Fishtown resident Conrad Benner has been dying to try a hot new bar in South Philadelphia called Garage, but there was always the same problem. Carless and bike-averse, Benner travels only by SEPTA, and SEPTA's subway service stops just after midnight.
All that changed this weekend, when, for the first time in 23 years, Philadelphia's transit agency began running middle-of-the-night trains on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines on Saturdays and Sundays.
To celebrate the return of weekend service, Benner, 29, and two friends didn't merely make the trip across town to Garage on Saturday night -- they intentionally nursed their beers until closing at 2 a.m. Sunday.
Then, for good measure, they stopped by a friend's house for a nightcap before boarding the Broad Street subway at Federal Street. It was close to 3 a.m.
"I thought, 'OK, it's the first night of the service and we'll be the only ones waiting,' " Benner said. But soon, other riders started arriving. By the time the train pulled in 13 minutes later (yes, he timed it), there was a clutch of people waiting on the platform.
Benner can claim personal credit for helping the city's nighthawks get home a little easier. Author of the blog Streetsdept.com, he posted a petition in late February on Change.org urging SEPTA to keep its subways running all night -- especially on weekends -- instead of replacing the service from midnight to 5 a.m. with Nite Owl buses.
The late-night shutdown of the two lines, instituted in 1991 to save money, no longer made sense, Benner argued in his petition statement. Philadelphia's population and SEPTA ridership have been growing, and the city is now inhabited by a younger, more transit-friendly demographic that likes to party until the wee hours.
Even though Nite Owl buses replicated the train routes, Benner complained the lack of 24-hour subway service was cramping his fellow millennials' style. The buses were always packed, and sometimes drivers would whiz past stops without picking up passengers. "I always felt vulnerable waiting on the street corner," Benner said.
Much to his surprise and delight, SEPTA heard his plea and announced in April it would give late-night trains a try this summer. If successful, the agency said, the experiment could be made permanent. It's currently set to end on Labor Day.
Though the exact number of riders using the late-night service this weekend won't be known until later in the week, SEPTA spokesman Manny Smith said there was anecdotal evidence the city's nighthawks had flocked to the subways.
In an e-mail, Smith wrote that SEPTA staff had observed a lot of young people boarding the trains Saturday night at the Second Street, 40th Street, Spring Garden, and Girard Stations. SEPTA got through the evening without a single crime being reported, Smith noted. As a precaution, each three-car train was staffed with a SEPTA police officer.
SEPTA also managed to overcome the lack of staffing at fare booths by having train operators handle payment. Benner said paying the driver on the platform was effortless, although he had prepared by having exact change.
Like Benner, Anthony Zul believes the new service could change his life. After spending Saturday evening with friends near Washington Square, he boarded the El at 13th Street around 1:30 a.m. to his home in the Mayfair section.
"I take the subway every weekend to see friends in South Philly," Zul, 34, a city employee, said in a Facebook message. "Before this it was either go home super early or try to find a friend's place to crash."
David 'DJ' Johnson, 44, said he was excited to be able to take a subway home to South Philadelphia from his weekend job in Center City at Club Philadelphia. "This is going to save me a lot of cab fare," he said.
Philadelphia is hardly the only city to shutter its subways after midnight. In the U.S., only New York and Chicago offer round-the-clock service. Even in Europe, it's common for transit systems to go dark during the early-morning hours. But more cities, notably Berlin and Sydney, are now exploring extended weekend hours.
Some in Philadelphia have argued that SEPTA ought to be concentrating its scarce resources on upgrading nighttime service to poorly served neighborhoods, like Roxborough, the Northeast, and the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor.
"I don't think this is an either/or issue," Benner responded. "We should be increasing service throughout the system."
Benner reported that his late night out had no ill effects. In fact, he was up at 7 a.m. to photograph the street artist Kid Hazo for his blog. By the time the shoot was over at 9 a.m., however, Benner did concede, "I needed a nap."
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