SEPTA Wants Smartcards; PATCO Wants Philadelphia Expansion

This should have been done a long time ago, but still, this is good news:

SEPTA took its first tentative step today out of the era of tokens and paper tickets, announcing its plan to award a contract for a "smart card" by the end of next year.

Of course, its not exactly around the corner:

But it is likely to be three years or longer and to cost at least $100 million - based on other cities' experiences - before SEPTA riders can wave a card at a turnstile and be on their way.

Given their technology history (like the token machines) I think three years might be a little quick. But, hey, you have to start somewhere. However, assuming that the transfer is automated and maintained with these smart cards, then SEPTA really needs to just drop any pretense over the next three years of getting rid of them in the interim, once and for all.

The article also mentions that there will be a need for less ticket takers when this all comes. I feel very safe in saying that SEPTA could use a few more customer service representatives.

Transit is an issue where a popular regional Mayor, as we assume Nutter will be, should theoretically really make a difference. Rendell, however, was not really able to do much. Nutter's ability to get the suburbs on board where Rendell could not might center around whether suburbanites themselves are in a different place than they were ten years ago.

And, its not like regional transit expansion is exactly off the table in Philly either. Our local mass transit agency is actualy starting to push for lines in NJ and PA... it just is not coming from SEPTA::

If Philadelphia and its South Jersey suburbs each have just one new transit line to build, where should it go?

What might have once been a fanciful parlor game was transformed this week into an urgent policy debate by PATCO, the smaller of the region's two transit systems. The agency, which has long harbored expansionist dreams, launched a series of town meetings aimed at selling an ambitious extension of its bistate system to the public. Those meetings will continue next week in South Jersey, then resume in late January in Philadelphia.

I know I am pretty nerdy, but there is something fascinating to me about a feud or competition or whatever between the two agencies. (I prefer a feud, with the image of some sort of monster truck rally showdown between the Broad St Line and the PATCO high speed line.) Either way, if PATCO trying to expand will start to make SEPTA actually think about real expansion, I am all for it.

I like tokens

They can be annoying, but there are advantages to tokens. The most obvious being privacy concerns and the ability to give them to a friend. With some sort of card like they have in London or New York, you can't just hand a token over to a friend and send them on the trolly or subway. Philadelphians have a nice culture of being generous with tokens to help people avoid paying the extra 70 cents, and it certainly makes it easier to get a friend to take public transport who usually does not.

I am all for SmartCards, but keep the tokens as well.

We definitely need more light rail. Especially into neighborhoods that are currently hard to reach by public transit. I would love to see a reopening of a transit line running North - South near the waterfront.

My job is not to represent Washington to you, but to represent you to Washington.-Barack Obama
Philly for Obama


You can still get tokens in NYC, right?
Yeah, tokens are cute.

The Russellian Incorporated Innovations Corporation
Lefty Homilies

No More Tokens in NYC

The token died in NYC during 2003. While tokens might be viewed as being convenient, they are inefficient. There was a piece on one of the local news stations a while back about the high cost of processing and counting the tokens (and cash fares). I am the proud owner of a Charlie Card from the Boston system. A key benefit to smartcards is that you do not need exact change and can pay for them with cash of a credit card. I cannot imagine a scenario where SEPTA would keep tokens after the smartcard system was fully implemented. My vote is to call the smartcard the Ben Card or the Billy Card or anything else but the SEPTA card.

NYC's MTA allows you to

NYC's MTA allows you to "double swipe" -- use your Metrocard to swipe yourself through the turnstile, then pass it back to a friend to swipe next.

Metrocard machines are in every single station in NYC. The machines accept cash and credit, and you can refill your cards when you run out of fare. If you're using cash to buy your card I don't understand potential "privacy concerns" -- I guess they can track the use of a card throughout the system but there's no individually identifiable data, and if you're truly paranoid you could always buy single fare cards every time.

Being stuck without a token in West Philly late at night I haven't found any generousity but I've definitely wished there were a Metrocard-like system set up on the Market-Frankford El. It's 2007. Transit should be convenient, not

Way Too Slow and Privacy Concern?

I know I am too naive but three frickin' years? And what kind of announcement is it to say: We'll award a contract by the end of next year? What low expectations we have... I can just imagine telling my boss, "Yeah you know that thing that everyone else finished five years ago? Well stop the presses, I have some really exciting news for you: I'm going to think about starting it by next year."

