neutral design language is adopted. Line width indicates stop spacing, with thin lines representing local stop trolley segments as well as local bus lines on maps including those. A hollow line indicates low frequency rail service, designed to echo the lighter colors given to less frequent buses.

Note than I have added in the Boulevard Direct bus while removing the Girard trolley, thus consistently indicating rapid service but local service primarily running in mixed traffic —be it on rubber or on steel. The Girard Line might do well to be included on a Boston-Style map that includes key frequent bus lines (one can’t make all the maps in one’s spare time).

Akseptable Wayphinding

All if this is just one designer’s vision for SEPTA’s wayfinding design. Public input should shape a finished product, though this need not and should not be at the expense of a coherent visual identity. The above is a summary rather than a comprehensive style guide — a style guide mockup may follow if there’s demand for it.

It is, I hope, compelling look at what a new focus upon clear and consistent design could do to make SEPTA a more accessible system. Done right, it can also let SEPTA move forward with a more confident image; presenting itself as a dependable system and a competent custodian of public funds.

If you like this, and you’d like to enable me to keep advocating for good and accessible design on the SEPTA system and elsewhere, please buy me a coffee.