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No trip to Philly is complete without a walk down memory lane. #tokens #septa

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I’m in Philadelphia this week for a few days for work, and I’m always reminded when I take a trip down here how, despite the problems New York has, I’d rather have the MTA running things than SEPTA. They did manage to get commuter rail through-running through Center City right — which is something the MTA and New Jersey Transit have yet to achieve. Meanwhile, my absolute favorite part of any SEPTA trip are the tokens. Somehow, Philadelphia doesn’t even have last-generation fare payment; they have mid-20th century fare payment in place. They’re working toward a new payment technology and may have something in place nearly half a decade before the Metrocard is phased out. For now, though, I’ll enjoy using the token. It’s a public transportation time machine.

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SEPTA and Jefferson Hospitals officials salute Market East’s new name. (Photo via SEPTA)

Over the years, I’ve taken an interest in the push, more often fruitless than not, for transit agencies to sell naming rights for their train stations. Generally, the desire for operators to realize more revenue has far outpaced the willingness of businesses to pony up the dough, and even in New York, with ridership numbers far outpacing the rest of the nation, the MTA hasn’t found success. The agency a naming rights policy in place but have so far sold the rights to only one station and only for $200,000 a year. Philadelphia though seems to have found the magic touch.

In 2010, SEPTA became one of the first U.S. transit agencies to see real money in a naming rights deal. For $5.4 million over five years — $2 million of which went to SEPTA’s advertising agency — AT&T bought the rights to the Pattison Station near the city’s sports complex. The new name removed any geographical signifier from the station name, and I was skeptical of this approach. It’s hard to argue too much with essentially free money, and SEPTA managed to pocket $3.4 million out of the deal.

Last week, the agency again found a partner for a naming rights deal. This time, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals will pay $4 million for a five-year naming rights deal for the regional rail’s popular Market East station in Center City. As of last week, the stop is now called Jefferson Station, and SEPTA will again earn $3.4 million — or 85 percent — of the total outlay. Jefferson holds an option for an additional four years at $3.4 million.

SEPTA officials patted themselves on the back over the deal. “It speaks volumes about SEPTA’s reputation and role as a driver of the economy that one of the region’s most respected organizations is partnering with SEPTA in such a prominent way,” SEPTA Chairman Pat Deon said.

Jefferson Hospital higher-ups meanwhile were more transparent regarding the benefits of the deal. “We’re transforming ourselves and we’re creating bold new partnerships that deliver a very exciting and different future for Jefferson, for our patients and students. We want everyone to know it and see it every day when they pass through this station,” Jefferson CEO Stephen Klasko said.

This deal for Market East is a much better one for the riders. As a key stop for suburban access to Center City, the Station Formerly Known As Market East sees 26,000 riders per day and offers connection to Philadelphia’s subway and buses. A good portion of those riders are heading to Jefferson as employees, students, patients or visitors. Unlike AT&T, which is a brand name and not a location, Jefferson Station signals to riders a potential destination, and the utility of Market East as a name was unsettled at best.

On another level though, we should question these deals. SEPTA is pocketing $680,000 per year for these naming rights against an annual operating budget of over $1.3 billion. The agency claims the money will allow them to invest in Jefferson Station, but 700 grand only goes so far. Is it worth the effort, the public reeducation campaign and everything in between? I’m still not quite convinced. But when it comes to transit in the United States, a dollar earned is indeed a dollar earned.

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While folks within the MTA are working off of the B63 pilot to deliver real-time bus tracking to Staten Island (and eventually, the entire city), Philadelphia has, after ten years of work, finally flipped the switch on its on GPS-based real-time bus tracker. The project — called TransitView — follows 116 bus routes, 3 trackless trolley and 8 trolley lines, and the data is updated every three minutes throughout the day. The service also includes SMS notifications for bus arrivals. For more information, check out Technically Philly and the TransitView website. It’s certainly fun to poke around on the live map as well.

Ideally by the end of this year, Staten Islanders will enjoy this feature, and the rest of the city’s buses will follow suit as well. It should help revolutionize bus travel within the city too. As buses become less reliable and more prone to delays, ridership has dropped over the past two years. If riders know when the bus is coming, how far away it is and how long their rides should take, they can better plan their bus trips. It’s all about customer convenience in an age of technology.

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Building a better subway bench

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Veyko-designed benches in Philadelphia's subway system meld art and style to create a durable subway bench. (Photo via AN Blog)

Every few months, the benches in the subway system — those sometimes-convenient, often-dirty wooden slabs that provide a few minutes’ respite while the subway comes — sneak their way into a news story. Sometimes, we hear about bedbugs in the wood; sometimes, we hear about plans to do away with the unhygienic wood. Still, the wood lingers, attracting gum, spills and other less-than-appealing discolorations.

Out of Philadelphia, though, we hear today of a project a few years in the making. In late 2009, with the support of a federal grant, design shop Veyko unveiled a stainless steel bench that doubled as an Arts for Transit installation. It’s functional, comfortable and, most importantly clean.

Jennifer K. Grosche from the Architect’s Newspaper A/N Blog profiled the bench and its makers recently. She spoke with the team behind the bench. “As a fabricator, you often see these blob forms, but my particular interest was taking that form and putting it in the most caustic situation, which is a major urban transit system,” Richard Goloveyko said. “We wanted to see that form built well enough to exist the wear and tear of a subway station.”