As to privacy concerns, I don't really see much to worry about. As long as you can buy the cards with cash there is no real tracking to speak of. Sure they could tell that someone got on a bus at 3rd and Market on Saturday and got on a bus on Broad and Market on Monday but they wouldn't know *you* did. And if they aren't complete idiots, they could make great, great use this info to see real usage patterns and modify the system accordingly. Imagine what a year's worth of this data would tell you if you had decent usage of the cards. You could definitely run the system with much higher efficiency (that more bus/train/trolley should be filled with less units).

Even if you did use a credit card to buy the cards, you assume that Septa is going to maintain the link after purchase; not to say it's a paranoid assumption.


I always love the "where would you run public transit?" hypotheticals. I'm agnostic about any of it ever happening, but it's fun to dream.

Service to KoP is a good idea, and I can imagine that extending the Route 100 trolley would be easier than most other plans, but in order to reverse the "reverse commuting" (is that like "reverse racism"?) there needs to be a route to KoP that's almost as direct as I-76. The Route 100 trolley embarks from 69th Street, moving through the Main Line suburbs. It might alleviate some traffic from I-476, but the Philadelphians I know who commute by car to KoP do so from places like Roxborough. An extension means that you would have two routes, either the trolley or the R6 to Norristown + a transfer. I don't know. Maybe it could work.

My own Haussmann-style dream would be to run a spur or full-fledged line that went from City Hall/Suburban Station up the Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum, then up through Fairmount Park, Strawberry Mansion, maybe to East Falls, Manayunk, or beyond.

And the Delaware river line, of course. Maybe a Dan Ryan-style line for Roosevelt Boulevard.

Last, a subway/trolley line for Washington Ave/Grays Ferry, that would hook up to the Broad Street and Delaware Ave lines, and go on into Southwest Philadelphia, a la the Girard Avenue trolley. Can you imagine riding a streetcar to the Italian Market? Awesome.

--Tim (aka Short Schrift)

Happy 3 year anniversary--now the blog just writes itself

do folks know that Dan founded this blog on November 30, 2004? That's three years ago exactly. Wow. Check out the first post here, it's cute.

One advantage for folks who have been here for a while is that these comments just write themselves.

I wrote a post on a transit wish list in January of 06 and it is so funny because it includes some similar ideas to Tim (i thought I had actually written a post with the exact same idea, about going down the Parkway, but I can't find it):

2- Improve rapid transit access for Philadelphians in order to increase opportunities for good jobs and housing within the city . The first idea I have here is to create a light rail line that runs down the middle of Roosevelt Blvd from Frankford terminal up to the edge of the city. SEPTA has asked for funding to do a feasibility study of this already. Some have suggested running an extension of the Broad Street subway under the Boulevard, but light rail could run down the median for a lot cheaper. The second idea I’d like to suggest is a bit more out there, but has in many ways a larger impact: Build 2 new subway lines: one to run diagonally from Gray’s Ferry to 5th and Olney via Fitler Square, Rittenhouse, Old City, N. Libs, Fishtown, etc. The other line would run from Strawberry Mansion to Queen Village via Fairmount, the Parkway, the gayborhood, Society Hill, and South Street. This basically would be like adding an “X” to the “T” currently formed by the El and the Sub.

Full post here.

Great minds think alike.

Now, how the hell do we make it happen?

Of course

that post has a Field of Dreams reference.

Fix in inner-city routes first!

I'm all for more regional rail routes, but if we have to have priorities, I say let's fix mass transit in the city first. Unless you are on Broad going to somewhere else on Broad, or on Market and going somewhere else on Market, mass transit in this city is a joke.

As a somewhat related tangent, what is the deal with the "bus lanes" in the city. I was driving yesterday on Chestnut and NO ONE pays attention to them. Is this another one of those laws that no one abides by? Unless we are going to put massive amounts of money into an expanded subway system, we need more and ENFORCED bus lanes. When I would take the 42 from 42nd and Spruce to Rittenhouse, it would take a good twenty minutes. (And that doesn't include waiting for the bus).

Is this another one of those

Is this another one of those laws that no one abides by?

Yep. Chestnut used to be a bus-only street, but that makes it supremely difficult for trucks to load, or to have metered parking. The real reasons why nobody obeys the bus-only lanes are

1) trucks routinely double-park on both lanes, making traffic a nightmare;

2) anyone parallel-parking or turning on Chestnut ties up traffic;

3) the idea that a perfectly good lane should be yielded to buses that only come along every ten minutes or so is, well, quaint. Run a trolley line along Chestnut and people might pay more attention.

When I would take the 42 from 42nd and Spruce to Rittenhouse, it would take a good twenty minutes.

The last time I checked, which is every time, that's about how long it takes in a car, too; except in the dead of night, when a bus is just as fast. Have you ever taken the #34 Green line from 42nd and Baltimore to 19th and Market? If you walk two blocks to 40th and Baltimore, you can hop on any of the trolley lines, which drastically cuts your wait times.

