Will SEPTA Key Unlock the Doors to Public Transportation?

For the past year or so Philadelphia’s world of SEPTA riders has been abuzz, and often very bewildered, about the impending SEPTA Key Card system. As someone who is an avid public transportation rider, but has also always lived near stations that do not even have a token machine, the prospect of the SEPTA Key is certainly intriguing. Yet the slow, multi-phase roll-out of the new card system has often left riders more confused than convinced.


The SEPTA Key officially debuted last year, but has had a slow rollout. Up until recently the Key was available for purchase almost exclusively from the SEPTA headquarters at 1234 Market Street. This past month, SEPTA added another permanent buying location – 69th Street Transportation Center.


SEPTA logo. Image courtesy of http://septa.org/service/kt21.pdf via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to tacking on a second purchasing spot, a temporary buying phase, spanning roughly from February 13th to March 3rd, descended upon all Fare Kiosks at Market-Frankford Line, Broad Street Line, and Bus Loop Stations. Don’t worry – if you missed that opportunity, the next phase should not be too far behind.


Beyond the confusion of where and when to buy the elusive SEPTA Key, the way in which it has to be bought may also strike some as odd. For a first time buyer, the Key must be purchased with a Weekly or Monthly pass. After this initial purchase, the rider has the option to either continue with the Weekly or Monthly option, or to use the card to fill their Travel Wallet. The Travel Wallet allows the rider to take advantage of the discounted $1.80 fare by filling their card with a minimum of $10 (and up to $250) and using it as they please.


At the 69th Street Transportation Center the Key Card is purchasable without the commitment to a Weekly or Monthly pass, but with a minimum amount of $10 instead.


So, if you can figure out how to get your hands on the SEPTA Key, the options are endless. The cards are reloadable at any Fare Kiosk, major sales offices (such as 15th Street Station, Frankford Transportation Center, and 69th Street Transportation Center), by phone at 855-567-3782, or online at www.septakey.org, where you can also check your balance. There is also an autoload option where the card can be set up to refill on a monthly basis.


Additionally, building on the Quick Trip option launched last year, where riders can use a credit or debit card to purchase a single-ride at $2.25 at a kiosk, SEPTA has plans to enable contactless payment with any bank issued chip card at that same price. This way, even those without the SEPTA Key Card, which is also a contactless chip card, can move through the turnstiles with similar ease.


The current token design has been in place for around two decades.


While SEPTA has not launched any program to actually terminate the token, this is clearly the long term plan. Most stations no longer even have a token turnstile, as they have been replaced with the swiping system.


Some old, since retired SEPTA token designs. Photo courtesy of “The Cooper Collections” (uploader’s private collection) Digital photographs and composite image created by the uploader, Centpacrr via Wikimedia Commons

As the last city to still use tokens for major public transportation, this is definitely an important step for making SEPTA use more accessible and convenient for all, and bringing Philadelphia’s transit into the 21st century. The token will forever be a cherished relic by many of the city’s current and former inhabitants. It was brought to the city by the now defunct Philadelphia Transportation Company in the 1940s and incorporated by SEPTA in the late 1960s.


While the rollout of SEPTA Key has happened in an often clunky and confusing manner, we remain optimistic that, once the transition has happened, the convenience and access that the card system allows for will only bolster the ever changing and growing Philadelphia. No longer tied to tokens and the limited options for buying them, Philadelphia residents and visitors alike will be able to move about the city freely and conveniently. 

Super-Commuting Into The Future

As technology proliferates, the ways in which we choose to live and work continue to change and expand. In recent years, adapting to the modern workplace which often includes options for telecommuting, working on the go, collaborative workspaces, and businesses spanning multiple cities, many people have joined the ranks of what are termed “super commuters”. These are people who live in one city and commute to work in an entirely different city.


According to census data, in Philadelphia we hold roughly 1,500 of these super-commuters who live here and travel to New York City for work at least a couple times a week.


To some the sheer idea of this commute might seem absurd. We’ll admit, it took us a moment to wrap our heads around the concept as well, but when you start to break down the numbers and take a look at it, the concept doesn’t seem so out there after all.


With the lower cost of living in Philadelphia and the opportunity for higher wages in New York, these super commuters may have discovered an unbeatable combination. For the right job, not to mention the right living space, this lifestyle could be the perfect choice.


Train information board at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station


What’s more, with today’s trains, the commute from Philadelphia to New York City hovers just above one hour, which is comparable with the treks that many make daily from the outer Boroughs, Connecticut, and New Jersey, into Manhattan. Instead of paying the premiums to live in those locales, super-commuters can take advantage of Philadelphia’s lower cost of living while still cashing in on New York City job opportunities.


Curious about how the numbers add up in this equation, we decided to break it down and see.


30th Street Station in Philadelphia


According to the most recent census data, the median income in Philadelphia is $38,253, whereas the median in New York City is $53,373. Yet, data from Trulia shows that Philadelphia’s median rent comes in at $1,200 a month, compared to New York’s $4,400. Living in Philadelphia while commuting to New York would allow you to enjoy the former’s comfortable cost of living and still cash in on the latter’s higher wages.


Alternatively, if buying a home is on the table, then the numbers stack up even more in favor of a Philadelphia-New York commute. See the table below to see how a mortgage payment and Amtrak pass, which costs $1,339, adds up monthly. Mortgage figures were generated using Zillow’s mortgage calculator at current rates for a 30-year fixed plan and 20% down payment.


