Friday, March 4, 2016

No, public transportation in Philadelphia is not worse than Pittsburgh or Seattle.

Whenever someone decides to rank Philadelphia, we know one of two things is going to happen. Either we're going to be the 90 year old Oscar winner who's "finally" granted an award we always deserved, or we're going to land at the bottom. The last two years aside, Philadelphia has bottomed out in so many lists - "official" or not - it's hard not to wonder if someone has it in for us. 

When a Travel + Leisure survey called us the nation's ugliest in 2007, I had to take stock and look around. All I saw were hot, muscle-bound Italians with thick wavy hair. As far back as a high school trip to the Liberty Bell, I remember thinking that Philadelphia had some of the sexiest bros I've ever seen. Digging deeper into the survey, I noticed that other major cities in the northeast bottomed out: New York, Boston. The one thing the cities at the bottom all had in common was ethnic diversity, which says a lot more about those being surveyed than it does about the empirical attractiveness of the average Philadelphian.

But that's what these lists are all about: subjectivity. 

Delving into listed topics that should be more definable, we see more of the same. It's easy to make a case for one city, biased or not, without accounting for the innumerable variables that make every city in the U.S. inherently unique, and media outlets have made a fortune in click bait doing just that in lieu of real news.

Just last month a survey by SmartAsset ranked the public transportation in ten major American cities and Philadelphia came in 9th. In all fairness, that isn't too bad. With only ten cities on the list, not a single one in the South made the cut, unless you count D.C. And Portland, OR, often hailed as a 21st Century transportation trailblazer, didn't make it in the top 10. 

With D.C.'s Metro ranked #1, Philadelphia fell behind Oakland and Pittsburgh. I'll repeat that, Philadelphia ranked behind Pittsburgh

A Washingtonian wouldn't know what to call this.

But here's the problem: the factors measured included average commute times, percentage and numbers of those who use public transportation, and for some reason, the median income of those who take public transportation. The raw number of users is an irrelevant comparison when you're comparing cities the size of Pittsburgh to Philadelphia or Chicago, and how are wealthy public transportation users an indicator of a successful system, especially when comparing extremely wealthy cities like San Francisco and D.C. to economically diverse cities like Philadelphia? You can't compare BART's median income users to SEPTA's? What's average in the Bay Area is astonishingly wealthy in Philadelphia.

What was also ignored was the overall need for public transportation. D.C. Metro is clean and smooth, and expansive. But it's not a usable subway system for urban residents, many who own cars. In the suburbs, Metro trains drop commuters off in massive surface lots or garages, nowhere near neighborhoods equally as isolated. SEPTA's an old system, and because of that it employs a traditional subway that services walkable neighborhoods and regional rails that engage Victorian era streetcar suburbs. Like New York, most Philadelphians don't need cars, and many don't have them.

Ignoring the polarizing differences between car-centric metropolitan regions like D.C. and walkable cities like Philadelphia or New York is essentially claiming that public transportation is a necessary solution for cities that aren't looking for an answer. The fact that New York placed below D.C., San Francisco, and Boston proves there's something a little fishy about this survey. Even Seattle, a city that sternly rejected public transportation for so long they made a movie about it, somehow beat Philadelphia. 

But this isn't about public transportation. This is just another viral survey to plug a financial planning company, a company with no business releasing unsubstantiated junk data. Unfortunately that's what people read, and we all fell for it. I'll leave my impression up to experience. I've lived in both D.C. and Philadelphia. I can walk here. I don't need a car here. When I need to take public transportation, I can easily grab a train, subway, or trolley almost anywhere. It's fast, simple, and I can get where I'm going on foot from there. 

The northeast corridor is in a class of its own when it comes to public transportation. Not only can I get to Ardmore and walk to a restaurant, I can get to the Jersey Shore, New York, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh with ease. The Link's one line in Seattle has only thirteen stations and it certainly won't take me to the beach. That's not to say public transportation is bad outside the Northeast Corridor, it's just new and faces an uphill battle amongst cultures that have freeways in their DNA. 

Cities like Philadelphia and New York shouldn't be on these lists, they should be the litmus that defines them.

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