Seriously; ample trolley and bus transit between Center City and University City/near West Philadelphia is not very bad at all. It's everywhere else not on Market and Broad (or the R5) that is royally screwed.

--Tim (aka Short Schrift)

Smart Card Experiences

While the name Smart and SEPTA do not usually go together, I like using Smart Cards. I used them recently for the first time in San Fran and D.C. Once I learned how to actually use the cards (and put money on them), they were very nice. Learning how to get money on them was a bit of a pain at first, but once I did that, it was smooth riding.

I was in SF on business and it was nice not having to worry about caring around cash or tokens or anything besides the card. After SF, I went to DC and it was a breeze getting a card and adding money to it, because I had already done it once.

All in all, I think smart cards are a good idea and the way to go.

Here is the first ever YPP post on SEPTA

Fare collection

Hi everyone. Allow me a few words here to respond to earlier comments.

Once a card-based system is here, tokens ought to be discontinued. There is a lot of overhead expense in collecting, transporting, counting, packaging, and reselling them, most of which goes away with a card system. Cards have all the advantages of tokens and then some. No exact change is necessary, they allow for free transfers, and as mentioned above, you can have a choice as to whether or not to register your card, and an unregistered card can be completely anonymous. Registering ought to be a no-brainer: you'll be able to get a replacement for a lost or stolen card, you can set your card to automatically reload so you'll never run out of fare money again, and you can link the card to a tax-free employee benefits account.

Now getting to your reform agenda, my chief disappointment with the process so far is that SEPTA has said nothing about using automation to increase the efficiency of the system, presumably because the TWU is going to object to any plan that reduces the number of subway/elevated cashier jobs, and management isn't willing to go to the mat to get the full benefit from this huge capital investment. In fact, one of their people said the new system might actually _increase_ their operating costs! This matters to riders just as much as it matters to labor and management, because every dollar spent maintaining redundant jobs is a dollar that can't be spent on more service.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course with SEPTA--you can see it if you go back through their annual budgets where they list changes in departmental headcounts. After spending about 25 million on the new control center, they saved a total of one position. They still have street supervisors out in T-cars the same way they did back in the days before buses had two-way radios, let alone GPS.

SEPTA's timeframe for the fare collection project is realistic, though conservative. There is a lot more to it than just buying new ticket machines and turnstiles. You have to get networking into every station, upgrade other bits of communications infrastructure, advertise and award contracts, and make sure the different parts of the system are all compatible--not just in the technical sense. That said, since they're among the last major systems to do this, they ought to be able to complete the project (especially the planning and development part) faster than the other systems have. But it doesn't happen instantly. Before they go out to bids, they need to develop the basic specs of the system, figure out how many machines to put where (red flag issue--they apparently are _not_ going to install ticket machines at all rail stations, leaving some passengers stuck paying a surcharge even with the new technology), and determine how much data they want to collect for operations planning. Doing that right will take time, and cutting corners now means change orders, delays, and cost overruns later.

I also think their plan to outsource much of the planning and administration is a good one. SEPTA is in the transportation business, not the payments business. And a third-party payments administrator is going to have more incentive to make the system more integrated, so you could use a key tag to pay your SEPTA fare and then buy coffee and a donut when you get to your destination.

Hope this helps--YPP folks and all of you are welcome to attend our next meeting: Saturday, December 15 (third Saturday each month), 1:00 to 4:00 at our headquarters at 1601 Walnut St.

As usual DVARP folks

are very helpful in understanding our transit system.

Three years to develop Smart Cards seems a little but not overly slow to me. If it gives people enough time to study their proposal and point out the flaws--and if SEPTA shows a willingness to listen to others--a three year time frame makes sense.

What really scares me is that SEPTA has been promising Smart Cars in three years for a long time. Maybe they meant three years until they begin to develop Smart Cards, in which case their recent announcements are welcome.

I should add, however, that it was only because SEPTA decided to kill transfers, and was thoroughly misleading about the relationship between transfers and smart cards, that it has moved forward on smart cards. That is no way to run a railroad.

The transfers are still at risk by the way. SEPTA's appeal was heard in Commonwealth Court a few weeks ago. The city put on a very good case and we should have a decision in about thirty to sixty days. I don't think SEPTA will carry through its plan to eliminate transfers even if it wins--SEPTA really had no good reason to get rid of transfer in the first place. The agency just doesn't like to be pushed around, especially by its constituents.

But just to be on the safe side, let's hope SEPTA lose in Commonwealth Court.

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