A Bold Plan for Philadelphia: The Atlantic Corridor
Philadelphia has an opportunity to catapult itself forward by attracting talented New Yorkers looking for a change in this new remote work world
Philadelphia is a tough city. A city with history. A city with culture. A city with brains, and a city with brawn. The framers wrote the US constitution in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin built the country's first hospital here, and Rocky victoriously ascended the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But Philadelphia is also a city of unrealized potential. A city left behind. A city stuck in first gear. It lost its seat as the nation's capitol in 1800 to Washington DC; it watched on the sidelines as New York's growth exploded when the Erie Canal was built; and in more modern times, it's once-veritable manufacturing base eroded while innovative companies were built elsewhere. It's the city of Aramark and Comcast rather than GoPuff and dbt Labs.
There's no use arguing about what was, or could have been though. The question now is what to do about it. A bold idea is needed - something that can reinvigorate the city. Something that will bring tens of thousands highly skilled, highly talented professionals to Philadelphia. Something that will jumpstart innovation, that will attract private investors, that will give the almost 350,000 college students we educate in the city every year a reason to stay. We can't bring Philadelphia to the knowledge workers of the world, but we can bring them to Philadelphia.
We need to steal New York's workers. And we do it via Amtrak.
Well, New York's workers are the best educated in the country (many of them at our Philadelphia schools) and they work for the the most innovative companies and in the most lucrative industries in the world. The city's diversified economy employs professionals ranging from banking and investing to tech, media and medicine. Startups in New York raised $53B in 2021, second only to San Francisco ($94B) and 7x more than Philadelphia ($8B). Tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook have all opened offices employing thousands of people there, and they continue to gobble up real estate in the city. New York is a magnet for capital, talent and innovation.
And these things matter for Philadelphia: transplants come with their high New York incomes will contribute to a larger tax base that can be used to invest in city services. Better city services attract more human capital. More human capital means a deeper talent pool, which means more innovation happening in Philadelphia. More innovation means Philadelphia will attract more capital to fund the creation of new companies and industries. New companies and industries means more competition for talented Philadelphians, leading to higher wages. Higher wages means more disposable income spent on local businesses - restaurants, bars and shops. And on and on.
Before COVID, moving was out of the question for most New York workers, despite astronomical living costs (e.g. the average one bedroom apartment rents for $4,761 in New York vs. $1,922 in Philadelphia). But the last 2 years have absolutely wrecked the idea that knowledge economy workers will be in the office 5 days a week. For those working entirely remotely, a whole crop of cities have emerged in a landgrab for these highly compensated workers. But for most companies, a consensus is developing around a schedule of 2-3 days in the office and the remainder remote.
New Yorkers are used to commuting to their jobs in Manhattan, whether south from Westchester and Connecticut, west from Long Island or east from New Jersey. In fact, before COVID almost 1 million people commuted into New York City each day, many of them spending over an hour traveling each way. And they pay a modest sum to do so: only ~$250/month for a monthly rail pass.
So with the Acela taking only 75 minutes to get from from Philadelphia to midtown Manhattan, commuting days down to twice a week, and the massively lower cost of living in Philadelphia we should be seeing a huge influx of New Yorkers relocating. But we're not. Why is that?
Because there's no real commuting option: a monthly pass for the Amtrak Regional, which takes almost 2.5 hours, costs over $1,000. And there is no monthly pass whatsoever for those 75 minute Acela trains (at $100/each direction and 10 commuting days a month, that would work out to $2,000/month!).
So what do we do from here? We need to fight for Philadelphia's future in the knowledge economy, even if it's painful in the short term. We need to be sober about our strengths and weaknesses, and take advantage of the fact that one of the top cities in the world is just over an hour away. New York and Philadelphia metros comprise over 30 million people combined; the next largest pair of close-by cities in the US is Los Angeles and San Diego at just 22 million. California has the Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose), China has the Greater Bay Area (Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao); for our own benefit we have to drive the creation of the Atlantic Corridor (Philadelphia and New York).
The first step? If we solve the commuting problem the floodgates will open. Let's work with Amtrak to start offering an Acela commuter pass, and then offer any relocating New Yorker this monthly pass for only $500/month - we'll cover the remainder. We can put qualifications around the benefit, such as minimum salary (e.g. $100K), commitment to live in Philadelphia for a minimum time (e.g. 1 year), length of benefit (3 years), etc. But the core message should be this: stop wasting your money in New York and come live the good life in Philadelphia.
We're a notoriously proud city, and I don't expect this plan will go over easily with many people, especially those running for office. But it's the right one, and if we're serious about reclaiming our status as a top city in the country - with all the benefits that come with that - this is the way forward.