March 2- 8, 2006
fine printTrolley Folly
How a rude driver prompted one woman to take on SEPTA, one Web post at a time.
A work-weary Kennedy and four others were anxious to get out of the winter chill. Before they could board the half-full trolley, the driver leaned over and said, "You'll have to wait for the next one," slammed the door and zoomed off. Kennedy was too stunned to get the driver's name or the trolley number, and knew from experience that calling the customer service hot line would be futile.
"I just thought that was very rude," she says. "And it was cold outside."
Fed up with late service, discourteous drivers and an overall feeling of helplessness, Kennedy printed fliers, which she distributed on buses and trolleys, posted ads on Craigslist and started a Yahoo! message board called Love to Hate (or Luv) SEPTA (http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/septafeedbackforum), where riders can vent.
"If you come together and put the word out that SEPTA needs improvement, something will have to be done!" the flier reads. "We can turn your stories into letters to get some improvements."
In other words, if you're easily frustrated you can tell your story of woe or wonderment with SEPTAmake sure to include your name and contact infoand Kennedy will try to help you get answers by writing letters to anyone who will listen, including elected officials, SEPTA board members and the Better Business Bureau. At least that's the plan. The 24-year-old West Philadelphia native has zero experience mobilizing people. All she has is a decade of practice nagging SEPTA, which she calls the "Severely Erratic Public Torture Agency."
She's called the hot line (215-580-7800) and filled out the online customer service form (www.septa.org) countless times with little success. "I have bad luck with SEPTA," she says. Representatives usually give her an incident number, tell her they will launch an investigation and are never heard from again. With this new strength-in-numbers approach, Kennedy hopes everything "will work out as long as we all work together."
Kennedy does give SEPTA credit for making the online schedules easier to load and says occasionally drivers surprise her with a positive attitude and a sense of humor.
Of the 40 Web site posts by about a dozen members since early January, most tell stories about harrowing SEPTA encounters, such as late service, and a few commend drivers for being pleasant. For example, there's "A rave for Dave, bus driver on Route 8."
A member who identifies himself as Christopher takes aim at higher-ups who have no incentive to improve the system. "They know that we are over a barrel transportation-wise," he says. "For those Philadelphians who are too poor to afford cars, what are they going to do? Roller skate to work?"
The group's first chat, which Kennedy is in the process of scheduling, will focus on the 15 trolley and the Route 52 bus that Kennedy rides part of the way to her job at the Pep Boys' corporate offices in North Philadelphia. She says that when she came back to the bus route after a short vacation, her stop had vanished.
SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney, who is not familiar with Kennedy's plight, disagrees with the charge that the change was sudden. He says that through a joint city/SEPTA program called Transit First, which "was a couple of years in the making," SEPTA eliminated four stops and moved about 15 stops from the beginning of intersections (before the light) to the end of intersections (after the light).
But public meetings were held and signs were posted at the stops well in advance of the changes, Maloney says. "This wasn't done in the darkness of night." Still, after a rider protest earlier this month, the four stops were restored, although officials are considering whether to again eliminate one or all of those stops, he says.
This kind of confusion is exactly what Kennedy and her group want to eliminate. "My goal is basically just to improve the service," she says. "I feel [SEPTA is] more of an inconvenience than a convenience."