Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where Have All the Streetcars Gone, Long Time Passing?

They've gone to Philadelphia, apparently. I snapped a picture of the #15 Girard Avenue line when I was there this weekend. Of course, Phily has had its share of bustitutions but this one of the last American cities to still use historic streetcars as a regular part of the transit network and not merely as a tourist attraction.

Anyway, I was very impressed with Philadelphia. Downtown, where I stayed with a friend from back home, is bustling all day and all night. We did quite a bit of walking, and I've decided to add Philadelphia to the list of cities I'm willing to live in. That's not to say that I'm planning on leaving Washington anytime soon, but I recommend visiting Phily if you get a chance. I didn't get to see everything, so I have reason to go back, but I feel like I saw quite a lot.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to beautiful Fairmount Park. The park runs for quite some distance up the Schuylkill River from Logan Square. There are some beautiful views of the skyline along the way, too. My friend and I made the traditional pilgrimage to the building where the United States got its start. But of course we couldn't get in because of all of the police baracades surrounding Independence Hall. The tickets were all gone for the day, so we just snapped some pictures and moved on. I couldn't help but wonder, though, what the founders would have thought of the national security Zeitgeist that is gripping this country. A quick subway trip over to the west bank showed that the University of Pennsylvania is contributing to a vibrant district which reminded me of Seattle's U District. I did consider Penn for grad school, but since it's private, I thought it a bit expensive.

Anyway, as is customary for me on trips to new cities, I did a bit of exploring on transit. In this case, that was mainly on SEPTA, but I also paid a visit to Jersey by way of PATCO. The ride across the outside of the Ben Franklin Bridge is spectacular. And while the Broad Street Subway and Market-Frankford Line are a litte dirty by Washington standards, they have that character that the modern systems lack. I don't know why, but although I haven't yet found a transit system I don't like, I am particularly attracted to the older systems. So far my favorite is the L in Chicago, but Philadelphia's is fun to ride too. Anyway, one interesting aspect of Southeastern Pennsylvania is rail transit outside of the city core. Philadelphia boasts one of America's only "S-Bahn" systems. The SEPTA regional rail network offers commuter-rail type service on high-frequencies every day of the week. Downtown, there is even a multi-track underground through-terminal which feeds trains from the former Pennsylvania Lines onto the former Reading Lines. It is a unique experience for the States. Other than perhaps on the Long Island Railroad and Caltrain, you have to go to Germany to experience a truly regional system. Of course, many American cities had similar systems once upon a time. Just like the streetcar tracks, though, we ripped them up in the name of progress.

Oh, when will they ever learn?

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