It has been nearly two years since SEPTA Key was launched to the public in 2016. Through numerous delays and revisions, there have been a few successful features, like autoloading, that have been convenient for a select portion of SEPTA’s riders. But for a massive portion of low-income, unbanked riders in Philadelphia, SEPTA Key has been nothing but a massive headache. And for those that have no other choice but to use cash, the penalty for doing so ($.50 surcharge, no transfer privilege) is nothing short of a blatant betrayal of equity in a reckless push to get everyone on SEPTA Key.
Certainly, getting everyone on SEPTA Key is an admirable goal, but the state of the current system is far too inequitable. Policy analysts like Lance Haver, formerly of City Council, have noted how low-income riders are swindled by retailers charging arbitrary surcharges to reload cards, and how these unbanked people are disproportionately black and Latinx. And Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez is asking for an investigation on how SEPTA Key is delivering for low-income riders as well.
We believe that although SEPTA Key has been a technological upgrade in many ways, the system was not designed with low-income riders in mind. Nor did SEPTA reconsider the ways in which fare policy could be improved as a result of the Key transition. Our Transit Equity Day coalition calls for the implementation of these following five policies:
1) FREE TRANSFERS ON ALL TRANSIT
Before SEPTA Key, there was no way to track when or where riders took transfers. Riders had to pay cash to the driver for a paper transfer, and the process was clunky at best. Now with SEPTA Key, the system can automatically track where and when people transfer through each tap. Yet the $1 transfer fee, one of the highest in the country, still remains in effect, penalizing anyone who lives near transit yet simply cannot take a one-seat ride.
There is no better time, then, to introduce free 2-hour transfers on all buses and subways. The transfer fee directly leads to inefficient operations: people choose to stay on slow-moving buses without transferring to a faster subway, and SEPTA designs redundant, inefficient routes in response to this demand. There is no doubt that ridership would increase too, as New York’s MTA saw in 1998 through free transfers with Metrocard. The small revenue produced by the transfer fee is simply not worth the enormous inefficiencies and wasted time caused by keeping the fee.
2) BETTER ACCESS FOR CASH USERS
Before SEPTA Key, riders could buy tokens directly from numerous third-party vendors, and it was a straightforward, hassle-free process. Now, the number of authorized Key vendors has sharply decreased, and many vendors cheat out cash users with additional surcharges and little accountability through SEPTA.
There is a real problem when SEPTA wants a higher rate of Key adoption, but will still not offer an expanded number of fare machines outside subway stations and major bus loops. We urge SEPTA to not only install machines at more bus loops and Regional Rail stations, but explore partnerships with the City to provide machines at community centers, libraries, and police stations as well.
3) FARE CAPPING FOR PASSES
For many low-income riders living from paycheck to paycheck, it is hard to pay the whole cost of a pass at the beginning of the month. This leaves many stuck with paying the standard $2 indefinitely, paying far more than passholders by the end of the week or month.
We urge SEPTA to follow the lead of Portland and London, and implement weekly/monthly fare capping as a total replacement of the Transpass. Instead of paying upfront at the start of the month (often overburdening the system as well), riders could pay for a pass gradually through normal Travel Wallet fares. As soon as the rider taps enough times, Key “caps” the fare and credits them with free rides for the rest of 7 or 30 days.
This is just one way out of many where SEPTA can use the electronic technology of Key to further fare equity. When poorer riders are riding transit just as much as anyone else, they should not be excluded from certain fare privileges just because legacy fare structures only allow them to pay a certain way.
4) ALLOW MULTIPLE RIDERS ON ONE KEY CARD
Often, young riders or dependent riders who only occasionally take transit with others do not wish to get into the hassle of purchasing and registering a Key card for themselves. The ability to pass back a transit card and let accompanying riders ride without delay has been a regular principle of flexible fare payment, and with an electronic system like Key, it is trivially easy to implement. Such a system would look like this: if there is a pass on the Key card, the first tap counts against the pass for the card owner. Every subsequent tap deducts from the Travel Wallet balance, for a certain maximum number of additional riders.
SEPTA Key management has repeatedly resisted this popular call for passbacks because of an unfounded fear of fare evasion. But because this is a feature of the Travel Wallet, there is no fare evasion here – the user has already paid for all the value on the card. Chicago for example has allowed up to 6 multiple riders on one Ventra fare card; there is no question it can be done here.
5) IMPROVE INSTITUTIONAL CONTRACTS
The Institutional Pass program, designed to replace bulk token sales, has been nothing but more hassle and extra steps compared to the “outdated” token it replaced. The new "Quick Trip" single-use tickets offer no more flexibility than the bulk tokens they replaced, and represent another example of mimicking paper predecessors instead of offering modernized solutions that maximize flexibility.
In light of this, we would like to push SEPTA for a more streamlined institutional contract system that offers much more flexibility in terms of duration, organization size, and level of transit access offered. The success of Seattle's business programs for the ORCA card has resulted in a popular, easy-to-use programs for employers and clients, and a stable source of revenue for King County Metro.
SEPTA representatives have already stated that the implementation and improvement of Key will be a continuous, long-term process, and we are encouraged by this commitment. But the process for any such improvements must evolve from one-way feedback into the closed walls of 1234 Market St. It must involve a close working relationship between project managers, engineers, customer service, advocacy groups, and the riding public for which we are all serving.