New tech for SEPTA and city boosts ridership

by Francis Cinousis
Posted 8/24/23

As SEPTA seeks to increase ridership, two new initiatives may help the transit agency achieve that goal.

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New tech for SEPTA and city boosts ridership


As SEPTA seeks to increase ridership, two new initiatives may help the transit agency achieve that goal. The first came from the City of Philadelphia, which on Monday announced that starting Sept. 1 it will offer free SEPTA Key cards to employees. 

The free SEPTA Key cards for city employees will be provided as part of the SEPTA Key Advantage program. Funded by $9 million allocated in this year's city budget, the program is part of Philadelphia's efforts to prioritize public transit. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney cited statistics showing that 42% of Black households and 50% of impoverished households in Philadelphia do not own a car, emphasizing the importance of accessible and affordable transit.

“Over the next two years, we will commit $62 million to a zero-fare transit program that will serve at least 25,000 residents near or below the poverty level and another $9 million to join other large employers in the region participating in the SEPTA Key Advantage program to provide free transit benefits for eligible City of Philadelphia employees,” Kenney added.

The free Key card benefits aim to reduce traffic congestion and improve reliability by motivating more people to use SEPTA instead of driving. Beyond city employees, Kenney shared plans to commit $62 million over two years to a "zero fare transit program" for Philadelphians near or below the poverty line. Expanding free or reduced transit access promotes equity in a city where car ownership is out of reach for many, Kenney argued.

In addition to the city’s free Key card initiative, SEPTA recently launched a contactless payment pilot allowing riders to tap to pay directly with a contactless credit/debit card or mobile wallet instead of needing a Key card. This new payment option brings simplicity, convenience, and potential cost savings, SEPTA said. Riders can avoid paperwork, planning ahead to load funds, and paying $2 in cash per ride. Instead, they can tap their iPhone, Android phone or contactless card when boarding.

The new ways to pay “will help ensure that we stay up-to-date with constantly-evolving fare payment technology,” said SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie S. Richards. “This is a critical investment in our customers, and an important part of SEPTA Forward, SEPTA’s strategic plan.”

The SEPTA Key program propelled SEPTA from an era of tokens and paper tickets to a reloadable, contactless chip card that offers a host of options for seamless travel and self-service flexibility. Now, more than a decade after its design, the current SEPTA Key data-processing software is due for an upgrade to meet the expectations of today – and tomorrow.

“We have learned a lot from the first phase of SEPTA Key,” said Richards. “Our goal is to build on the strengths of SEPTA Key by unifying fare policy and promoting affordability, equity, and ridership growth.”

Fares are the same as using a SEPTA Key Travel Wallet, which aggregates throughout the day into one charge. While currently limited to 56 pilot participants and bus, trolley, and subway travel, SEPTA plans to eventually expand the contactless payment program. The program is not yet available on Regional Rail, though it is eventually expected to be in early 2024.

Contactless fare systems have already proven successful for transit agencies in New York, Chicago, and other major cities. OMNY, New York's contactless payment program, enabled a single-day subway ridership record this year.

Meanwhile, SEPTA's current mobile ticketing app, Key Tix, requires more steps such as downloading the SEPTA app and purchasing digital tickets ahead of time.

The long-term plan, according to SEPTA, is to re-evaluate and streamline SEPTA's multiple fare payment options. But for now, introducing contactless payments alongside Key Tix provides more accessibility and flexibility. Riders can choose the most convenient option for their needs.

As SEPTA continues recovering from the massive ridership declines of the pandemic, attracting more passengers is essential to avoid dire financials. Pre-pandemic, the agency served over 1 million daily riders. But totals were down an average of almost 500,000 each day in summer 2022 compared to summer 2019. Without increased riders and additional funding, SEPTA may face painful service cuts and fare hikes when federal relief funds are depleted in 2024.

Both the city's free Key card initiative and SEPTA's contactless payment pilot have the potential to boost ridership numbers. Making public transit free or more affordable for city employees removes barriers to choosing SEPTA for commuting. And contactless payments offer convenience that can encourage new or returning riders to take more trips.

SEPTA hopes that the initiative can drive ridership by expanding access to fast, frequent and affordable transit. 

To sign up for the pilot program, you can go to a Market-Frankford or Broad Street Line subway station and tap your card or phone with Google/Apple/Samsung Pay on a validator. Write down the date, time, and location of your tap, and remember which card and payment method you used. Look for a form you’ll need to fill out on, and you’ll be contacted by email if you’re selected.