Abolishing paid transfers has become a rallying cry of progressive transit advocates in Philadelphia, #freetransfers is the rallying cry. “The transfer is regressive” spout transportation pundits. They point out that the transfer hurts poorer people most because the cost hits the pocket harder and low income sections of the city require more transfers to reach job centers, taxing the poor even more.
What would you say if I told you there was a city employee who was devoted to eliminating transfer penalties and ensuring “the advantages of rapid transit will be extended as equally as practicable to every front door in Philadelphia. ” And what would you say if I told you that proposal dated back to November of 1914?
A. Merrit Taylor, Philadelphia’s first Director of Transit (and patron saint of this site) proposed doing away with the transfer way before the SEPTA Key even began its roll out. Back in 1913, Taylor’s plans for rapid transit in Philadelphia proposed a flat five-cent fare, doing away with Philadelphia Rapid Transit’s three-cent transfer. The cost-free transfer would apply to his proposed subways and elevated railways as well as to surface trolleys run by Philadelphia Rapid Transit, the trolley monopoly of Philadelphia. It was lauded by the Evening Ledger as a Philadelphian’s dream of being able to go via high speed subway and elevated from Darby all the way to Frankford for just five cents.
The Evening Ledger praised the removal of the transfer cost, stating:
The transit program provides for the operation of all high-speed lines In conjunction with the surface system, which will serve as the agent for the gathering and distributing of passengers using the high-speed lines without extra charge.’ Thus the advantages of rapid transit will be extended as equally as practicable to every front door In Philadelphia.
In 1914, extending equitable transportation to all of Philadelphia was a goal worth fighting for. Of course, now more than 100 years later, we know that everyman’s utopia didn’t happen. But why not?
The PRT had a monopoly on surface trolleys in Philadelphia in 1914 and weren’t keen on losing it or even its transfer fares. Taylor proposed building and running the els and subways separately from the PRT’s Market Street subway, so the city could use the new lines as leverage against the trolley monopoly. But in February of 1915, the city councils’ finance committee “knifed” the plans, committing to build only the Frankford Elevated and connecting it to the Market Street subway, thereby washing away any leverage the city might get over the PRT. In the February 19th, 1915 edition, the Ledger sensationally reported a “mighty wave of protest against transit trickery is sweeping through city.” “Merchant princes” of the city with names like Gimbel and Lit were among the angered as the councils scuttled the robust plans of Taylor that would have brought Philadelphians from everywhere in the city to their shopping meccas for just a nickel.
In 1916, The PRT addressed citizens wishes by proposing waiving the three-cent transfer everywhere but in the delivery district (an area defined as river to river between Arch and Walnut). Of course that’s where most of the transfers would happen. Even the Ledger seemed weary of the battle by then, just reporting the facts in a flat-tone, a far cry from the bombastic reporting of a couple years prior. Of course war was also on the horizon, and with it, shrinking resources for mass transit and the last meaningful talk of abolishing transfers for the better part of a century.
But here we are in 2020, talking about removing transfers in order to provide more equitable transit to practically every front door in Philadelphia. Who says good things don’t come to those who wait?