Kids’ bikes, gridlock and kindness: How Philly is coping with transit strike

The lines for a train at the Suburban Station in Philadelphia snake through each other, seemingly with no end in sight.

And rush hour isn’t even at its peak.

“Back of the line!” a woman shouts. “We’ve been in line for hours!”

Someone is trying to jump the line, and patience is wearing thin among some of the hundreds who’ve already waited an hour for the Regional Rail train, the only line open in America’s fifth biggest city.

“This is disgusting, what’s going on,” Wendy O’Sullivan says, over an hour into her wait. “It’s a wonder people haven’t spazzed out down here.”

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, is on strike. It has shut down the city’s subway, bus and trolley services, leaving the nearly 1 million passengers who rely on them daily waiting on alternatives.

“It’s really frustrating,” Angel Smith, 45, says, sighing as she stands next to a yellow-chain divider keeping waiting riders in line.

She can usually commute from work in the Center City business district after 15 minutes on the L train. But 45 minutes after standing in line at the rail station, she’s still far from even the train’s platform.

She is incredulous, and struggling to figure out how she will get to work on the days she works her second job at Ross.

“I’m not sure what I’m gonna do,” Smith says. “Except maybe just be late.”

‘Your world’s turned upside down’

Nafis Mumin, 38, stands tall atop his 9-year-old son’s bicycle. It only makes it up to his knees.

Mumin hasn’t been on a bike since he taught his son to ride one three years ago. But with his regular SEPTA train offline, he has no choice but to get creative.

“This is the commute for the next week,” says Mumin, a restaurant chef and supervisor.

He’s frustrated, but he understands why workers are striking.

The strike began at midnight on Monday after the Transit Workers Union Local 234 and SEPTA officials failed to negotiate a new contract for the city’s nearly 4,700 rail workers. Among the sticking points for union leaders: pension plans and extended break times. SEPTA’s break policies for vehicle operators left them little time to use the bathroom between routes, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“You feel for them but your world’s turned upside-down,” Mumin says.

The last strike, in 2009, lasted six days.

But with a presidential election less than a week away, Philadelphians are hoping for a quicker resolution. SEPTA says it will seek a court order to bring workers back if an agreement is not reached by Election Day. Meanwhile, city leaders urged patience.

Transit riders had no choice but to look to nearly any other form of transportation to traverse the city. They drove cars to places with little parking. They went to the nearest racks where the city’s bike-sharing program added more to meet demand. They rode them farther than usual. They walked long blocks. They used Uber, which expanded its coverage area, and flagged down cabs in the middle of the street.

Syed Badshah, who’s been driving a cab in the city for a year, says the traffic this week was the worst he’s ever seen it.

“It’s so stressful,” he says, driving through the city. “Passengers, they are becoming angry.”

Badshah knows many are just stretched financially, and the cab fares in heavy traffic can add up. At least two customers have asked to pull the car over early. Badshah, 44, says he was willing to turn off the meter and take them where they needed to go.

Clogged highways, classes without students

Out front of Julia R. Masterman magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood, a mother jogs her sixth-grade daughter to the car. She is parked illegally, and running late.

Normally, her daughter takes the trolley home by herself. Now, “it’s an hour and a half out of the middle of the day” to pick her up and take her to school.

The mother barely has time to talk, shouts that her name is Stephanie, and says she has to go.

Local news trucks line the street outside the Sheraton Hotel, where the union’s president is reportedly holed up, papers strewn out over a makeshift war table.

In a statement at the start of the strike, SEPTA said “the decision by TWU President Willie Brown leaves thousands of SEPTA customers without the transit services they rely on for travel to and from work, school and medical appointments.”

It’s why nearly half of Devin Morrison’s chemistry class at the Community College of Philadelphia didn’t show up on Tuesday. Her teacher filmed herself teaching the lesson on her cell phone for the students who couldn’t make it in.

Morrison, an engineering student, is lucky: She lives a 15-minute walk from the school.

For her classmate, 24-year-old Katherine Robertson, it’s a hike. She points toward a line of cars honking at the corner of campus as a reason she prefers public transit. For now, she’ll begrudgingly drive.

“My usual commute here is 20 minutes, [but] because SEPTA isn’t running it takes me a solid hour because of traffic,” Robertson says. “The highways are just so congested and clogged.”

With a job, school and three hours of homework a day, a commute behind the wheel is not something she can afford. Still, Robertson says she sides with the workers.

“It sucks but you gotta support it,” she says. “For them to not pay their workers right because they want to make that extra push that’s going to make them super rich, no one wants that.”

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