AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek

Good luck figuring out the bus schedules, using the concourses, and holding on to your tokens.

As delegates arrive in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) next week, they will find themselves confronted with a mass transit system unlike any other in the country. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is an apparition of public transit past. Long before the streetcar craze, Philadelphia’s trolley system kept rolling along with six city lines and two suburban lines. Unfortunately, the fare payment system evokes nostalgia, as well.

SEPTA remains one of the only transit systems left in the country still encumbered with tokens. SEPTA’s smart card, eight years in the making, got a soft rollout a few months ago. But the SEPTA Key’s initial rollout, three years behind schedule, it is only good for weekly and monthly passes and therefore of limited use to the coming horde of Democrats.

The antiquated fare system can be blamed, in part, on decades of inadequate funding. As of 2013, the agency’s capital budget was just $308 million (NJ Transit, by contrast, had $1.7 billion at that time), not even enough to keep up with repairs. Today SEPTA is on its best financial footing possibly ever, but years of making do have added up.

(AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Earlier this month, mere weeks before the DNC, inspectors found that 110 cars in SEPTA’s regional rail fleet suffered from cracked equalizer beams, which help prevent derailments. The ridership of these commuter rail lines, which steadily climbed since 2008, plummeted by close to half.

The regional rail disaster is just the latest in the harrowing odyssey that is the history of SEPTA. Consider the below a loving ode to an at-times frustrating, but usually dependable, mass transit system. “We're not New York, we're not D.C./in the middle, we're proud to be,” one folk ballad about the agency goes. “Why be clean or efficient, when what we've got is quite sufficient?”

1. Figure out where—and how—to buy tokens.

For those who started using public transportation in the 21st century, SEPTA’s tokens will be a novel concept. That means you’ll lose them, often. One of the many advantages of smart cards is that they don’t slither out of your pocket or sink to the bottom of your purse. Bring a change purse, or stick them in your penny loafers, to combat the tokens’ tendency to flee your person at the first opportunity.

For a system where intra-city transportation relies on tokens, it’s surprisingly difficult to buy the damn things. Of the 22 stops on the Broad Street Line, only 14 offer vending machines, while on the 28-stop Market-Frankford Line a mere 12 offer riders the option of not paying full fare. (Mercifully, the station closest to the DNC-hosting Wells Fargo Center sells them, as do the central hubs of City Hall and 30th Street Station.) Riders without paper currency will be stymied even if they’re lucky enough to be staying near a station that sells tokens. The vending machines, which date back to the era before bank cards, are only responsive to those with cash in hand.

Stick SEPTA tokens into your penny loafers to combat the their tendency to flee your person. (Jake Blumgart)

An advantage of the token-based fare system is that it is markedly easier to buy a trip at a news vendor, bodega, or from the local teenage element. Do not fret if a stranger approaches as you struggle to slip a crinkled $20 into the battered token machine at City Hall Station. Often, these enterprising souls actually offer a better deal than what can be found via official means. It is best not to ponder how they obtained dozens of tokens for sale at deeply discounted prices.

2. Remember: transfers are not free.

The only good thing about tokens is that they are substantially cheaper than SEPTA’s cash fare, even from a non-shadow-economy source. A ride with a token is only $1.80, 45 cents less than the cash fare. That makes SEPTA’s subways, trolleys, and buses cheaper than almost any other major transit system in the country.  

That is, unless you need to make a transfer outside City Hall or 30th Street Station, in which case it becomes one of the most expensive.

For some godforsaken reason, SEPTA prices its transfers at an astronomically high $1. This flies in the face of reason and common decency. New York and San Francisco don’t charge for transfers at all, while most agencies that do make riders pay for the inconvenience of interrupting their commute only ask for 50 cents or less. Most delegates probably won’t be effected, as this practice takes its biggest toll on those who transfer from a bus to the subway. But if that describes your commute to the Wells Fargo center, prepare to be fleeced.

3. Squint to decipher inscrutable schedules.

To the uninitiated, SEPTA’s schedules and maps can be a bit confusing. If you stick to the two major subway-elevated lines, it’s all pretty simple. For those who are only taking the Broad Street Line, little assistance is required. SEPTA plans on running even more trains on this arterial line than usual during the DNC, so you should be able to just show up, wait a few minutes, and be whisked away.

For those riding in from elsewhere, the first thing to do is download an app. The best one is SEPTA Instant, which is only available on Android and isn’t the system’s official app. But it is marvelously easy to use, with a simple menu of four color-coded transportation options. The real SEPTA app is a tangled mess that always takes a bit too long to sort out. For those rushing to catch a train, even a few minutes is too long. That’s probably why it has a one-and-a-half-star rating in the app store.

For those who hope to use a bus, the best bet is to make a friend who lives in Philly. A few bus lines are named after the arterial roads they run along—the 52, for instance—but most are not, and the easiest place to find the map is on the bus, which is of limited utility while the rider waits on the street corner.

Good luck figuring out how often the buses come. Some lines come as regularly as the trolleys and subways, and some come once an hour. Maybe just ask a native Philadelphian waiting on a ride—they’re not all bad!

If the concourses don’t smell like urine, they smell like bleach. (Jake Blumgart)

4. For the love of God, don’t use the concourse.

There are 3.5 miles of tunnels below City Hall, stretching from the Comcast tower on 17th Street to the federal courthouse on 7th Street. They are hellaciously complicated to navigate, lack air-conditioning in places, and if they don’t smell like urine, they smell like bleach. Those with a taste for Dunkin’ Donuts can satiate their desires in the Stygian gloom of the concourses, but all others are advised to scurry up to the street level as quickly as possible.

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