Parking strategy for seeing Pope Francis in Philadelphia - September 26th & 27th

Thinking of parking in Center City, Philadelphia on September 26th or 27th? Fuhgeddaboudit!

It appears the last hotel room near where Pope Francis will be (2 miles away) ...is going for $1106! And that's just a regular hotel room. For one night! 

So "pope gouging" appears to be in full swing.

One idea for making sure you have a parking space in a garage is to become a monthly renter of a parking space for a month (possible cost: $300+) but large parts of Center City will be blocked off, like in the photo above. This event has been described as days of "unprecedented travel restrictions." So unless you are arriving earlier in the week for the conferences, this likely is not a viable option.

Philadelphia is guessing that between 1 million to 2 million people will be coming to the city to be near the pope. However they really have no idea about this. It's just a guess. This could be a COMPLETELY OVERWHELMING flood of people.

Philadelphia is certainly experienced in handling large crowds, but they've never had a crowd this large before.  

I think to have a successful Philadelphia visit, you've got to have a plan. 

Not only are all the nearby hotel rooms gone, it appears there are no more charter buses available either. News reports say 5000 buses will be coming to Philadelphia. Those buses alone will be bringing over 250,000 people. A newspaper reported that if these buses were parked end to end, the line would stretch 42 miles. 

Interestingly, there's no free ride for bus operators. They each will have to pay $395 to park for the first day, $325 for the second day, and $295 for any additional days.

Passenger vans for up to 14 riders will be charged $150 for the first day of parking and $100 for each additional day.

If I were an outsider coming to Philadelphia to be near the pope, I would focus my search for a hotel room in the suburbs. On the big day I would arrive early at a train station in the suburbs and take the train in.

(The city definitely wants you to make use of public transportation and not drive into the city.)

And I might use a taxi, Uber, Lyft or other limousine service to get me to that suburban "regional rail" station. Some hotels do have shuttle vans. By prior arrangement it might be possible for them to transport you to one of those stations.

In the inner ring of suburbs, I think available hotel rooms for September 26th are getting quite scarce. But as you go out further, availability opens up a lot more. For example, hotels in Lancaster, which is at least 90 minutes from Philadelphia, (in Amish country) are currently widely available and as low as $55 per night.

A tricky situation is that only a few regional rail stations will be open. I use the Elwyn line. It's got a lot of stops, but on the 26th and 27th of September they will only stop at Primos and Media. All the regional rail lines are limiting service to just a few stations in order to double capacity.

This leads to the problem of REAL and DEFINITE parking space scarcity. During normal weekdays, we don't have enough spaces at our local train stations, so you can forget about finding parking at regional rail stations on the 26th and 27th of September.

You likely will have to walk far to get to one of these regional rail stations. Bring good walking shoes. And bring some water to keep yourself hydrated during these days. (Certainly there will be all sorts of people selling bottled water on the street in the city, though they could run out quickly.)

It is possible to use Uber or Uber-X or Lyft to get you from where you parked to the regional rail station, though "surge pricing" probably will be in effect—making this ride expensive.

The next possibility that comes to mind is making arrangements with a local person to park at their home and have them transport you to the regional rail station, and then pick you up at the regional rail station when you return. Then you either spend the night at their home or drive to your hotel, wherever it may be.

Another tricky thing that has popped up is that it appears all regional rail train tickets for this event must be purchased in advance and the tickets will be specific to one regional rail station, and sold in limited quantities. 

When taking a regional rail train into Philadelphia, you will most likely get out at either 30th Street Station or Suburban Station. Suburban Station probably will get you closer, but both involve a fair amount of walking.

If you are taking Amtrak, then 30th Street Station is where you will "de-train." You cross the river and either go to the trail along the river's bank (might be closed) and turn left, or you head towards City Hall, then take a left over to the Parkway. 

Police are going to be everywhere! But there won't be enough of them. Like any big city, Philadelphia has its share of criminals, mentally ill, and homeless. Expect people to be asking you (begging you) for money and be prepared with your response (I would just keep walking and say nothing, because some of them are professionals at this... it's like they are in business for themselves, while others are risky and unpredictable).

Now here is the real situation for you to be concerned about...

STAMPEDES

Though this is a religious gathering, it does not mean that you will be safe. Large crowds have very real stampede risk. I have experienced two in Philadelphia myself—ON THE PARKWAY... where you will be.

