In December, the Undergraduate Assembly began a pilot program for a nighttime shuttle to the Trader Joe’s grocery store at 22nd and Market streets. So far, the ridership has been below viable, although data is still being collected.
This project reflects a well-intentioned effort from the UA to respond to student needs and increase campus wellness. However, this shuttle service is not the best way to accomplish these goals. Penn students should instead have some of the costs of public transport subsidized.
Last year when I lived off campus, I went to Trader Joe’s around once a month. Compared to many options in West Philadelphia, Trader Joe’s is a high-quality, healthy option, though the Giant Heirloom Market is now a closer competitor.
A free shuttle to get there sounds like a convenience for Penn students, but it is simply unnecessary. SEPTA’s trolleys follow the same route as the UA shuttle, stop more often, and run at a wider variety of times — not to mention the existence of SEPTA’s bus routes. For students who live off campus as a more affordable housing option, the shuttle service wouldn’t even reach many of those who live west of 40th Street or near Market Street.
The main reasons students may have for not taking SEPTA would be inconvenience or cost. When it comes to convenience, many students today just pay for an Uber ride to get to Trader Joe’s. But compared to SEPTA, the UA shuttle isn’t more convenient since SEPTA runs every day of the week, with some lines running 24 hours a day.
Additionally, taking SEPTA would be just as, if not more, environmentally friendly than a shuttle. As for cost, while I understand that eliminating any cost can help make a service more affordable, Trader Joe’s as a grocery store is not always an affordable option and it is likely that, due to Penn’s student demographics, most of the people using this UA service would be able to afford the $4 roundtrip SEPTA fare anyway.
But even so, public transportation costs add up. That is why the UA should advocate for Penn to work with SEPTA to make certain transportation around Philly free with a student ID. The student discounts that are currently available are mostly aimed at commuters and frankly aren’t that substantial.
This concept isn’t new: Many other universities have set up these subsidy systems in their cities already. American University paid the WMATA $2.7 million in a deal that gives students an unlimited DC metro card during the semester, saving a considerable amount of money for many students. Schools in Pennsylvania such as Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh also have similar arrangements.
A program like this would not only allow students to access healthy food options, but also allow them to pursue internships around the city and interact with Philadelphia more — getting out of the “Penn bubble.” Eliminating transportation cost would be a big draw for students to experience the city, and unlimited fares have been shown to increase ridership as much as 200% in the first year of implementation.
This would likely shift ridership away from rideshare apps as well, creating a more environmentally sustainable student culture. The benefits for SEPTA would be great too, increasing their revenue from ridership — which currently covers only 36% of their operating costs.
There are a lot of issues that should also be considered, such as the general lack of affordable healthy food options in cities like Philadelphia. Additionally, Penn must be conscious of its role in the Philadelphia community and incorporate training for new students on how to behave in a city environment.
Still, Penn should join many of its university peers in providing the sustainable, community-oriented solution of subsidizing public transport for students. Sometimes Penn doesn’t need to invent the solution to the problem. Sometimes Penn just needs to support the things that are already there.
JAMES NYCZ is a junior in the College from Yardley, PA majoring in Political Science and Classical Studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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