As Grosche notes, the benches have been proven to last:

The benches have resiliency thanks to their bent wire design. The idea for the shape came from the way subway travelers wait in the station: they sit or they lean. By modeling these positions in Rhinoceros and Solidworks, the team created a map between the two postures, and the curved, skeleton-like form took shape. Bench frames were cut using a five-axis water jet machine, while CNC wire forming bent 5/6-inch stainless steel strands to meet exact parameters set forth in the computer model. Wires are spaced at 1-1/8 inches on-center to create a comfortable, structurally sound design that also allows water and small debris to pass through.

The ten, 20-foot-long benches fabricated by Veyko were bolted to station walls using Hilti epoxy anchors, giving cleaning crews easy access to clean the floor beneath. As another sanitary measure, the stainless steel is electro-polished, resulting in a mirror-like finish that resists dirt and bacterial buildup, similar to finishes used on sanitary hospital equipment.

The design of the benches discourages anyone from lying on them, a parameter in the competition guidelines, but “virtually everyone uses them differently,” said Goloveyko. Kids tend to nestle into the seat, some people sit on the area for leaning, and some gather in the small alcoves formed by the arched seat. Now, about a year after installation, the benches show no signs of damage—no small feat for a station that sees tens of thousands of travelers a day.

The various angles allow those waiting for a train to use the bench as they please. (Image via Veyko)

Goloveyko says the prototype installed in Philadelphia is too expensive to mass market to transit agencies around the country, but he’s working on developing a lower-cost solution to transportation seating woes. Instead, the complex design is viewed as a potential one-off installation for those looking to add style and interesting architecture to otherwise-drab transportation surroundings.

In New York, we’ll continue onward with our wooden benches. They’re cheap to manufacture and seem to absorb everything that gets tossed their way. Maybe when our new subway routes open in a few years, shiny benches will come with them, but for now, we’ll just admire them from afar.

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When the Nets’ new arena at the Atlantic Yards area opens up, the subway station beneath it will have a new name. For $4 million spread out over 20 years, Barclays will pay the MTA for the naming rights to the station, and straphangers will get off at Atlantic Ave./Pacific St./Barclays Center.

As the authority isn’t giving up the geographic identifiers, the station still serves its purpose of informing riders where they are, and the agency can draw in some dollars as well. It is the ideal naming rights deal and one cash-strapped transit agencies around the country should strive to duplicate. They can’t, after all, lose sight of the fact that the system must still be effective at making sure people can find their ways to and from various destinations.

In Philadelphia, though, SEPTA is on the verge of a naming rights deal that won’t do anyone favors. According to Plan Philly, the Philadelphia-based transit agency is going to completely rename one of its most popular terminals. The station current at Pattison Ave. is home to many fans heading to Phillies, Eagles, 76ers or Flyers games at the sports complex. For five years and $3 million, the station may become simply the AT&T Station. Every trace of Pattison Ave. would be excised from the system.

Plan Philly says that SEPTA has tried a variety of “non-traditional means” for raising revenue including asking the city’s sports teams for help. A spokesman defended the potential deal and claimed riders would not be confused “because the station is at the end of the line and is ‘unique’ because it serves the sports complex.” The station’s place as a unique destination would in fact work against a naming rights deal that completely removes geographic identifiers from the system.

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark doesn’t like the deal. He writes:

But Philadelphia’s decision could be going further because not only does it remove the current name entirely from maps, but it does so to existing stations that have retained their current names for decades. Even worse, the names have no relevance to the areas they serve — it’s not like AT&T has a major facility at Pattison Station. The whole situation raises the frightening prospect in the near future that, instead of riding the Broad Street Subway from City Hall to Pattison, people will take the Coca-Cola Trolley from Pizza Hut to AT&T. Moreover, five years later, considering the current rate of changes in corporate names and sponsorships, all of those names may have to be modified!

There are two fundamental problems with the idea that station names can be sold to the highest bidder: One, doing so challenges a fundamental element of transit service provision, that it is a public service; and two, that the names provide an important connection between the line-based geography of transit systems and the street or neighborhood-based geography of the city around stations.

Freemark notes that the deal nets a pittance for SEPTA as the Barclays deal does for the MTA. When an agency is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, a contract for a few hundred thousand a year doesn’t make a dent, and riders — the customers of the transit agency — are confused. A rider-based quasi-private government agency should not be inconveniencing the riding public.

As Freemark notes, transit stops are integral to neighborhoods and communities. Trading place names for corporate places instead of appending corporate sponsors onto the stations dehumanizes the city. “Removing the geography-based name and replacing it with a corporate name virtually ensures that either infrequent commuters are fated to be completely lost in a transit system with completely irrelevant station names (especially if it’s underground),” he writes, “or that maps and signage are threatened with being overwhelmed with multiple layers of information, some important, some not, an end product that certainly won’t add ease to getting around either.”

As the MTA moves forward with more naming rights deals and its own attempts at securing non-traditional revenue streams, it should take a lesson from Philadelphia. This isn’t the way to go.

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