Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thoughts While Wandering through Suburban Station in Philadelphia

I have occasion to visit center city Philadelphia pretty often and almost always use SEPTA’s very convenient and reliable regional rail service.  Normally I use the Market East station, but a few days ago I got off at Suburban Station, one of the other center city stations (the third station being the monumental Thirtieth Street Station, the Amtrak stop).  If you have never been there, Suburban Station is quite an interesting place.  It’s an underground station with a 1930s office building overtop (art deco, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad) in the center of blocks of modern office towers.  Even underground it retains a certain elegance (unlike the ugly warren of New York’s Penn Station) and convenience.
However, a few critical (hopefully constructive) thoughts:
·      Signage is pretty weak.  I think this is pretty common for stations that cater mainly to commuters, where 99.9 percent of people follow the same path every day.  You can spend a lot of time wandering around if you don’t know where you are going.
·      There is only one restroom in the entire complex, that I could find, and the men’s room was shut down.  I suppose that reduces the homeless population (the reason behind it?) but it’s very inconvenient for out-of-town visitors.
·      Although the Suburban Station underground area is fairly nice, the tunnels leading to other transit connections look pretty sketchy, with low-end shops and a heavy police presence. 
·      Good luck if you don’t know Philadelphia and you’re walking around the neighborhood looking for the station.
My biggest takeaway, however, is a reminder that the Center City Commuter tunnel that was built in the 1980s, tying together a tangle of regional rail lines and funneling them through the three center city stations, was a tremendously successful and underappreciated transportation project.   Could it be built today?  Will we someday soon be able to build the other projects like that that should be built to make our cities and our country succeed and prosper?

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