Will the Pope drive all of these people home?

Will the Pope drive all of these people home?

As Philadelphia works itself into frenzy for the Papal Visit on the last weekend of September, it occurred to me that there might be a serious miscalculation on transit capacity for the estimated 1.5 million people who will flood Center City on those two days.

The Inquirer reports that SEPTA rail lines handle an average of 66,000 trips during a weekday. Of course, this ridership is somewhat spread throughout the day, and the rail cars are re-used multiple times. From previous reports, I know that SEPTA regional rail lines are often short of cars, due to maintenance time that has been running longer than estimated. The result is that some trains run short by one or two cars. The conclusion, of course, is that there is no spare rail capacity in the system. In fact, it is difficult for SEPTA to keep up with the demand of those 66,000 round trips during an average weekday.

Now we understand that SEPTA plans to sell 175,000 rail passes for each of the weekend days when the Pope will be in town, anticipating three times as many riders as they handle now for weekday transit. I know that there will be fewer station stops, and I also know that you select your time period for travel. But…..the return trip from the city has one time period, 5:30 pm until Midnight. The fact is that all of those evening riders will be leaving at almost exactly the same time — right after the Pope mingles with the World Meeting of Families on the Parkway on Saturday night, and again after he concludes the Papal Mass on Sunday evening (triggering an especially intense surge for the exits).

How, pray tell, will those 175,000 rail riders possibly get home on a rail system that is stretched to serve 66,000 customers during the course of an 18-hour day? Are the visitors aware that it may well take many hours for them to board an outbound train?

For those using buses and subways, service is said to run at normal levels, but of course it is impossible to predict how all of the street closures will affect those transit options.

Something doesn’t add up here, and I would not be surprised if the weekend attendance is far lower than projected. Too much difficulty on the trains, no automobile access anywhere in Center City, miles of chain link fences with check points to funnel through, etc.

When Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1979, people were simply encouraged to take mass transit. No special passes, no limited train stops, no chain link fences, no sealing off Center City. I remember riding into work that morning on an absolutely packed train, and then looking out my office window at empty streets and a sea of empty parking lots.

I walked to Broad Street to see the Pope pass by on his way to saying Mass in Logan Circle, and we stood about 5 deep on the sidewalk. The Pope was late, the “Popemobile” was moving at about 45 mph, and all I saw was a brief flash of white as he passed by.

I’m sure that those of us watching on television in September will have an excellent view of the proceedings.