Beyond SEPTA Key: New program replaces tokens for people in need

Disposable swipe cards are now an option for social service agencies.

A customer holds up a SEPTA Key card.

A customer holds up a SEPTA Key card. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

For most of us, the SEPTA token died on April 30, 2018.

That’s the official date that the transit authority quit selling tokens, which were redeemable for one ride on any SEPTA bus, subway or trolley.

Tokens have since been replaced by the Key Card, a reloadable swipe card that you fill up with money and use over time. For many Philadelphians, the switch to an electronic payment method added convenience to riding public transportation.

But the Key isn’t necessarily more convenient for everyone. It posed new challenges for people experiencing economic hardship, who need a little help paying for SEPTA fare and often receive tokens through social service agencies.

Nonprofits and charitable agencies often provide their clients with tokens to access public transportation. That way, they can reach employment opportunities, doctor’s appointments and other faraway services using SEPTA.

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In the absence of tokens, nonprofits and charitable agencies have said the Key wouldn’t cut it.

Shawne Hunter, a benefits counselor at the Impact Services Corporation, said providing her clients with the Key wouldn’t be feasible. How would she refill the cards for them? And how would she get them back if clients discontinue receiving services?

“When it comes to the Key Cards,” Hunter said, “I think we’re going to run into a rough patch.”

With that in mind, SEPTA designed a solution.

SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey Kneuppel uses a Key card at a turnstile in the concourse under Dilworth Park. (Anna Orso/Billy Penn)

Introducing the ‘Partner Program’

SEPTA is rolling out a brand new program designed to replace bulk token sales to Philadelphia social service agencies. A spinoff of the Key, SEPTA’s Partner Program was launched back in March to accommodate agencies whose services aren’t compatible with the electronic payment method.

To accommodate social service agencies, SEPTA allowed them to continue to buy tokens in bulk. SEPTA officials hope the Partner Program is a more permanent solution that will eventually eclipse bulk token sales completely.

The new program offers two options, which are both available as disposable swipe cards:

  • The two-trip transit route: this one is good for two trips, and it won’t expire until you use them both.
  • The one-day pass: this one is good for eight trips, and it expires at the end of the day (even if you don’t use all the trips).
A rendering of the disposable Partner Program cards (SEPTA Handout)

These passes are available at the same cost as bulk tokens. Once you use them, you can throw them away.

So far, SEPTA has registered 135 social service agencies for the Partner Program. Over time, officials are hoping to recruit 600 total.

“This is a culture change to the SEPTA rider,” Dennis Hiller, SEPTA’s chief officer of ridership, revenue, advertising and sales, told Billy Penn. “Even though it’s been a slow rollout, we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Automated and all online

Though the cost is the same, there are a few main differences between bulk token sales and the new Partner Program:

  • Social service agencies will have to register for the Partner Program online. Bulk token sales required paper registration, either in person or via fax.
  • Agencies have to buy the disposable swipe cards online and have them shipped to their physical location — unlike the option to buy bulk tokens in person at SEPTA HQ.
  • The new program requires a minimum purchase: agencies have to buy at least 50 cards and can snag as many as 9,750 at one time.
  • To buy the swipe cards, agencies will have to use an automated clearing house payment. Basically, that means you have to pay directly from a checking account by providing your routing and account numbers. For bulk token sales, agencies could pay using a credit card.

Note: the ACH payment requirement may soon change. SEPTA is now developing a credit card payment method for its Partner Program, and officials expect to launch it this summer.

The registration page for SEPTA’s Partner Program. (Screenshot/SEPTA Vimeo)

Bulk tokens will persist

Meanwhile, SEPTA will continue to provide the option for bulk token sales to registered social service agencies.

“We’re not even anticipating a date yet to end that,” said Thomas Kelly, SEPTA’s director of sales. “That could be in a very long time.”

For some agencies, that means there’s no sense of urgency to switch to the Partner Program. After all, the program they’ve been using for decades — the one they’re already comfortable with — isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

On Wednesday, Hunter attended a SEPTA open house meant to explain the Partner Program to social service agencies.

In some ways, the presentation was comforting for Hunter. She’s glad the bulk token program isn’t on its way out just yet, and she’s glad she won’t be forced to give her clients their own Key Cards any time soon. Impact Services has such a high client turnover, she said, that a prepaid card might cause more problems than it would solve.

Sure, Hunter said, the disposable swipe cards were appealing — but that’s mostly because they’re so similar to the bulk token program. She’s got no immediate plans to make the switch.

“Honestly, you get the same thing out of it as the tokens,” Hunter said. “We’ll probably just stick with the tokens.”

(Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

SEPTA has already sold about $200,000 in Partner Passes, and officials plan to continue outreach to recruit more agencies.

Wednesday’s open house was the 12th one that SEPTA has hosted this year — all with the goal of briefing social service agencies on the new program. SEPTA is planning another one for this August.

As SEPTA continues recruitment, it also plans to expand the Partner Program to offer more services. In addition to credit card payments, officials want to launch a one-trip card and a one-trip card with a transfer. They expect those to hit the market in the fall of 2018.

“This isn’t something we’re going to stop in a month,” Hiller said. “We’re going to continue to do this until we feel that we’re near 100 percent.”

WHYY is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly


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