I’ve always said that Philadelphia is the biggest city in America you wouldn’t notice disappearing. With six million people, it’s the sixth largest metro in America. And while, because of the vagaries of metro area definitions, I think that overstates its rank a bit, without a doubt, Philly is one of America’s largest metro areas. A 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is also America’s 5th largest municipality.
So why doesn’t Philly loom larger in the national consciousness? When we think of Philly, mostly we think of stuff that happened a long time ago – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and stuff like that. But what does Philadelphia do today? Most people might know the large pharma concentration in South Jersey, but beyond that, not even I knew much about the economy of Philadelphia.
Part of it could be a lack of a signature industry that resonates in the public consciousness. Or it could be, as some have said, Quaker modesty that precludes the city from tooting its own horn too much. Or perhaps the fact that the city has been in decline for an extended period of time. While places like New York, Boston, and DC recovered from their nadirs, Philadelphia seemed not to.
I spent the weekend in Philly a couple weeks ago. Believe it or not I’d never really been to the city, unless you count connecting in the airport or one brief suburban business trip. That by itself was telling. Nothing really draws you here.
But after spending some time touring around the area, I came away impressed. I avoided the center city mostly, just doing drive bys of City Hall and the like. Nor did I take in museums and such as I normally would. Instead, a friend of mine took me around, showing me not just downtown, but outer neighborhoods like Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Manayunk, along with troubled places like Kensington. I also managed to do a little exploring of the Main Line suburbs.
Philadelphia has beautiful geography. There are gentle hills for the most part, with an extensive tree canopy. There are also two major rivers to provide an enjoyable waterfront experience.
The key to understanding Philadelphia, I’m told, is that unlike most places, it isn’t really a city at all. Rather, it’s a collection of towns (both in-city neighborhoods and suburbs) in which the various parts of the region really have little to do with each other. It’s like they live in different worlds. Unlike with say Chicago, where there is huge neighborhood consciousness but also a fierce attachment to Chicago the city, Philly is more fragmented. Or at least that’s what I was told. The City of Philadelphia was shaped the 1854 act of consolidation, which implemented a city-county merger with Philadelphia County, dissolving all existing municipalities there. Yet some of them seem to have independent lives yet today.
The city itself has very good bones. I was surprised to see it so intact. Philadelphia is known for its murals, which it uses to enliven areas where there have been demolitions. So I was expecting wholesale destruction on the lines of Detroit or some traditional Rust Belt burg. Make no mistake, Philadelphia has endless miles of slums. But the city seems to have mostly survived. Unfortunately, a lot of the buildings are in horrible shape, so whether they can be saved is another story, but at least they aren’t already gone.
Another surprise to me is that Philly is a two-story city. Most neighborhood buildings, including the ubiquitous row houses, are only two stories tall. I was expecting more verticality. Still, the dwelling unit density and lot area coverage are pretty high.
One exception to the positive is the Delaware River frontage. The city is cut off from the river by I-95. And on the river side of the freeway are huge numbers of strip malls, strip clubs, and assorted other depressing establishments. You’d never know you were in a city driving through them. There are a few nicer places along the waterfront itself, but there’s a long way to go to reclaim this area.
The transport network was of course of interest. Philadelphia seems vastly under-freewayed by big city standards. Other than I-95, the other main spoke route is the Schuylkill Expressway, which follows along the river of the same name. It rapidly drops to a mere two lanes each way, and congestion must be nothing short of awful.
Parts of the city still have streetcar tracks and overhead trolley wire, though only a few of these appear to have active streetcar service. There are streetcar tracks on Germantown Rd., for example, but sitting at an outdoor cafe for over an hour, I didn’t see one.
The most interesting part of the system to me is the suburban rail system. Philly has an extensive commuter rail system like New York, Chicago, and Boston. But it’s very unique. Philly has the only fully electrified commuter rail system in the country. It also built a tunnel many years ago linking the downtown terminal stations to enable through running of trains, something no other commuter system can do. (Penn Station in New York could through-route commuter trains, but I don’t believe that it does). Every line appeared to be fully grade separated. And Philadelphia’s system seems to largely rely on EMU type trains. All goodness.
My friend lives in suburban Paoli, and that line is fairly impressive. It has four mains with concrete ties, etc. This is the route used by Amtrak’s Keystone Service to Harrisburg. It’s already rated to 110MPH with, I believe, plans to further increase top speeds to 125MPH. With the SEPTA (Philly’s transit agency) Silverliner V EMU cars rated at 100MPH, it’s easy to see how you could create a premier commuter corridor here. I would say that there’s enormous potential in Philly’s commuter system to create a regional transit system on par with Europe, without ridiculous investments being required either. I may do a future post on this, but there may be more potential in Philadelphia’s commuter system than anywhere else in the United States.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to ride the SEPTA system itself, but did take the Keystone into NYC for a meeting. I was able to board in Paoli. I’d say the train was about 2/3-3/4 full on a Monday morning, with the bulk of the passengers exiting in Philadelphia. It seems to be mostly another set of passengers who board there for the trip into NYC.
The train boards in Paoli at 6:19am but isn’t scheduled to get to Penn Station until 8:38. This route might have reasonably frequent service, but the journey time is too long. With the Acela making the trip from NYC to PHL in only 1:05, there would seem to be plenty of room for improvements.
The availability of frequent Amtrak service to New York and Washington puts Philadelphia in an enviable position. As the south axis of the Northeast Corridor has taken on more importance, Philadelphia has started to rise along with it. The city gained population for the first time since 1950. You can see construction and investment in many places throughout the city, though clearly some transitioning neighborhoods got caught out by the housing collapse.
With the skyrocketing cost of real estate in New York, some folks are unsurprisingly looking south. Philadelphia Magazine just ran a story on the migration from New York and the sixth borough effect might finally be starting to happen for real. Though housing costs are high by the standard of the Midwest and South, they are dirt cheap by comparison to other East Coast big cities. With the impressive urbanism, extensive transit system, amenities, and good transport, it’s unsurprising people are looking to take advantage of what Philadelphia has to offer. If the catenary in New Jersey is finally upgraded, and modern rolling stock purchased to enable frequent, high speed trips to New York in times less than many outer borough commutes, Philadelphia might really end up taking off.