After years of delays, SEPTA’s long-awaited new payment technology, SEPTA Key, will finally make its public debut on Monday.
Well, kind of.
Starting at 5:30 Monday morning, up to 10,000 riders will be able to join an “Early Adopter” public pilot of the new fare card system. During the pilot, SEPTA Key holders will be able to get weekly and monthly passes, as well as $8 all-day passes. Not part of this initial pilot: SEPTA Key’s “Travel Wallet” —the aspect we’ve all been waiting for, the thing that will replace tokens and exact change. During the pilot, SEPTA Key will only work on SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, Broad Street Line, Market-Frankford Elevated, and Norristown High Speed Line.
To be part of the 10,000, show up to one of the 12 stations that will have activated kiosks to purchase the new fare cards. You can also pick one up at SEPTA’s HQ, 1234 Market Street.
Around 101,000 riders use weekly or monthly passes, so should you get up before dawn to make sure you’re one of the lucky few? Probably not, said Leslie Hickman, SEPTA’s deputy chief officer for SEPTA Key integration.
“[Go] as soon as you’d normally travel to one of those stations,” she said, before cautioning that SEPTA really doesn’t know how many people will want to sign up for the pilot. Hickman recommended that riders give themselves a few more minutes than they usually would, in case there is a line at the kiosks.
This phase of the pilot will last a few months, said Hickman. The next step, which will happen “sometime over the summer” will remove the 10,000 person cap, allowing everyone who missed out on the pilot to get a SEPTA Key for weekly or monthly passes. The kiosks will also expand: All 53 stations will have an active one, instead of the 13 locations for this pilot.
But what about the tokens? When will Philadelphians at long last get to toss their tokens?
“I'm confident that by the end of this year, early next year, we'll be in a position to really start rolling out those features of the full transit launch,” said Hickman.
That’s just SEPTA Key’s first phase, mind you. Regional Rail riders: You’ll be waiting a few months longer before SEPTA Key will replace your trailpasses and punched-out tickets.
On Wednesday, SEPTA offered PlanPhilly an early preview and tutorial on how to get a card. It’s fairly straightforward and intuitive.
Using a touch screen on a kiosk, riders pick that they want a new card, and what kind of fare instrument they want to put on it. Then, pick your payment: cash or credit? You can also trade in tokens using the kiosk, using the machine’s coin slot. A small, but appreciated, feature: If you use cash, you don’t need to bother with putting your bills in heads up. “As long as it’s real, we don’t care,” said Hickman.
Despite the kiosk’s ease, SEPTA is not taking any chances that riders will be able to navigate the new system on their own. If you get stuck, you’ll have lots of help.
SEPTA will have 50 “ambassadors” on hand across the 13 locations to help assist customers with the new kiosks. On top of that, there’ll be plenty of revenue officers—ticket agents—and each station will be staffed by a member of SEPTA’s senior staff. Passengers could also call a dedicated hotline at a nearby phone, or pull of this tutorial video on their phones.
Only weekly and daily passes will be available on Monday. Riders who usually get a monthly pass can pick up a SEPTA Key, and then buy next month’s pass on June 20th, as per usual.
The biggest improvement for pass holders, who already simply swipe or show a card to get on the bus or train, will be the ability to buy passes online, without having to physically wait in line to pick up a new one. Once you get your hands on a SEPTA Key Card, you can register it online at SEPTAKey.com. In addition to letting you buy new passes online or setting up a reoccurring charge, registered SEPTA Key holders will have their fares guaranteed, meaning that losing a pass won’t be the disaster it is today. Lose your registered SEPTA Key, and you can simply get another one, stocked with whatever you had on it before.
SEPTA has delayed and delayed this rollout due to unexpected challenges putting together the backend software. This pilot will be the easiest test, as it’s only using the weekly and monthly passes. The harder test won’t be until near the end of this year, when the token-replacing travel wallet aspect goes live. That’s when issues like mispriced transfers will rear their ugly heads.
SEPTA hasn’t quite ironed out all those kinks, said Hickman. “There are pieces that have to be rolled out in smaller increments—it’s hard to go from a token to a contactless chip card—and there are some issues that still have to be worked out with the travel wallet.”
By then, SEPTA Key will be around three years late.
Despite all the delays and hiccups and the less-than-full-throttle debut, SEPTA officials are excited. “It’s like Christmas,” said Hickman.
Let’s hope SEPTA hasn’t been naughty this year; the authority’s taken enough lumps over the Key to last it a lifetime.