The Moving Walkways of Chestnut Street

This Sunday Mark Bowden wrote about how chronic underfunding and suburban neglect prevents SEPTA from expanding its system to meet coming energy crisis.  Though he dances around the reasons why SEPTA is expected to pay its own way, I think his point that yearly funding crises interrupt plans to prepare for a post-oil world is correct.  This is a point I have made my own studies of SEPTA.  As early as the 1970s, when the Authority was just beginning to integrate its predecessor private companies, the state expected SEPTA to tighten its belt and solve its own fiscal problems like a private corporation.  Except SEPTA had to deal with a fragmented patchwork of companies, labor agreements, and operating systems, not to mention competition from cars.  From 1968-1983 was a crucial period for SEPTA and massive infusions of cash could have created a more versatile system, a more multi-directional system, a less spokes-on-a-wheel type system.  If you want to read more about these missed opportunities click here.

There once was a time when Philadelphia transit experts could plan with pie-in-the-sky exuberance without thought of funding interruptions or ridership slumps.  This was when the city was a Fordist dream — a city of high wages, high densities along all the major traffic arteries, relatively little labor/capital friction, high rates of consumer spending, and unbelievable rates of homeownership.  By the early 1920s, residential development in what would become the upper North Philadelphia, lower Northeast, in the Tacony Creek valley and Olney, and East Oak Lane areas was swelling the population of the city to roughly 1.8 million people.  By all accounts, the industrial city was humming along nicely.


It’s no surprise we get plans like this for moving walkways underneath Chestnut Street from the 1923 Annual Report of the Department of City Transit.  It assumed that with narrow sidewalks and high densities in the Center City business district pedestrians could be conveyed along walkways adjacent to the Chestnut Street subway, which would be geared for more express traffic moving between two loop terminals, one near Independence Hall, the other in the vicinity of Chestnut and 33rd-35th St.  At these loops, pedestrians could enter the walkway system.


You can also also see the prospective Arch St. Subway and what seems to be the beginning of a northwest extension along the Parkway and north along 29th St.  The Walnut St. subway, it appears, would connect with the Broad-Ridge Spur, being the lowermost portion of an abandoned Loop.

For reasons that haven’t been fully explored by Ruins, these projects never left the pages of the Annual Report.  Although Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg attempted to expand the city’s anemic transportation system in the late 1910s, and the Department of City Transit was led by the able A. Merritt Taylor, none of the Walnut, Chestut, or Arch St. Subways were ever constructed.  All Lloyd M. Abernethy writes in his chapter on Progressivism in Philadelphia: A 300 Year History is that “Although a start was made toward the building of the new lines, delays by the city Councils in approving plans and passing necessary ordinances prevented their completion until the 1920s.”  Exactly what these political hang ups were is not known.  Some of these lines, such as extensions to the Broad Street Subway, were not completed until the 1930s.  Yet, the neglect of the mass transit system fits with a general pattern of neglect and discontinuous reform in the early part of the century.  Next we’ll take a look at how reformers wanted a modern port but were unable to make Philadelphia the “Port of Pennsylvania”.   



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