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Are Philadelphians Ready to Ditch Their Transit Tokens?

Over the past year, SEPTA has begun rolling out a long-anticipated replacement for the antiquated fare system, promising that its contactless Key Cards will soon be among the most innovative in the nation.

Matt Rourke/AP

“I'm a long-time token user so I really like that sound of the token going in the box,” says Leslie Hickman, born and raised in Philadelphia and with the accent to prove it.

“But,” says the Chief Rail Officer in charge of implementing the new contactless fare cards on the subway, “there’s nothing I like hearing better than that ‘do-doo’ when people tap [their cards].”

Public transit tokens have largely become relics in North America since the turn of the century, but they’ve continued to rain down in Philadelphia, which held on long after most cities adopted card-based systems.

Over the past year, transit agency SEPTA has begun rolling out a long-anticipated replacement for tokens, promising that its system of contactless fare cards will soon be among the most innovative in the nation.

Originally expected in 2013, SEPTA’s new Key Cards first became available to a limited number of users last summer, the first test in a very gradual rollout. By this July, all riders on weekly and monthly paper passes will need to make the switch to the contactless Key Cards. At some point in the indeterminate future, riders using tokens will have to as well, bringing Philadelphia fully into the 21st century.

Eventually.

SEPTA has progressively rolled out pieces of its new system, “not just throwing the big red switch,” as Hickman puts it,” but proceeding “with a very slow approach so customers could absorb, understand and use.”

The agency began with a 10,000-person “early adopter” pilot program, before making the cards available to the general public. Currently, 120,000 customers have Key Cards out of an average daily ridership of around 800,000.

SEPTA says the gradual addition of different features will allow for troubleshooting. The Key Cards will eventually allow customers to load money onto their card for occasional rides or purchase weekly or monthly fares to ride buses, the subway and regional rail lines—the last has yet to be incorporated.

They will also function as debit cards that riders can use to make other purchases, similar to the Suica cards used in Japan.

A testing kiosk is seen next to token vending machines and at the 13th Street Station in Philadelphia in 2014. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Riders will also gain the ability to tap their card more than once, an early source of frustration for parents who have had to get young children separate transit cards.

The gradualness of the rollout has contributed to SEPTA’s difficulties communicating this big change to riders. While SEPTA says the technical aspects have gone well, some of the user-facing systems have drawn complaints, like the confusing instructions on in-station kiosks, which initially offered only one-day passes.

“I really want the Key to be a success,” says Philadelphia resident Joe LiTrenta. “It has been flawless once I purchased it.” However, he found navigating the purchase at the kiosks and online “clunky,” something he worries will discourage user adoption.

Adoption and modernization are important for SEPTA, which, as of April, has seen a 4.4 percent decrease in ridership for the fiscal year. LiTrenta actually took it upon himself to create an instructional video after receiving questions from his brother. The “little public service announcement” he posted online walks people through how to purchase and use a Key Card.

SEPTA has deployed its own team of 60 “Key ambassadors” who circulate between stations to help riders navigate the new kiosks and purchase cards. These staff are also transmitting feedback for the transit agency. “We get customer correspondence every day,” says Kevin O’Brien, Senior Program Manager for SEPTA Key.

As a result, the SEPTA Key website which—as another rider puts it to me—“looks like it’s from 1995,” will undergo a complete redesign. “Right now it’s difficult for us to even make the simplest changes,” says O’Brien, including to basic instructional language because of the platform on which the site was built, by the same company that crafted the entire system.

Its shortcomings may be one of the reasons only 5,000 Key Card holders have used the automatic re-fill function, which requires signup online or over the phone. While 50 percent of people using the current website do so from their phones, the site does not have a responsive design. O’Brien expects the new website will take around a year to complete.

“For basic tasks, SEPTA is doing great,” notes Matt Mitchell, Vice President of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. To board the buses or subway, the system “turns transactions around very quickly, so you’re not waiting two to three seconds for the transaction to go through.” His concerns largely revolve about the lag in integrating the commuter rail system.

Randy Clarke of the American Public Transit Association says delays and hiccups are not out of the ordinary in an undertaking of this size. “SEPTA is a complicated multi-modal system,” he says. And it has to take into account a wide range of concerns, from cybersecurity to accessibility for the visually impaired.

“All different types of customers are going to interface with this product. From the young, hip 22-year-old kid used to digital—Facebook and all this stuff—to an elderly person,” says Clarke. “From the industry point of view, they’re doing a good job.”   

It remains to be seen when SEPTA will catch up with the rest of the industry and phase out tokens for good. That will depend on market penetration, according to Hickman, who says she’s prepared to be patient.

“We’ve seen token sales go down but not to the extent where we would even broach the subject,” she says. Nevertheless, she encourages riders not to wait until the last minute to make the switch to a Key card. “This is convenient,” says Hickman. “No more tokens. No more paper transfers. No worrying where tokens are in the bottom of my purse.”

About the Author

  • Emma Jacobs is a multimedia journalist based in Paris.