How Philadelphia's New Subway Changed A City

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In 1908, Philadelphians were riding in style on a brand new subway system. George Smerk, professor of transportation at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, talks about the subway's history.


Did you know that one of the country's first subway systems was created in Philadelphia? Philadelphia's subway and elevated train system is one of the busiest in the country, carrying some 56 million riders a year. It's also one of the oldest. The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company opened its Market-Frankford Line in 1907.

George Smerk grew up in Philadelphia. He's now emeritus professor of transportation at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He says that in the early 20th century, there was already an extensive network of commuter rail lines, but the new subway brought the city fully into the modern age.

Dr. GEORGE SMERK (Professor of Transportation, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University): The street cars of course crawled along in the street, along with the buggies and wagons, and so on. So when the subway opened from Front Street on the Delaware River across downtown Philadelphia, all the way out to Upper Darby to the 69th Street Terminal, it opened up all of the western suburbs. And starting around this time, about 1978 then, a lot of residences began to be built, and small business began to open around the stations. The doctors' offices, the lawyer - all these kinds of special things found their way right along the subway and the elevated lines to the west and to the northeast.

HANSEN: By the 1950s, Philadelphia's subway system had transformed whole neighborhoods into bustling corridors of commerce.

Dr. SMERK: I remember I worked for a fur cleaner and we needed a certain kind of buttons. So I got this message, and I had a sample button. And I went to the button store which was about a block north of the Fifth and Market Street subway station. And I couldn't imagine a button store. And I talked to the clerks there, and they found a matching button. And they said, oh, people come from all over to get buttons here. You realize the power of public transportation, particularly rapid transit, to bring a lot of people in.

HANSEN: That's Philadelphia native George Smerk, emeritus professor of transportation at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

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