There's only 3 things you can do when a stampede begins:

  1. Escape the stampede flow immediately.
  2. Run with the crowd.
  3. Or get trampled.

In my first stampede on the Parkway I was enjoying a fireworks show with thousands of other people. Suddenly there was a loud BANG. There was a pause. Then everybody began running for their lives and screaming in terror.

I was standing beside an elevated garden. This diverted the stampede flow around me. I stayed right there and watched. Six nearby police officers were shell-shocked. They didn't know what was going on. The gentleman that was beside me cowered in fear, low on the ground. All around me people were absolutely terrified. It was a chain reaction of absolute panic and chaos.

As the stampede passed by, the police officers drew their guns and headed toward the approximate source of the loud bang. That is when I thought it was a good time to leave.

The following year I was there again, enjoying the fireworks. I assumed that it was highly improbable that another stampede would happen. So I was taken by surprise when it happened again. This time I was in the middle of the street and could not escape the stampede flow.

Again, it was a loud bang. People assumed it was an explosion or a gunshot, but it was later reported to be a backfire from a police motorcycle.

I saw the rapidly growing wave of people coming, but I just didn't have enough time to get out of the way. I'm a fairly big guy: 6'2" and over 190 pounds. Still, they knocked me down.

I was lucky to be unhurt.

After it was over, people were screaming in panic for their children. They had been separated. People had run right out of their shoes. They dropped their possessions, like their smartphones. I could see the trauma in peoples' faces.

When a stampede happens, animal instinct takes over. People are terrified. There is no reasoning with it. There is no logic. It becomes a chain reaction of unstoppable all-out panic.

So here are my recommendations to keep you and your family or companions safe from a stampede.

First, do you really need to be there? If the answer is yes, then you need to be strategic about where you position yourself in the crowd. 

  • It is best to be near the wall of a building. If a stampede happens, press yourself along the wall.
     
  • The next best place is to be near a solid object, like a big water fountain structure, or a tree or light pole or statue or a car.

The worst place to be is in the middle of the crowd or in the middle of a wide street... because you won't be able to escape the stampede flow.

If you are near a vehicle, jump on top of it or position yourself behind it.

If you are near a fountain structure, jump into it and head towards the structure. Climb up it if it makes sense.

A big tree or light pole can shield you from the stampede.

(My preference is to be positioned near a building's wall.) 

Where is the nearest hospital?

During my time working at a luxury hotel, I observed that among the first things a professional body guard or leader of a security team did, was find out where the nearest hospital was.

If you are going to see the pope in Philadelphia, you should know that answer too. 

It's Hahnemann University Hospital.

This hospital has a specialty in cardiac services and heart failure. It is a Level 1 Regional Resource Trauma Center for adults.

The hospital is located 4 long city blocks east of Logan Circle at Broad and Vine Streets.

Though a hospital is close, it could take a very long time for an ambulance to get there. When the Parkway is jammed full of people, it is difficult to get an ambulance through.

If your health is poor, seeing the pope would be a risky excursion for you. A lot of walking will be involved on this day. And in a giant crowd, that hospital is actually far away.

If there any questions I can help with, post them in the comments below.

Article: Papal visit mass transit plans include a lot of walking

Article: SEPTA and the Pope’s Visit: Everything You Need to Know

Article: AirBnB type rentals now permitted in Philadelphia

Article: Pope visit presents 'time & space problem' for SEPTA: Expert

UPDATE: July 19, 2015

The transportation issue is shaping up to be a real mess for this event.

This article from The Philadelphia Inquirer provides the latest info on using trains to get into the city.

Regional train ticket sales will be strictly limited, and they must be purchased online, in advance. (Beginning July 20, 2015) Go to Septa.org to purchase your tickets. (There are concerns among officials that the tickets will sell-out on the first day.)

And no in-bound trains will run after 12 noon on the 26th and 27th! Outbound trains will run from 5:30 to 12 midnight. The outbound trains could be overwhelmed with crowds if everybody is leaving at the same time.

Suburban Station will not be open. Just University City, 30th Street Station (closest to the event), and Market East (now known as "Jefferson Station").

When you combine the hassles to getting to an open suburban regional rail station, where there will probably be no parking anywhere nearby, the uncertainty of being able to get train tickets, or even being able to squeeze on to the train... man, this is going to be challenging!

