SEPTA Center City Contest Locked Doors and Stairwells Confuse and Trap Passengers

Richard Furstein is a professional tourist guide. Getting around Philadelphia is kind of his thing.

So imagine his surprise when he found himself trapped between locked doors inside SEPTA’s downtown maze one January afternoon.

Furstein got off the subway at City Hall station and, after finding a closed stairwell, walked further down the hall to another exit. But after pushing through a floor to ceiling turnstile, he and another rider found themselves staring at a locked door.

They were stuck, unable to get to the street or return to the station. He used a nearby emergency call box and waited.

“He was quite upset and I was quite upset,” Furstein said. “After 10 minutes, we were both a little stressed.”

After 20 minutes, a SEPTA cashier was finally able to remotely unlock the turnstile and let them back down to the subway platform, looking for yet another exit.

These locked gates and doors are commonplace in high traffic areas SEPTA contest – and Furstein’s saga wasn’t the first time riders have found themselves trapped in recent months.

In the summer of 2020, the transit company began locking stairwells and restricting concourse access between Jefferson and Suburban stations. According to transit officials, the lockdown was prompted by low ridership, public safety concerns and staffing issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The transit agency confirmed that 10 other riders like Furstein have been trapped in the concourse since then. Meanwhile, passengers say the sheer frustration of encountering locked entrances is driving passengers away at a time when SEPTA is desperately trying to lure people back to public transportation.

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said the downtown closures are helping to keep transit staff and riders safe on platforms, stairwells, walkways and hallways. .

“Adjustments have been made during the pandemic to help SEPTA manage these spaces and keep them safe, clean and secure for passengers, employees and the public,” Busch said. “Despite this, SEPTA never stopped working, even during the worst days of the pandemic.”

Full accounting of closed entrances and stairwells remains unclear, adding to the confusion.

Some runners say the closures make the concourse less accessible, delaying travelers as they search for an open entrance or exit.

“I see people pulling at doors, walking with suitcases or getting out of cars thinking the entrance is open,” said Damon Mastandrea, who lives near Jefferson Station. “The signs don’t have a map with arrows so if you don’t know the streets nearby it’s confusing.”

Last year, SEPTA transit ridership was 40% of pre-pandemic levels and just 20% for regional rail service.

At the same time, riders are flooding the agency’s social media account with complaints about entry times. A stairwell leading to Suburban from 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard is only open for three hours in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon, according to SEPTA. Part of the lobby hallway near Jefferson closes at 7 p.m.while the Suburban connecting lobby closes at 11 p.m. Other contest entry points – such as the Municipal Services Building – remain closed indefinitely.

So confusion reigns, both for out-of-town travelers and daily cyclists.

In early February, Brandon Tubby, a public housing finance consultant, was trying to catch a train in Jefferson. He and another biker attempted an entry onto Market Street. Locked. A sign directed them to an entrance on 10th Street. Also locked.

He only took his train to visit his family that day because the train was late. Entering Jefferson Station “felt like stepping out of an escape room,” he recalled telling the other biker.

“I said to him: ‘Sometimes I have the impression that SEPTA hates its customers. What kind of company would want their customers to feel like that?’ “said Tubby.

Busch of SEPTA apologized for the inconvenience. He encouraged runners to check for potential changes. However, the spokesperson did not offer a timeline for the reopening of closed entrances and other parts of the lobby.

Riders say the agency needs to take on more responsibility.

The issues driving the lockdown – particularly issues around homelessness – extend beyond the heart of the city.

In March 2021, SEPTA’s short-lived closure of the Somerset El stop in Kensington erupted into controversy over accessibility issues and quality of life issues on the train lines.

Meanwhile, restricted access to downtown is seen by transit officials and business interests as an orchestrated attempt to prevent roaming in the city’s underused concourse, especially during the cold winter months. ‘winter.

In a February 2021 email, SEPTA Deputy General Manager Kim Scott Heinle told SEPTA officials that quality of life complaints on the Market-Frankford line had skyrocketed from 15 per month to nearly 165 per month during the pandemic, even with a third of its usual number of runners.

The problems spilled over into the downtown lobby, Heinle said, with widespread smoking, drug use and public defecation.

“We are in crisis mode with regard to the [Market-Frankford Line]Heinle wrote. “Our customers are scared and ask us daily to do something to restore security and order.”

Paul Levy, chairman of the Center City District, which runs part of the concourse below Dilworth Park, praised SEPTA for staying open throughout the pandemic. He said public safety concerns are paramount for cyclists as the city center struggles to get commuters back to downtown offices – and there is no easy solution.

“For the person who encounters this locked door, it’s a significant challenge and disruption,” Levy said. “On the other hand, for the person who goes into hiding and encounters a situation that seems dangerous to them, it’s a different challenge.”

SEPTA said it has a number of outreach efforts underway, including hiring more transit police, stepping up surveillance and employing a fleet of 88 “ambassadors.” to help guide commuters along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines.

Furstein wondered if the restricted access plan was effective. In the stairwell where he was stuck, he also saw a homeless person sleeping.

“So even though this strategy was about public safety, it created all of these watersheds that reinforce the problem,” he said.