Relying on SEPTA elevators? Here are some things you should know about.

What’s up, Philly?

TL;DR: 56th Street Station’s elevators are going berserk these days. SEPTA elevators malfunction during extreme weather conditions. And Fridays are the worst bet to take an elevator at the MFL stations.

Philadelphia has the highest rate of disabilities among large US cities. It is a fairly progressive city where the community (especially the tech community) works hard towards achieving the Social Model of disability, which allows people with disabilities to be an integral part of the society and have equal rights and opportunities. A large part of achieving this goal involves people with disabilities being out and about in the city and having a reliable and accessible public transportation system. Imagine strolling to the station to take the train to work and finding out the elevator has had an outage. We wanted to create an open source transportation tool that would not only help folks plan their trip in real-time but also provide meaningful information that could keep the local transportation authorities accountable and help them make policy-driven decisions. So, we did. Meet UnlockPhilly.

Wait, Un..What..Philly?

A few years back, in 2014, Technical.ly partnered with Philadelphia Link (now known as Pennsylvania Link) to organize Hack4Access — a Hackathon with the theme of Accessibility, which, I dare say, was the first of its kind in Philadelphia and later provided inspiration for the series of evoHaX Hackathons. Several great projects came out of that Hackathon including Unlock Philly, masterminded by James Tyack — a software engineer and civic hacker who I am fortunate to call as my mentor just as much as I am fortunate to have been a part of the Unlock Philly team. Over the years, Unlock Philly benefited from contributions and support from the local Philly community to get to where it is today and for that, we’ll be forever grateful.

No, no, Unlock Philly isn’t dying. The seed we planted in 2014 has finally started to produce the fruit we had hoped for. And this post is to share it with you all.

Yes, super dramatic. You’re welcome.

Unlock Philly not only displays the accessible and non-accessible stations in Philadelphia but also the real-time elevator outage status for each station. We were able to fetch this data from SEPTA’s website where this data can be accessed via API calls. However, a major limitation of getting real-time data from SEPTA’s API was that it was only real-time. If we ever wanted to check the history of elevator outages, we couldn’t do that. So James sat down on a couch in Indy Hall, grabbed his favorite beer, and re-engineered Unlock Philly to start recording the real-time data so someday we could analyze this data and share our findings with the Philly community.

That someday is today.

We began analyzing the data we had collected since 2014 and found something odd — there was no data from late 2014 to mid-2016! Turns out due to some technical difficulties (there’s a whole lot to be said there but we’ll leave it at that), we had no data during that period. However, the stars went back to their alignment somewhere in mid-2016 and our data collection resumed. We extracted the elevator outages data we had collected from March 1st, 2017 to March 31st, 2019 and began the analysis for this 24 months period. This dataset contains the stations that operate the Regional Rail (RR), Broad Street Line (BSL), and Market Frankford Line (MFL) only. We asked ourselves the following questions:

In the past 24 months:

  1. Which stations have had the most days affected by elevator outages
  2. Which stations have had the most consecutive days affected by elevator outages?
  3. What is the trend of elevator outages in service lines?

So, here goes.

1. Which stations have had the most days affected by elevator outages?

Out of the 205 stations in Philadelphia, 108 stations are wheelchair accessible. Out of the 108 stations that are wheelchair accessible, 31 stations (29%) reported at least 1 elevator outage in the past 24 months. The graph shown above groups together the stations that are operated by different lines. For example, Allegheny Stations and the 30th Street Station operate multiple lines and each line has its own elevator. So, we used a packed bubble visualization (shown below), which highlights three aspects among others: 1) Different lines operated by the transportation authority in Philadelphia, 2) The number of days affected by elevator outages at different stations, and 3) Comparison of different lines in terms of elevator outages.

Answer:

56th Street Station has had the most elevator outages in the past 24 months.

2. Which stations have had the most consecutive days affected by elevator outages?

With the help of this visualization, we graphed the days in which a particular station had at least one outage. It is immediately clear that the 8th Street Station had an awful set of consecutive days outage in March 2017 lasting until May 2017. That’s 85 days! Jeez.

However, things have been going relatively very well since (good job, SEPTA!). Even though that streak wins the award of most consecutive outage days, we appreciate the efforts made by SEPTA to avoid such a long set of outage days and focus on another interesting station: 56th Street Station. Since late 2018, it seems like the elevator outages have gotten bad to worse there. What’s up with that, SEPTA?

Answer:

8th Street Station had the longest consecutive day elevator outage streak from March 1st, 2017 to May 24th, 2017. (Of course, the streak could be much longer than that as March 1st also happens to be the start date for our analysis and dates preceding March 1st aren’t included in our analysis.)

3. What is the trend of elevator outages in service lines?

Our first exploration was to create a visualization to see how the different service lines (Regional Rail, Market Frankford Line, Broad Street Line) compare in terms of outages. So, we created the above graph. It is evident that MFL stations have been experiencing the most outages in the past 24 months. However, this visualization doesn’t give us information about how many stations served by a particular line had an outage the same day. So, we created the below visualization.

This graphing technique allowed us to see the trend more clearly and also identify the exact dates when there was an unusually high number of elevator outage. 4th January 2018 leads with the most outages (23), followed by March 21st-22nd, 2018 (17) and March 7th, 2018 (16). Here, we got a bit curious and started thinking if these outages were more likely to happen on a particular day of the week. Hmm.

Interestingly, MFL seems to have more outages on Friday, whereas for BSL and RR, there’s isn’t a significant difference to highlight one given day but Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday seem to the days with the most outages. An important thing to note here is that this graph doesn’t necessarily reflect the day the outage started but rather just the presence of an outage.

So, MFL riders. If you rely on elevators, Friday the 13th is now happening every Friday. No more TGIF.

Our curiosity got us to this final visualization, in which we stacked the service lines to study the trends of the elevator outages per month. December 2017 seems to be like a bad month for Regional Rail stations. But what interests us the most is which month was bad across all the service lines. March 2018 raises its hand.

Looking at the previous graphs, March 7th, 21st and 22nd 2018 appear to have been the most affected dates. Cross-referencing these findings with the weather report, we found that there were two big snow storms (Nor’easter) on those exact dates. Whaaaat. This finding raises a lot of questions. Are SEPTA elevators equipped to handle bad weather? What preventive measures are being taken? What is SEPTA’s policy on fixing elevator outages (turnaround, priority, etc.) and how well does it perform in practice?

The Final Word

We leave these visualizations for our audience to extract meaningful information that we can use to help SEPTA make more informed decisions regarding the elevator outages that can very much be a cause for someone reliant on the elevators to miss work, school, doctor’s appointment, and social gatherings among other things. This is unacceptable and needs to be fixed. Like yesterday.

We also appreciate feedback on how we can better analyze this data and more questions that this data could answer. Unlock Philly is and will always be our passion project. We may have moved to a different coast (James is in San Jose working for PagerDuty and I am in Seattle working for Comcast and pursuing a Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction at UW) but we love Philly (and its cheesesteaks and pretzels and Eagles and Sixers and Flyers and the community) and are happy to contribute in any way we can. ❤

Acknowledgments

This exploratory analysis is based on a small subset of the immense knowledge passed on by Jeffrey Heer and the Data Visualization course staff at Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington (thank you, really!).