Philadelphia's strike offers lessons for us

June 10, 1998|By Norris P. West

PHILADELPHIA -- During rush hour on Philadelphia's Schuylkill Expressway, traffic is as knotted as the soft pretzels this city is famous for.

So it was hard to tell by driving this snarling path last Thursday whether this city's week-old transit strike, affecting 450,000 daily riders, had brought city traffic to a standstill.

I was in Philadelphia to see how a major metropolitan area functions without a key portion of its public transportation.

As Baltimore area officials grind out a long-range transportation plan, they could learn something from Philadelphia. Highway supporters argue against spending for transit. To be sure, the automobile is the most widely used and possibly the most important mode of transportation, but public transportation is a crucial part of the commuting network.

In Philadelphia, radio traffic reports recited the usual headaches -- backups on the bridges from New Jersey into Philadelphia and the slowdown on Interstate 95 in Chester from a tanker truck fire that damaged a section of highway on Memorial Day weekend.

Make room for bikes

When I drove into the city, strike-related problems became evident. Downtown streets were backed up with traffic, cars were displaced from their normal parking spots to make room for expanded traffic lanes and bicycles had become a favored mode of transportation.

In spite of the labor strike against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, many people are finding ways to get where they have to go. The SEPTA strike has not strangled Philadelphia area highways because many suburban residents rely on the commuter rail system, which is not affected by the strike. The closest thing Baltimore has to it is the MARC lines.

Loss of transit most severely strikes low-income people -- those who have no options to buses and subways. Some of them can be found in a dialysis treatment center just north of Center City, where my brother is among the two dozen patients strapped to a machine.

Seeking rides

Some patients come here by government-subsidized vans and several have automobiles. But others have had to turn to friends and relatives to get them to their 6: 30 a.m. appointments.

My brother, who no longer owns an automobile, walked more than three miles round trip for dialysis treatment the first day of the transit strike -- a difficult trek after the exhausting treatment. Another family member now takes my brother to the dialysis center, but I wonder about those with no similar alternative.

Meanwhile, across town in West Philadelphia, officials at a state welfare office hope the transit strike won't impede their push to get more clients into jobs. However, most welfare recipients have to rely on public transit.

From my observations, Philadelphia indeed can function with much of its public transportation shut down -- at least in the short run. But the more important question is how it would function if the strike is a long one. Commuters will not want to tolerate the long waits on city streets and the races to parking spaces for long.

No strike has brought a halt to public transportation in Baltimore in recent years. But, strikes aside, Baltimore's regional transportation planners must focus on mass transit as the key to easing gridlock and helping the most dependent commuters get where they need to go. It should not take a transit shutdown to drive home that reality.

Norris P. West is a Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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