Give me frequency, or give me Uber

Michael Noda Features, Issue 5 0 Comments

Transit comes in two main flavors. There’s the kind that runs often enough that you don’t even have to check when it’s coming, because you can go out at any given moment and reasonably expect to catch it. Then there’s the kind that doesn’t come too often, and you have to spend time checking schedules and worrying about how long it will take to get where you’re going or make that vital connection.

The boundary between those two categories is subjective. But for most people, according to transit experts, it hovers around service every 12-15 minutes.

When service is frequent, riders flock to the service. The highest-ridership lines on the SEPTA system are those that run four times per hour or more. PATCO, which runs every 4-12 minutes during peak hours on weekdays, has about 36,100 daily riders. SEPTA Regional Rail, which runs roughly every 30 minutes during peak hours, has total of 132,000 daily riders.

That means PATCO’s one line carries about a third of the daily ridership of the 13 Regional Rail lines combined.

These numbers suggest that more people use frequent transit on a daily basis, which means the service can generate more revenue at the farebox. Frequent service also reduces wait times for transfers, which encourages riders to make full use of the system. One-seat rides, on the other hand, are more expensive to run and unintuitive for new riders.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell from a standard transit map which lines run frequently and which don’t. SEPTA’s ubiquitous system map displays only rail routes rather than buses. But while rail may be faster and more comfortable, it’s no more convenient when it runs out to the suburbs only once (or, at best, twice) an hour. Meanwhile, the larger, more detailed, and more obscure city and suburban bus map shows every route as a maddeningly uniform red line.

Many other transit agencies (like Los Angeles Metro, Portland’s Tri-Met, and Montreal’s STM) have begun highlighting frequent routes in official maps, or publishing separate maps that show only frequent routes. SEPTA hasn’t done this officially, but rider Thomson Kao created a map of his own generated from schedule data. Available on Tumblr, it only includes about two dozen distinct routes, all within the City of Philadelphia or connecting out to 69th Street Station in Upper Darby.  

The next time SEPTA’s nearly 150 routes seem daunting, only focus on studying the dozen or so frequent bus or trolley routes that run near places you care about. That much smaller task of memory will still give you an incredible freedom to move about the city at will.

Illustration by Ann Dinh

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