Smart Cards are Here! Tokens are Gone! Candy Canes for Everyone!

The Daily News has a cover story about how SEPTA smart cards are on the verge of being here! Now, with our ultra smart cards, tokens are a thing of the past. Awesome:

THIS IS the dawning of the Age of SEPTArius!


Philadelphia, the last major American city where transit riders line up to pay cash for tokens, is on the verge of getting a high-tech fare system that will make riding SEPTA as easy as using E-ZPass on the turnpike.

Or as easy as riding public transit in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle, where smart cards have replaced tokens, and long lines for tokens, and discovering too late that you don't have exact change for tokens and the toll-booth attendant doesn't make change for tokens and you're stuck.

Or as easy as buying morning coffee at Wawa, or a pack of gum at CVS, or a lawnmower at Home Depot or just about anything in Philly - except a SEPTA fare.


Oh, so, without any context, there is also this little bit of info:

The token, which has been a pain-in-the-mass-transit here for decades, could go the way of horse-drawn trolleys by 2011, said John McGee, SEPTA's chief officer of new-payment technology.

Oh.... so tokens could be obsolete by 2011? Interesting. Why only 'could,' amidst this article about the fantasical, whimsical smart cards that will change lives?

Could it be that today is July 21, 2009, and on June 24, 2009, the Inquirer ran this little nugget?

SEPTA has postponed for a third time its deadline for a "smart-card" fare system.

The latest deadline is Aug. 18, five months later than the original March 17 requirement for manufacturers to submit proposals for an electronic system to replace tokens and paper tickets for its buses, subways, trolleys, and trains.

Or, how about this line, from November of 2007:

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.

The end of "next year" was... 2008.

Which is all to say, that while I am all for positive stories on mass transit, it seems really strange that a project that has yet to even close a deadline for accepting proposals, now almost 2 years late, is touted as "finally" coming.

Or, how about this: Would anyone like to make a bet as to whether smartcards will be available and in use system-wide in 2011? If so, I can give you some great odds...

Everything about SEPTA is weird

Nice research Dan. I can't believe the reporter didn't add that component to the article.

The hold up is in no small part with Labor. If Smart Cards go in, we'd also save a lot of money in Labor costs because it would all be totally automated, and Labor doesn't like that. It's one of those tough moments for liberals. On the one hand, you have a major cost savings for Mass Transit, and mass transit is one of those things we on the Left believe in.

On the other hand, we support Unions, too, and if the unions don't like it it's hard for us to get behind it.

I guess, for me, it comes down to this: I want workers to get a fair shake and a fair deal, but if jobs really aren't needed any more than management needs to find a fair and responsible way to cycle those jobs out. Doing otherwise is a cost (in this case) to all the other transit users, all of whom are well aware of the fact that SEPTA is perpetually in a budget mess. Any savings would help.

I thought about this last night as I entered the Race-Vine stop on the Broad Street Line to head home to the North Philadelphia stop. As I'd left the gym 15 minutes before, I had realized that I had failed to restock my token supply when I left the house and needed to pay to get on. I dutifully counted out three dollar bills, hid my wallet deep within my bag (it's the Broad Street Line, after all), and put the cash in my pocket so I'd be ready at the station. When I got into the Race-Vine stop at about 9:30PM, I looked for a token machine.


There was a change machine, but no token machine.

I went to the attendant and asked where it was, and he said, "No tokens at this stop. Two dollars." He was, in fact, a bit of an ass about it. As if my life should revolve around SEPTA and I should bloody well know that by now (truth is, I use it about every two weeks, sometimes less).

As annoyed as I was at the guy for being obnoxious about something so nonsensical, I asked myself, "Why the hell would SEPTA have ANY stations without token vending?" I remain totally flummoxed about it, tho maybe they are trying to frustrate the public with the token system enough that they will support management in overcoming Labor's objection to switching out of tokens. I don't know.

Or perhaps I am just seeing wheels-within-wheels.

This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.

I should pull out the Steve

I should pull out the Steve Lopez column from about 20 years ago about their space age token machines- always broken, and often missing.

it's always like that with septa

It's always like that with SEPTA, a constant effort to nickle-and-dime the customer.

the missing token machines just scratches the surface. Check out their policy on the regional rails, where you pay a surcharge for buying your ticket on the train. Thing is, they used to waive the surcharge if the ticket machine at your stop was broken or the window was closed: not anymore.

