Philadelphia region commuters will soon be able to stop counting coins in order to use public transit once the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) rolls out its new chip-enabled fare payment system.
The new system, called the SEPTA Key, will allow riders to choose between a reloadable SEPTA Key card, any chip-enabled credit or debit card, and in the future, an app for NFC-enabled smartphones that can pay right at the turnstile or bus farebox.
SEPTA is still in its testing and pilot phase, but has 10% of the infrastructure in place. Currently, there are 68 fare kiosks, 97 turnstiles, 10 ADA gates, and more than 200 validators at subway stations and on buses, trolleys and trackless trolleys.
The SEPTA Key is not available to the public just yet, but Leslie Hickman, deputy chief officer, SEPTA Key integration, said riders can get their hands on them sometime in 2015.
SEPTA will roll the Key out in phases. Phase one will include bus, trolley, trackless trolley and subways. Stage two of the rollout, scheduled to start in 2016, will include the Regional Rail network, Customized Community Transportation paratransit service and parking.
Riders who can use SEPTA Key first will be those who use transit modes, including buses, subways, trolleys and trackless trolleys.
As the fifth largest transit system in the country, it seems odd that a smart card system hadn’t been implemented earlier on. Cities like Chicago and Boston retired the token system years ago, and New York just marked its 20th year of using MetroCard.
SEPTA began conceptualizing a way to phase out metal coins and paper transfers a number of years ago, but lack of funding stifled the process.
“Our aging transit system and infrastructure were top priority, so all of our funds were dedicated to improvements,” said Dennis Hiller, chief officer, revenue and ridership, for SEPTA.
SEPTA is funding the project with a construction-like loan that will be repaid with federal grants. Xerox was awarded a $130 million contract to build the system. There are also a number of companion projects, such as improvements to communications systems and the laying of new fiber-optic lines, to support SEPTA Key.
Hickman and Hiller emphasize the ease of SEPTA Key.
“You won’t need to have exact change anymore, or figure out where to buy a fare instrument. You can buy it online if you want to,” said Hickman. “The SEPTA Key will transform the way the people in this region ride transit.”
One of the biggest challenges SEPTA is trying to overcome lies within the learning curve. “We have an education challenge and are starting to educate all our operators and cashiers who will no longer be behind a booth, but directing people if they need assistance,” said Hickman.
She also acknowledges there will be an adjustment phase to the new system, which they anticipate. “We are going to keep everyone from our regular riders to the occasional rider informed on details about the SEPTA Key,” she added.
On top of the improved customer convenience, the new system will also contribute to improving rider data that SEPTA couldn’t track before. “From this we are going to be able to get fare-related data to develop a better fare policy and better identify inefficiencies in the system,” said Hiller.