House Price                             Monthly Mortgage Payment              Monthly Payment w/ Amtrak

$200,000                                               $   781                                                     $2,120

$300,000                                                  1,151                                                      2,490

$400,000                                                  1,535                                                      2,874

$500,000                                                  1,907                                                      3,246


Additionally, property taxes in Philadelphia are significantly lower, with monthly payments and insurance only adding a couple hundred, at most, to these figures. The overall cost is definitely lower, but is it low enough to justify the long commute?


An Amtrak train departing Philadelphia


There are a number of other aspects of this super-commuter lifestyle to consider. A lot of employers offer programs where transportation tickets can be bought with pre-tax dollars that get deducted from your paycheck.


Other components include how many days a week you have to commute and if your employer will allow you to log work hours on the train. If you’re working a job where you only need to travel a couple days of the week and can work at home or elsewhere the other days, it might be more plausible. Amtrak offers a 10-ride ticket that costs $594 and is good for ten rides within a 45 day period. Alternatively, the bus is also an option. While it takes a little longer, Megabus and Boltbus tickets cost significantly less than Amtrak.



It is also important to consider what you are getting for these prices. In Philadelphia you can put less of your hard earned paycheck towards rent or a mortgage and get a whole lot more out of it when it comes down to space, variety, and amenities. So, while you may not be paying drastically less per month once you factor in transportation and other costs, your dollar is stretching further in Philadelphia, where rents still remain relatively low.


A view of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station by night


A 2012 study by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation placed super-commuting on the rise in most major U.S. metropolitan regions between 2002-2009. Philadelphia specifically experienced a 49.9% increase in this time, landing about 42,000 super-commuters. With the numbers showing a growing trend, joining the ranks of super-commuter’s might be an endeavor worth considering.

24-Hour Subway, 24-Hour City

SEPTA announced that it’s not yet bedtime for their 24-hour weekend subway service pilot program. Is this a step towards Philadelphia becoming a 24-hour city? If ridership remains high, the City of Brotherly Love may soon have a lot more nightlife to love.


Originally scheduled to end after Labor Day, SEPTA has extended the program through November 2nd. Making this service permanent would be a huge leap towards making Philadelphia an around-the-clock city, with both a booming daytime tourism industry and a happening after hours scene.


It would also put Philadelphia on par with Boston, which is also piloting 24-hour weekend service, and ahead of San Francisco and many European cities, including Paris, which lack 24-hour subways.


So far, Philadelphians have jumped at the opportunity to take the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines at all hours of the night. Ridership is up 50% during the extended hours, an indicator that the city’s late-night scene could grow substantially if the all-night service remains in place.


The presence of transit police on the trains during overnight hours has kept operations running smoothly, and no safety issues have been reported.


Late-night riders wait on the platform (left) and a poster (right) promoting the extended subway service. (Image courtesy of I SEPTA Philly)


The true test will be running the pilot between Labor Day and November 2nd, when the summer heat fades and universities are back in session. If ridership holds strong, proving that the extended service is financially feasible, SEPTA will consider running 24-hour weekend service beyond the pilot’s conclusion.


So go for that late-night screening, secret DJ set, or last call at your favorite bar—if you play the night owl, the City may follow your lead!


Opening image courtesy of Andrew Bossi.

How Philadelphia Gets To Work

A new report from the Center City District (CCD) has some fascinating figures about how Philadelphians commute to work. Relying increasingly on public transit, bicycles and their own two feet, these eco-friendly commuting habits have become increasingly important to the city’s continued development.


The CCD’s new report reveals in depth statistics on how Philadelphia’s commuters are uniquely different and far more environmentally-friendly than that of the average American. Unlike almost every other American community, Philadelphia’s urban core residents hardly use cars to get to work.


This auto-less commute is possible in part thanks to the sheer density of jobs in the area – the CCD report states that while our suburbs have just 0.9 jobs per acre, Center City boasts an impressive 203 jobs per acre. This remarkable density allows workers to eschew long, car-focused commutes and find jobs reachable by low-carbon emitting means of transit.


As one might suspect, the CCD report also states that the location and layout of different neighborhoods influences their residents’ commuting patterns. For instance, the close proximity of Center City’s residential and business areas means that fewer than one quarter of its residents drive to work. On the other hand, residents of Fairmount, who are near Downtown but have fewer public transit options, are the most likely to bike to work, while Chinatown residents, many of whom live right above their businesses, are the most likely to walk to work.


This map from the CCD Report shows the rate of car-free commuters in Center City. 75% or more of residents in Light Green areas do not use a car to get to work. Yellow areas indicate 50-75% and Orange areas under 50% of resident car-free commuters. (Image courtesy of C.C.D.)
This map from the CCD Report shows the rate of car-free commuters in Center City. 75% or more of residents in Light Green areas do not use a car to get to work. Yellow areas indicate 50-75% and Orange areas under 50% of resident car-free commuters. (Image courtesy of C.C.D.)


So what does all this information mean for the city of Philadelphia and its future development? According to Jerry Sweeny, President and CEO of the mega-developer Brandywine Realty Trust, a whole lot. He argues that access to solid transit systems is now a benchmark requirement for smart commercial real estate investment. At a recent forum on development, Sweeny said “There is no question that properties that have access to more than one form of transportation will perform better through peaks and valleys in economic cycles.” After years of market instability, this statement clearly suggests good things for Philadelphia’s continued development.


Of course, this transit-based growth is dependent on our civic leaders maintaining and expanding support for SEPTA, bike lanes, sidewalks and the other transit options that allow Philadelphians to make their green commutes. Like all perks of urban life, it’s something we cannot take for granted.