Or the way the ticket machines in 30th street worked so poorly they removed them, but never put in a replacement. So if the line is long during rush hour, you have to choose between paying a surcharge or missing your train.

i hate to admit it since i am a big supporter of transit, but after a decade of living in Philly, i prefer to drive or take my bike to SEPTA whenever possible.

Not a fan of smartcards

I've used them in NY, and half the time they don't work. They get the slightest bend or a little bit of dirt on them and they're ruined. It's a nice way to lose $20. The subways are completely littered with them. I suppose if you do a lot of traveling via Septa for work it will be nice, but for someone who only uses mass transit on weekends they will be more of a hassle... especially when I lose it in a bar. Now when out of town friends come into the city to hang, they'll have to buy a smartcard? Ugh... it's easier buying a ton of tokens and giving them out as needed. It will be absolutely mandatory to have a smartcard vending machine in every station stop for buying/checking balances. No way that will happen.

Having machines is necessary

but selling tokens and making change in every station should equally be necessary in every station. One costs more in terms of labor expense than the other. Guess which one.

In all things, however, you are right - its the details of how they actually implement it that matter.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I find the Metrocard system

I find the Metrocard system in NYC very reliable. I've never had a card not work, and if they do fail or expire the balance is transferable to a new card.

The pay per trip cards are useable by multiple people in a group (up to at least 4); you just hand the card back to the next person.

As for the litter cards: I'm guess they're the depleted or expired cards. Cards are refillable, so people don't have to dump them. Maybe they could offer some incentive to reuse the old card which might help with the litter?

tokens aren't the problem

people with tokens are the problem...just kidding.

But really, as a fare mechanism, the token itself isn't all that different than the smart card, at least as it's implemented in NYC. Both tokens and cards are mechanisms to prepay fares at a discount. Either way, I have to pre-acquire the fare unit. I guess one card with 10 or 20 fares on it is better than 10 or 20 tokens, but an order of magnitude better? How and where SEPTA sells tokens is the bigger difference. If SEPTA had (working) dispensing machines at every rail and subway stop...ones that accepted credit/debit cards as well as cash, would it matter all that much if it dispensed a token or a card? Lines? Yeah, I've seen them for the Metrocard in NY, too. Exact change and surly booth attendants are not related to either tokens or cards. Exact change is a policy that SEPTA could change at any time. Surly is just a gift to all of us, I guess.

I guess one big difference in NY is that within a certain time window (two hours, I think), all your transfers are free. That time window is, of course, monitored via the card. But do we have any indication at all that SEPTA plans on offering free transfers when the card system is implemented? (really, I don't know; have they mentioned this at all?) I know that SEPTA sells daypass fare cards, which have month/days printed on them which look like they get hole-punched, so I don't think SEPTA can do a clock system at this point. ( )

One feature I'd love to see for NYC's Metrocard (and Philly's future system) would be an online component where I could check my existing balance and replenish it if necessary. (Acutally, tokens work better in that regard: you either have them or you don't, and you know how many you have.) Does any major transit system offer this?

I'm not saying we should keep the token system, but the token system is not the crux of the problem(s) with SEPTA.

Somehow, I'm doubtful that a card system is going to dramatically change SEPTA.

this is definitely true

I'm with you on this point. the problem is really not being able to pay electronically. No debit or credit cards in SEPTA land. Welcome back 1989.

One thing that's nice about tokens is that you can use them on the bus or on the subway. Not true in DC.

But, smart cards are how people are going and they also have the added bonus of letting people buy things like "unlimiteds" and that sort of thing, within whatever period they want.

Having lived in DC and been to NYC a million times, tho... I have to say, the cards are really a fine system. I keep an NYC card with some money on it in my wallet at all times. Even if I don't go back for 4 months, they are always still good to go when I get there.

This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.


This just seems like such a non-story. I get a monthly pass - I can swipe it in buses, subway etc.

Maybe the smart pass is a big deal for folks who don't ride every day? It won't change anything for me. Unless they get rid of the gender marker - kinda hard do apply that in a vending machine.

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