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Nov 03 2016
by Katie Weaver

An Outsider's Guide to the Transit Strike Crippling Philadelphia

By Katie Weaver - Nov 03 2016

On the morning of Tuesday, November 1st, residents of Philadelphia and its outer reaches woke up to a local development that most would say is even scarier than anything that went down on Halloween the night before: employees of SEPTA, otherwise known as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the lifeline of commuters throughout the region, had officially decided to go on strike. At the time of publication for this article, the strike is still in effect.

But for those students whose colleges lie far outside the boundaries of any major city, it might be hard to understand the impact a strike like this might have. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the walkout that has the potential to impact over eight million people in the Philadelphia area.

What is SEPTA?

SEPTA is a public transportation agency which services residents of Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. It oversees two subway lines (Broad Street and Market-Frankford), an underground trolley system, a bus service and Regional Rail, which is an aboveground train that takes residents to cities from Trenton to Wilmington on 14 different lines. Sound confusing? That should give you an idea of just how big SEPTA is and how many people it services. Also, just as an aside: it's the only major public transportation system in America that still uses tokens.

Why the strike?

SEPTA has been partaking in negotiations with the Transportation Workers Union Local 234 for the past several months over a new contract for workers represented by the union (there's over 5,000 of them). According to, topics of negotiation include better wages, longer breaks and a greater amount of time between shifts. If no deal was able be cut by midnight on November 1st, SEPTA workers would go on strike.

The SEPTA trolley station at the University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What are the implications? 

Here's where the issues start. Because so many local employees are on strike, the SEPTA subway, trolley and bus systems are currently not in service. Since so many people use these forms of transportation to get to work, they have instead flocked to the Regional Rail system (the only major element of SEPTA still in service) to get around. The influx of people, plus protestors blocking worker entrances, has created myriad delays in Regional Rail service. These delays have ranged from 10 minutes to over an hour in length, and they're basically non-stop.

What's being done to end the strike?

According to NBC10 Philadelphia, negotiations to end the strike are taking place slowly but surely. SEPTA says that if the strike is not over by Election Day, it will seek out an injunction to end it forcefully so as to allow commuters to get to polling places.

In the meantime, the anger still remains.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf expressed his frustration with the strike:

"This is something that is bad for everybody and has to end."

How does this affect college students?

In Philadelphia, as with most major cities, public transportation is the easiest way to get around. That applies to students as well.

Lea* is a freshman at the University of the Sciences, a smaller college in the Spruce Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

“I feel like SEPTA plays an extremely important role in our daily lives,” she says, adding that she enjoys using it to travel with friends to Chinatown. “It’s convenient and affordable.”

University of Pennsylvania freshman Max Grove agrees. 

"For me, SEPTA is a useful tool in maintaining my friendship. It provides access to Old City, the Gayborhood, North Philly, and above all, my friends."

Diana Pope, a freshman at Bryn Mawr College in the Philadelphia suburbs, says: 

"I need to use the train to visit friends or go to the city, but I can’t use the system due to the absurd wait times."

In most cases, students are forced to find other alternatives.

"Last night, I had to wait over an hour for a train that never showed up," Diana continues. "It’s really irritating when I’m spending so much money on taxis and other cab services because of an inefficient train system."

If you don't want to use a taxi, there's also the option for ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. It's clear that this option has been employed widely since the strike began; according to CBS, Uber has seen a 41 percent increase of new riders.

Some students tend to prefer these apps to using public transportation in the first place. Savanna Wargo attends Saint Joseph’s University in the Philadelphia environ of Overbrook. 

“I’d rather use Uber than public transportation because I can be waiting at my door in the comfort of my own apartment for my ride to arrive, rather than outside in the cold.” 

The strike has been just as detrimental to non-Pennsylvania residents who use SEPTA. John Kim is a freshman at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey, located just across Philadelphia’s George Washington Bridge. He uses both SEPTA and the PATCO (Port Authority Transit Corporation) service, the latter of which provides increased transport between Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

"The strike is putting a halt to a lot of my plans," he says. "I think college students are being hit pretty hard by all of this. I know that for me and a lot of my friends, public transportation is our primary mode of transportation [to Philly]. I'm just glad PATCO was up for Halloween."

Students are also angry at government leadership for their lack of cooperation during the strike. One Twitter user called out Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney for being seemingly passive.

Lea has similar sentiments: 

“It saddens me when those in higher power can’t help the workers who interact with the people they transport.”

"If a balance cannot be reached on wage improvements, find a balance for health care plans, and create pension plans, SEPTA needs to realize the power of labor unions," adds Max. "I pray that SEPTA and the unions are able to find a balance... that makes everybody as happy as possible."

The SEPTA strike will hopefully be over soon, but its impact for the time being has hurt countless college students in the Philadelphia region. For those of us who live among the commuters in giant cities, the effects will be felt for a long time.

Lead Image Credit: POR7O via Unsplash

*Some names have been changed for privacy.
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Katie Weaver - Temple University

Katie is a freshman majoring in journalism at Temple University. She started out writing cheesy short stories and wax-inspirational poems, but she has since discovered the joys of nonfiction. Her dream job is to be a writer for The New Yorker or a reporter for CNN. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing the violin, listening to many different types of music, and dreaming about traveling the world.

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