The Philadelphia region’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has for years struggled with an underdog standing. But it’s about to get a major boost, or so promise the little red signs on some of its trolleys and buses.
Currently, SEPTA is the last public transit system serving a major U.S. city to use tokens. But a contactless payment system, planned to arrive in the fall of this year, will accept credit cards, debit cards, smart phones and SEPTA-issued smart cards.
SEPTA’s website promises to phase out “magnetic cards” and “paper tickets,” as well as tokens. Riders will be able to set up free private accounts with passwords that will allow them to monitor and update value remotely. If it all works out, SEPTA may leapfrog from one of the most antique payment systems in the nation to one of the most advanced, outpacing New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which last month announced that it will not accept contactless debit and credit cards until at least 2016.
“We came to the realization that what we wanted was more than just a smart card system,” said John McGee, SEPTA’s chief officer of new payment technology. “This project was really focused on how to make it simple for people to pay. So we have looked at contactless payments, whether debit cards, credit cards or a chip-enabled phone. If you are an infrequent rider, you don’t have to have a relationship with us. Paying for SEPTA will be just like paying for a pastry at Au Bon Pain.”
This will solve one problem that has beset other cities, including Washington, D.C.’s SmarTrip system: What about all those people who are just visiting for the weekend, tourists and other infrequent users? Should they really have to pay $5 upfront for a smart card they may not use again for years? Tourists visiting Philadelphia won’t have to fret about that. They can just pay with their smart phones. (Close to half of Americans own smart phones.)
The contactless credit and debit cards, which allow consumers to pay by tapping the card on a receptor — without having to sign or enter a pin number — are meant to provide the same service. But they are not yet common in the U.S., and the feature won’t have much utility until they are. SEPTA, therefore, will still accept cash. (Although McGee isn’t too pleased about it. “As long as the ATMs are dispending cash,” he sighed, “we’re going to have to accept cash.”)
McGee seems particularly excited about online methods of payment like automatic reloading, which allows riders to set a certain limit on their account: If the value falls below the limit, a rider-decided amount of money is instantly added from their credit or debit card (just like E-ZPass). Weekly and monthly passes will still be available, just not in individual card form. Instead, an account can be set to automatically purchase a new weekly or monthly pass until the rider changes it.
For those who aren’t as keen on managing their account online, SEPTA will also expand the sale venues where riders can add value. Today, many subway-elevated rail stations have SEPTA employees who cannot give change or sell tokens, one of the most frustrating aspects of the transit system for many. Under the new payment regimen, vending machines will be added to every subway and elevated rail station, as well as the regional rail stations of 30th Street, Market East, Suburban, Temple University and University City. Retail stores will also sell smart cards.
Expanding the new payment system to regional rail presents unique challenges. The systemic overhaul will come three phases, the first two being design and manufacturing and implementing payment changes on buses, trolleys and subway-elevated lines. Regional rail conversion is a separate third phase all of its own, and expected to take much longer than the other modes.
A SEPTA trolley. Credit: Flickr user jpmueller99
None of the regional rail stations are currently equipped with turnstiles or any other way to check a pass before a rider boards the train. Instead, a conductor who walks the length of the train between stops punches each ticket individually. Other mass transit systems have faced similar problems when attempting to bring smart cards to regional rail.
SEPTA canvassed its regional rail ridership and found that 95 percent of rides originate or terminate in one of five major Philadelphia stations. At these centrally located hubs it will install turnstiles that can read a rider’s contactless device. Presumably, those 5 percent of riders who aren’t going to one of the five major stations will simply ride on an honor system. (Parking costs on SEPTA property can also be accommodated by the new payment methods.) McGee considers this the only way to join the distance-based costs of the regional rail system with the flat fee of an intercity transit trip.
Transfers, meanwhile, will remain the same. Switching from the West Philadelphia trolleys to the Market-Frankford line will still be free at 30th Street and City Hall, while reduced rates will still accompany transfers between other modes of transport. No longer will they require a paper transfer. SEPTA is slated for a fare increase in 2014, but McGee mentioned no other cost bump.
“Falling or rising of fares is typically related to the overall budget situation of the agency,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant and author of the blog (and book) Human Transit. “Fare levels do have to rise with inflation of transit’s costs, which tends to be a little steeper than background inflation. They may have to rise at agencies that are trying to plug budget holes. But there’s no reason for this issue to be confused with smart card issues.”
The new payment system is leaving the design phase, and prototypes will start appearing soon, with pilot programs beginning this summer. The new payment system is meant to debut on intercity transit lines this fall, but first SEPTA plans to outfit its entire fleet of trolleys and buses, and replace many of the turnstile entrances to subway and elevated rail lines. The current turnstiles are 24 years old and are not legal under the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act. They have to be completely scrapped (some token-equipped turnstiles will remain during the transition, but all will be replaced by spring 2014). Tokens will stop being sold in the spring 2014, and a few months later the new regional rail payment system will first be unveiled to the public. The current regional rail payment system will not be entirely phased out until the fall that year.
Market East station. Credit: Kyle Gradinger on Flickr
Bringing other regional transit agencies into the new system’s fold will be even trickier than the regional rail problem. “SEPTA has presented the NPT project to all agencies,” the website vaguely assures readers. PATCO, which connects Philadelphia and Camden County, N.J., is slated to test its own smart card system soon. Delaware’s systems and New Jersey Transit are not mentioned online, although McGee said the latter was working on an open payment system before Hurricane Sandy. He said that SEPTA will reach out to all the surrounding transit systems in the future to see if they wish to participate.
“When you are talking about fares, that’s something that operators hold very close to their vest,” said Allison Yoh, associate director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. “Once you start talking about fare collection, then the question starts coming up, ‘Well, how are we going to manage revenue distribution, who is going to be responsible for collecting this?’ It becomes much more difficult than just this idea of ‘let’s outfit all of the fleets we have co-operating in this region with similar technology, so we can issue one card for a rider who commutes across multiple systems.’”
SEPTA recently declared a capital funding crisis, announced the closure of the last few stops on the Norristown High Speed line and warned of potential service cutbacks. Despite highly conservative spending, the agency projects a deficit of $38 million for next fiscal year, and expects it to grow to $160 million by 2018. The new payment systems are principally being paid for by a $175 million loan from the Immigrant Investor Program, run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.
It’s a roundabout way of getting rid of tokens. But, to borrow from SEPTA’s tagline, it’s getting us there.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.