PlanPhilly

Answers for all your SEPTA Key questions

On Monday, SEPTA will stop selling tokens at subway stations, taking a long-awaited leap forward in the neverending game of hopscotch that is the rollout of its new fare payment system, SEPTA Key. The end of station token sales represents a significant first step towards scrapping the fare coins entirely in 2019, a full five years after their original retirement date.

With this incremental moment upon us, it seemed like an opportune time to check in on all the other Key promises SEPTA has made, and a few features added in response to customer feedback.  

Regional Rail

When SEPTA first signed a contract with Conduet (nee Xerox) in 2011 to develop and install a new payment system, the two parties hoped to finish implementation across all of SEPTA’s modes, ending with Regional Rail, by the fall of 2014. Fast forward four years and SEPTA now expects to start testing Key on Regional Rail this spring, starting with a group of “early adopters” at Zone 4 stations. As with the transit rollout in 2016, SEPTA will pilot the system with weekly and monthly pass holders first.

SEPTA has installed Key validators at most of the outlying Regional Rail stations and has added turnstiles and gates to the system’s five Center City stations. Regional Rail will rely on a double-tap system, tapping their cards both when they get on and off their trains. Commuters heading into the city will tap their cards on one of the free-standing validators on the platform before boarding. If they forget or don’t have the time before running onto their train, riders will be able to have a conductor tap them in using a handheld validator. A rider that doesn’t get tapped in will risk paying the maximum fare when they tap out. The platforms at the Center City stations will be blocked off with turnstiles requiring a second tap to exit. The Metro in Washington D.C. uses a fairly similar tap in/out system.

SEPTA hasn’t yet decided how exactly the Regional Rail rollout will progress. Still unknown: whether Key access will be expanded zone-by-zone or all at once and when the Key’s pay-as-you-go function will be activated. SEPTA Deputy General Manager Rich Burnfield says he expects everything to be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Parking payment integration

Once everything’s working smoothly on Regional Rail, SEPTA will turn towards allowing riders who drive to their stations to pay for parking using the Key.

Discounted "quick trips"

When SEPTA first debuted its “quick trips” — one-way fare tickets sold at full, non-discounted price — they were good only from the station of purchase. The authority has since changed that to make the paper tickets usable for transit anywhere, like tokens.

Still, lots of social service organizations have lamented the impending loss of tokens, which they buy in bulk or pool among employees to hand out to those they serve. “We give tokens to all of our participants for coming to meetings and appointments,” says Val Sowell, a Senior Training Consultant at Philadelphia FIGHT.

Even with the newly flexible quick trips, those organizations would lose the fifty cent discount tokens provide.

Never fear, says Burnfield.  SEPTA plans to make new smart card available to social organizations in bulk, and at the same 50 cent discount. “We are working on communications that we will be sending out to all our social service agencies that we have a business relationship with,” Burnfield says.

The “disposable smart media” cards will be configured to provide either two trips or a single all-day pass.

SEPTA   will continue to offer bulk token sales to social groups while it works on getting the disposable smart card system up and running — exact date, TBD.

A Sharable Key

“We have heard from our customers that they are looking for a product that they can use for multiple trips — for family members or friends as you travel together throughout the city,” says Burnfield. “So we are working on having the travel wallet so it can have multiple taps as you go into a station or ride SEPTA.”

That function should be ready by the end of the year, the SEPTA official says.

A kiosk in every station

One of the largest frustrations with tokens was that not every SEPTA station had a token machine. The costs of maintaining, plus emptying and reloading, the unreliable machines meant that SEPTA deployed them only at busier stops.

The Key kiosks will be easier to service, and so every high speed rail station now has at least two, says O’Brien. That doesn’t include some of the underground trolley stations, however, where riders still pay their fares as they board.

...and better kiosks, too

After PlanPhilly reported on the hundreds of riders who, misled by the Key kiosks’ confusing interface, had accidentally requested a second (or third, or fourth…) card, SEPTA redesigned the touchscreen machines’ menus. In SEPTA’s typically cautious fashion, the transit agency started with a small pilot of the changes before expanding. Burnfield confirmed that now all of the kiosks have the improved user interface.

The Key at the corner store

For years, many SEPTA riders have relied on their corner store or newsstand to pick up tokens. With Key, SEPTA promises to expand the number of non-SEPTA retail locations from 250 to 1,500 spots to buy and reload Key Cards, which would include convenience stores, supermarkets, and pharmacies, including Wawa, CVS and Acme.

SEPTA is currently testing the system at  11 locations and plans to start expanding sometime this spring.

Prepaid debit card functionality

Once the the expanded retail network is up and running, so too will the Key Card’s retail wallet function, which will allow riders to add cash to a prepaid debit account on the card for use anywhere that takes MasterCard.

The new function comes with some potential headaches for riders. Another set of options from which users must select means another chance for something to go wrong. And while there are no additional fees for using Key to board trains or buses, riders who want to use their cards’ retail wallet to pay for anything else will have to pay $4.95 a month to maintain that account, plus service fees for adding or withdrawing cash. The goal is to give people without access to bank accounts and their associated debit cards another plastic cash option.

