Transit Issues: User Experience & Fare Policy

Photo by Dyana Wing So

Expand Student Passes

Older students who live more than 1½ miles from school receive free weekly transit passes paid for by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but about 33,000 students who live closer to school do not. The School District should follow Seattle's lead and expand these passes for all students, increasing young people's freedom of mobility.

SEPTA and the School District should make these passes functional on weekends and school holidays. They should also extend the weekday time restrictions to 9 PM so the pass can function more like a normal Transpass for older students who travel from after-school jobs and activities.

Developing a habit of using transit as a youth translates to adults who become transit riders for life. We need to instill these habits into the SEPTA’s future customer base and expanding student passes would be a wise investment in our region’s future.


Expand University Passes

Access to Philadelphia's network of subways, trolleys, and buses should come included with tuition or employment at all of the region’s colleges and universities. SEPTA needs to offer universities a comparable program to peer transit agencies, embracing the model established by the University of Pittsburgh and the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Providing college students and faculty with discounted transit passes that are automatically included in tuition and compensation packages respectively would encourage a huge section of riders in this eds-and-meds city to switch over to SEPTA.

This would not only incentivize more commuter students to take transit to school, but also revolutionize the way our large residential university population travels in and interacts with this city. Residential students would explore more that Philadelphia has to offer — using the pass to travel to local jobs and internships — leading to a higher retention rate of these scholars to the region. These students are also typically off-peak users of transit.

For SEPTA, negotiating bulk institutional fare packages on a yearly basis would guarantee a far more dependable source of revenue than regular fares, which are often affected by holidays and unplanned closures. Over 60% of Seattle-area King County Metro’s fare revenue comes from bulk contracts; SEPTA needs to do the same here.


Implement Fare Capping

A low-income rider should not pay more than a higher income rider for the same service. But that is frequently the case when it comes to passes. Low-income riders often can't pay the upfront cost of a pass and can pay more in single fares over the time period as a result.

Fare capping allows riders to pay for the cost of a pass over time. When riders have paid enough in single fares equal to a pass, the rest of their rides for that period are free. SEPTA Key would "cap" their fares so Travel Wallet riders never pay more than pass riders. This is central to the principle of equal service for equal payment.


Reduced Fares for Low-Income Riders

Since the start of 2019, New York City residents who live below the federal poverty line have been able to ride public transit for half price.  Cities like Seattle, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Denver, and most-recently, Washington DC have adopted a discount for low-income riders. This is something we need to replicate here in Philadelphia, a city with a higher poverty rate than any of its major peers.

Many low-income riders are dependent on transit and are traveling to low-paying jobs located far outside the center of the city. And yet, increasingly many are finding that owning and maintaining a car is actually cheaper than taking SEPTA. We need to be a city that puts working people first, and no Philadelphian should have to choose between taking mass transit and putting food on the table.

We are advocating for a 50% fare discount for all regional SEPTA users who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. This can be accomplished through SEPTA offering bulk passes for purchase by the City of Philadelphia, and other municipalities, for the administration of this program. Alternatively, SEPTA should consider integrating the PA ACCESS card with SEPTA Key to provide seamless benefits for existing recipients.


Match Transit Fares on Regional Rail

The Regional Rail Network includes many of Philadelphia’s most underprivileged and transit-reliant neighborhoods. Yet so many of these stations suffer from poor ridership, mainly because regional rail is much more expensive, and these stations are also served by cheaper, more frequent, albeit slower transit.

We want SEPTA to match transit fares for travel from Regional Rail stations within Philadelphia. This would be a tremendous move toward making SEPTA a unified network, integrating these two disparate systems.


Enhance Access to SEPTA Key

Before SEPTA Key, riders without passes could buy tokens directly from numerous third-party vendors, and it was a straightforward, hassle-free process. Today, the number of authorized third-party Key vendors has sharply decreased, and many vendors cheat out cash users with illegal fees and surcharges, with little accountability or repercussions from SEPTA. Meanwhile, Key kiosks have only been deployed at subway stations, a handful of bus loops, and the five central Regional Rail stations, depriving entire rider groups and sections of the city dependent on buses from access to buy and reload cards, as well as the discounted fare. This hinders SEPTA’s goal to get every transit rider on a Key card.

We urge SEPTA to install Key kiosks at more bus loops and Regional Rail stations, and explore partnerships with the City and large property owners to provide kiosks at community centers, libraries, and other public spaces. 

In addition, the option of ordering a Key card through mail should be explored. Expanding options for purchasing and handling Key cards is crucial to serve lower-income residents without access to a kiosk, smartphone, or credit card, and will only help to increase ridership numbers despite added operating costs.


De-policing of Fare Enforcement

The racially charged incidents and police killings of the past several years both on and off transit require a complete reexamination of how SEPTA deploys its transit police across the system, especially at the fare line. We welcome the recent decriminalization of fare evasion and reduction of penalty from $300 to $25, and hope this policy remains indefinitely.


