November 28 2011

Philadelphia Set for Transit Payment Upgrade

SEPTA riders will soon be able to use contactless payment technologies and smart cards on Philadelphia's public transit infrastructure. Image courtesy of jimc67, flickr.

Two weeks ago, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Board voted to award a nearly $130 million dollar contract to ACS Transport Solutions Group to install a modernized fare system for Philadelphia’s public transportation infrastructure. The move is seen largely as a response to the city’s “outdated” fare collection system, reliant heavily on tokens and cash, and will introduce and promote modern payment methods, specifically “contactless payment” using ID cards, credit cards, or smart phones. Moreover, SEPTA will finally make it possible for riders to use reloadable fare cards, similar to New York’s Metrocard and Boston’s Charlie Card, while riding the nation’s sixth largest public transit system.

Proponents of the contract are seeing the system upgrade as a way of greatly improving SEPTA’s functionality and performance, with the ultimate goal of allowing riders to seamlessly connect between service elements (bus, trolley, subway, and regional rail) without purchasing additional tickets or transfers. Riders on the new system will be able to pay for trips with reloadable smart cards or by flashing the contactless device of choice at a turnstile or on a SEPTA vehicle.  Additionally, riders will also have the option of creating accounts that bill riders monthly based on network usage (similar to EZ-Pass for highway tolls).  The new system, which will be the first of its kind in the Northeast, will be implemented over the next three years, with upgrades for buses and trolleys first, followed by subway, and then regional rail. SEPTA will also retain and eventually phase out “familiar fare elements” along the way to help riders learn and use the new system comfortably.

While still not the dominant method of transit payment nationwide, the approval to upgrade Philadelphia’s antiquated system is a sign that smart technologies are slowly but surely becoming the standard in urban transit. Londoners have been using the Oyster cardto travel the city’s extensive Underground network since 2003.  New York first test piloted a contactless program in 2006, which has since been expanded and now helps riders connect between Port Authority and MTA owned transit infrastructure in Manhattan and New Jersey.  And most recently, the Chicago Transit Authority also voted to upgrade their fare collection system as well to incorporate smart technology. Opponents of the upgrade argue that the new system could render existing jobs obsolete, but SEPTA plans to retain jobs, by moving current station cashiers to more active roles, helping customers learn and use the new system, and to customer service at SEPTA’s central offices.

Still, the upgrade is largely seen as positive, and will help move SEPTA in the right direction, making its system both easier to use and competitive with similar systems along the east coast.

Do you think that this is the right move for SEPTA and that other cities should adapt similar payment technologies?

Barrett Lane

Barrett Lane is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where he is pursuing a Master of City Planning with a concentration in Urban Design. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell University. Prior to joining The Grid, Barrett was the Director of Creative Content at Yipit, and most recently interned with the New York City Department of City Planning. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 28th, 2011 at 6:14 pm and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Infrastructure, Technology, Transportation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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