“It’s something we will have to clearly communicate,” says Burnfield. “Any time you roll out something new, communications is important — that’s something we’ve certainly learned a lot about as we have rolled out different features of the Key. We really need to communicate what those changes are.”

The $5 Key

Right now, the minimum amount you can add to SEPTA Key is $10. Not only is that inconvenient, it can effectively put the cost of a discounted fare out of reach for those living on the tightest of budgets. Today, anyone who can scrap together two bucks in change can get a token. But come Monday, they’ll need at least $10 to get or add to the Key, or be stuck paying the full $2.50  non-discounted fare.

Burnfield says that the authority is “looking to reduce that from $10 to $5,” but he had no estimate for when that might happen.

An easy-to-use Key website

Conduet has hired a subcontractor to overhaul the Key’s clunky and confusing website. SEPTA expects the company — Cogniance, a large customer experience design firm — to deliver a user-friendly site sometime in the late summer or early fall.

The site will be fully responsive, meaning it’ll reshape itself to work well on phones and tablets. That will be vital for riders, as SEPTA says it won’t even think about developing an app for the Key (or adding Key functions to the existing app) until everything else is working.

Commuter benefits in a post-token, post-tax bill world

SEPTA will launch an “institutional portal” for employers who offer employees transit passes sometime later in the spring. This will replace the monthly passes employers offered through a commuter tax credit program — the cost of buying transit passes was considered “pretax,” meaning employers could deduct the amount from their payroll taxes and workers could deduct it from their income taxes. Instead of handing out new, physical passes every month, workers accounts will be updated.

One of the changes in the Republican tax reform bill that passed in December will make providing the transit benefit less appealing to employers, though. While employees will still get the deduction, employers have lost it. In practical effect, this just makes this fringe benefit slightly more expensive for most employers to provide. Whether that will be enough to cause some to stop offering their employees transit passes as part of their compensation packages remains to be seen.

Smartphone-based payments (e.g., Google Wallet and Apple Pay)

“It’s a functionality that’s in the contract with [Conduet],” said Kevin O’Brien, SEPTA Key’s senior project manager. “We’re trying to get [Regional Rail] rolled out before they start focusing on that, but that’s going to follow after.”

Integration with PATCO’s Freedom Card

SEPTA is pushing PATCO to get the Freedom Cards working on SEPTA Key system as soon as possible, says O’Brien. “Spring or summer, we’ll have PATCO — most likely — ready to go.”

As for other bank cards that use the same Near Field Communication (NFC) tap technology as SEPTA Key, O’Brien says they’ll start working on the system around the same time smartphone-based payments work.

Bad taps

Like the villain in a Dickens novel, SEPTA’s had a lot of trouble with “orphan” transactions — taps that don’t immediately register because the bus or trolley is effectively in a cellular dead zone. Unlike most other transit fare systems, Key is account-based, not card-based. That means all transactions need to connect to a central database through the internet.  Around four percent of transit taps were orphaned transactions in 2017, but Burnfield says SEPTA reduced the frequency over the course of the year.

According to Burnfield, an orphaned tap will eventually go through and register on SEPTA’s ledgers. Early on, these were particularly confounding hiccups because they Key validators wouldn’t offer any explanation to accompany the big red X and dejected bleats from a rejected transaction. Now, the machines tell riders why a transaction was denied, whether for low funds or a downed internet connection.

Turnstile account balance 

While riders will now see “low account balance” when they try to ride without enough money in their Key account, they still can’t see just how low that account balance is unless they return to the Key machine. Unlike most other cities’ transit fare systems, SEPTA Key does not tell passengers how much money they have on their account when they use it. And the transit agency has no plans to change that at this time.

“We’ll have to look at that in the future, if it’s feasible,” says O’Brien. “We’re not saying we’re not going to do it, but it’s not in the works right now.”

Senior cards

After some delays reported in the Inquirer, SEPTA says they have caught up producing and distributing new Key cards for senior citizens.

Individuals over 65 can ride SEPTA transit for free (and Regional Rail for just $1) using a valid Pennsylvania drivers license or a senior citizen transit ID card. Until this week, SEPTA also accepted valid Medicare cards. The personalized, photo-ID Key cards are meant to replace all of the different kinds of identification used to ride SEPTA as a senior.

Early on, SEPTA couldn’t keep up with demand and fell behind in distributing the new cards. Since hiring an outside contractor to take over senior card production, SEPTA has caught up, says Burnfield.

Personalized Cards

Starting sometime this spring, SEPTA says, riders will be able to order Key Cards with their names on them. Riders who prefer to remain anonymous will still be able to pick up “instant cards” from kiosks.

At some yet-to-be-determined point, SEPTA will begin charging for new cards, as most other transit agencies do for their smart fare instruments.

About the author

Jim Saksa, Reporter

Jim Saksa is PlanPhilly's transportation reporter, which means he focuses on how Philly bikes, walks, drives, rolls, and rides around the region. 

Jim lives in Point Breeze and has also written for Slate, Philadelphia City Paper, and Technical.ly Philly. He tweets @Saksappeal and you can reach him at jsaksa@whyy.org.



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