Enable Key Card Pass-Back

Families, visitors and people who wish to travel in a group need to have the capability to tap in multiple riders with one SEPTA Key Card. The inconvenience from having to buy multiple Key cards from one kiosk deters many of these groups from transit while travelling around the city. SEPTA should accommodate this user activity by allowing multiple taps on its travel wallet function for up to six people, as the Chicago Transit Authority allows on its Ventra fare card. 

There currently is a 15-minute lockout to prevent accidental double-taps, instituted when SEPTA Key was still in its pilot testing phase. We believe that riders are familiar enough with the Key Card by now and the system is robust enough to prevent most of these incidents.

If there is an active Transpass or Trailpass loaded on the card, the first tap can use the pass, while subsequent taps will deduct from the travel wallet balance. In addition, to avoid conflicts with a fare capping system, a tap would only count towards the fare cap after a 15-minute window. Multiple taps within that 15 minutes would not count towards the fare cap.


Enable Fare Validators To Display Balance

Many aspects of SEPTA Key were not designed with a user-friendly perspective in mind. Small user interface fixes have been made sporadically, but we argue that the entire user-facing system should be improved to provide a better experience in line with peer cities. One crucial fix is to display the remaining fare balance on the LCD validator screen. 

Bus and trolley riders are at a distinct disadvantage because fare kiosks are seldom found on those routes outside of bus loops and intersecting train stations. Also, for users without a smartphone or reliable internet access, it is difficult to keep track of their fare balance or time left on their passes.

We advocate for SEPTA Key validators to show the remaining fare balance or, in the case of passes, the days remaining on the card. Riders can keep track of their rides left and will be less likely to be turned back at the farebox with insufficient fare.


Key Card Integration with PATCO

In 2018, PATCO unveiled its new “Freedom Share” card which works on SEPTA Key validators for transit access. We are asking that SEPTA Key Cards work with PATCO’s validators in the same way for seamless regional transit access. In the long-term view, the two agencies need to work towards creating a regional fare union, as is common in Europe, so that fare products can work universally and fare tariffs are predictable and uniform for riders utilizing multiple modes and agencies.


Key Card Integration with Indego Bike Share

SEPTA needs to work with Philadelphia’s Bike Share system, Indego, to augment our city’s transit network. The purchase of any Transpass or Trailpass needs to come with use of Indego bike share for the duration of that pass. Along with increased user mobility, integration with bike share will go a long way in solving the “last-mile” problem for riders who don’t live within walking distance of their route. In Pittsburgh, a trip on a Connect Card automatically comes with a free 15-minute Healthy Ride bike share ride, and LA Metro has enabled their TAP card to access shared bikes at docks.


Enable Key’s Travel Wallet And Passes On Mobile Devices

We applaud SEPTA’s roll-out of new validators that will accept mobile fare payment and contactless credit cards. However, the most advanced transit cities are directly virtualizing their fare cards onto Apple and Google Pay so that stored-value and pass balances can be utilized without the need to carry the physical card. We believe SEPTA Key should have the ability to do the same thing, carrying over Travel Wallet, passes, and transfers onto your phone. 

This is also critical because SEPTA is planning to charge users a higher fare with contactless/mobile devices than Key Card, inherently discouraging its usage. In addition, the risk of losing a Key Card and having to transfer its balance to a new card is automatically allayed. Enabling this feature would allow SEPTA Key to live up to its standard of “The Future of Fare Payment”. 


Improve Wayfinding and User Interface

SEPTA’s signage is infamous for being heavily inconsistent, full of jargon, and overall confusing and unclear, especially at major hubs like City Hall. In addition, foreign-language and low English proficiency speakers can hardly utilize any signage or wayfinding, and even social media communications and the SEPTA website remain fragmented and outdated. We support SEPTA’s initiative to completely overhaul its signage and wayfinding program on rail transit, with a renewed focus on clear transfer directions and maps as well as service frequency.

But we want to see this effort continue with the buses, audiovisual communication like countdown clocks, SEPTA Key kiosks and turnstiles, and SEPTA’s entire digital presence including the website and social media. Following best practices of agencies like the Chicago Transit Authority and Transport for London, improving the user experience on transit is a severely underrated way to gain ridership by making it easier to ride.


Better Places to Wait for Transit

SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia’s stations and bus stops have increasingly become worse for wear, and even the glass-and-steel bus stops are missing crucial features. We need to deploy many more bus shelters at busy stops like Chelten and Germantown, while also improving them with expanded seating, nearby trash cans, and countdown clocks. Adding Kiosks at major bus loops is also highly necessary, as many riders live outside the reach of subway/El stations and retail locations remain awkward to use and often impose illegal surcharges.


Build Platform Screen Doors on Subway Stations

SEPTA must add platform screen doors at its most heavily-traveled stations. Crucially, this is a matter of rider safety, as the agency touts a notoriously high passenger strike rate. Some metrics indicate SEPTA has more fatal track falls or intentional death per mile than any rapid transit system in the country. 

This is also an issue of air quality, as stations like 30th Street were found to be heavily contaminated with PM2.5 air pollution, posing a slew of long-term health risks.

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