Arriving on the 25th and sleeping on the street probably would be easier.

I have a friend with a 6 unit apartment house in South Philadelphia, just off of Broad Street. It is less than 100 feet from a subway (metro) station. And about 1 mile to 1½ mile walk from the Parkway. There are no apartments available at the moment, but he's got a clean basement with a painted floor. No toilet. No shower. But it's shelter. If anyone wants to make an offer to use it, I will pass it along. I'm thinking we could get some cots and people would use port-o-potties somewhere or restrooms inside businesses. (Just an idea). My email is in the bottom right corner of this page. 

UPDATE: July 20, 2015

The regional rail trains will not give you a choice of getting off at University City, 30th Street Station, or Jefferson Station. The train will stop at just one of those stations and you must exit the train at that point.

Make sure you have good walking shoes. And if you are buying new walking shoes, make sure you use them a few times before coming to Philly—to be sure you have good-fitting shoes that aren't going to hurt you.

There will be a lot of walking.

UPDATE: July 21, 2015

The Loews announced yesterday that they have more than 100 rooms that are now available at a price of $600 plus tax with a minimum 3 night stay.

There will be 40 jumbotrons throughout Center City.

There will be 3300 port-o-potties! Including 300 handicapped port-o-potties, plus 350 to 400 urinals. Experts recommend you go for the port-o-potties in the center, not on the edges, because sometimes nobody uses the port-o-potties in the center. These toilets will be cleaned three times per day.

SEPTA had an overwhelming number of people trying to buy train tickets yesterday (the first day tickets for this event were put up for sale). The site crashed. Only about 200 people succeeded in buying tickets. SEPTA is going to try it again today.

Over the weekend SEPTA tested their ordering system with 1700 sales per second, and on Monday the actual sales volume was "much higher than we anticipated."

UPDATE: July 28, 2015

The situation with regional rail passes has changed again. They never fixed the online ticket ordering system. Instead, a 24 hour lottery for these train passes will begin at 12:01 a.m. on August 3rd. 

A lottery!

Winners will be notified by email on August 6th.

Crazy, huh?

UPDATE: July 29, 2015

It is unclear right now but it appears there is a work-around to not getting a train pass. I'm not certain about this, but it appears you might be able to park at the airport, buy a train ticket there, and then ride the airport train into the city. It will drop you off at Jefferson Station.

If you try this, it would probably work best if you act like you just flew into the airport and are air travelers... because they might restrict this train for just those people(?).

UPDATE: July 31, 2015

Well, misinformation has been spreading around. I did an internet search for available hotel rooms a while ago and found just one room available. Then I read that the Loews suddenly had rooms. But in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 hotels are listed as having rooms available. These hotels are:

  • Holiday Inn Express - 1305 Walnut Street ($345)
  • Wyndham Historic District  - 400 Arch Street ($415)
  • Sonesta - 1800 Market Street ($449)
  • Sheraton Society Hill - 1 Dock Street ($461)
  • Sofitel Philadephia - 120 S. 17th Street ($566)
  • Hilton Garden Inn - 1100 Arch Street ($576)
  • Westin Philadelphia - 99 S. 17th Street ($692)
  • Ritz Carlton - 10 S. Broad Street ($719)
  • Hyatt at the Bellevue - 200 S. Broad Street ($1034)

Off the top of my head, here is how these hotels stack up with proximity to the Ben Franklin Parkway. (Number one is closest.)

  1. Ritz Carlton
  2. Sonesta
  3. Westin
  4. Sofitel
  5. Hyatt
  6. Holiday Inn Express
  7. Hilton Garden Inn
  8. Wyndham Historic District
  9. Sheraton Society Hill

Beginning at number 7 the walk becomes far. The Sheraton is a hike.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, most hotels require a 3 night stay for this event.

A startling article was published on the PlanPhilly site yesterday which described:

  • how there could be 130,000 cars coming to the city,
  • how the security perimeter could be much larger than previously predicted,
  • how a consultant has recommended closing Interstate 95,
  • and how the city is basically trying to scare people into staying away.

Yikes!

This continues to be an evolving situation.

UPDATE: August 11, 2015

For those with an adventurous spirit...

You can stay at the Battleship New Jersey for just $75 per night. And that includes some meals. But it is just a tight bunk. And you might have 350 to 400 other people crammed down under there. But up top on deck you get a great riverfront skyline view of Philly!