As ridership dropped during the pandemic, Philadelphia's transit agency started locking station doors to keep unhoused people from using the tunnels as shelter. Now, riders are becoming trapped inside.

2 minute read

March 21, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

SEPTA Station

f11photo / Shutterstock

Describing the experience of one rider with a disability that forces her to minimize walking, Jake Blumgart outlines how new security measures on Philadelphia's SEPTA trains are trapping riders who now have to walk much longer distances to accessible exits or are unable to enter or exit stations altogether. "The agency confirmed at least 10 riders have been trapped in the tunnels after walking through a one-way turnstile, only to find doors to the street barred and locked."

To explain: "Center City’s rail stations are connected to a vast, and confusing, concourse system that runs beneath the heart of downtown Philadelphia. As commuter and tourist traffic vanished with the pandemic in 2020, people living on the streets increasingly used the tunnels as shelter. SEPTA closed access points and cordoned off huge sectors of the underground."

Now, writes Blumgart, "SEPTA is spending millions to contract with social service organizations to help address the issue, but the new maze of mysteriously locked doors, gated exits, and other unfriendly impediments are making the system less accessible for everyone." SEPTA has pledged to reopen some areas and provide more clear signs explaining closures. Yet "Several riders interviewed for this article found them confusing, if less inscrutable than their absence was last year."

Transit systems in other cities are experiencing similar stresses, with varied responses. "In a December 2020 survey of 115 transit agencies, half said they had experienced a surge in homeless ridership." With ridership still far below pre-pandemic levels and budgets strained, the agencies are struggling to implement new programs to offer social services and make riders feel safe.

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