Four transformative changes SEPTA can make to be more rider-friendly

A temporary high platform constructed by Long Island Railroad in 2020. (Long Island Railroad)

A temporary high platform constructed by Long Island Railroad in 2020. (Long Island Railroad)

Today, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is dreaming bigger than it has in the last 40 years. With a full trolley overhaul in the works, station upgrades, rail extensions and a once-in-a-lifetime, clean-slate reimagining of the bus network — Southeast PA is poised to make a transit comeback of global significance. It’s about time.

But at moments like these, it’s easy to forget about the more immediate ways we can improve rider experience, not years into the future, but now. Here are four transformative plans that SEPTA won’t need a federal grant to implement. In fact, they could deploy these mass transit hacks in the next year.

Modernize communication with riders

On the internet, there’s one data feed that provides third-party apps like Transit App, Google Maps and Apple Maps with routes, schedules, and notifications from SEPTA. It’s the most effective way of getting crucial information to riders. But in SEPTA’s case, it’s equally great at distributing wrong information. For example, on the 106 (which runs the length of the Main Line), SEPTA had the following advisories posted.

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Here’s a link to the archived page (click on the page’s “advisory” tab), because after this op-ed is published, I’m hoping these notifications will get taken down. I say this because every single sentence posted here is false. First, the Villanova stop was not moved East, it was moved West. (The move has since been made permanent.) The Eastbound stop at Ithan Ave was reinstated in 2020. The stop at Lancaster Ave. and Valley Rd. has also been working fine for the last two years at least. This same alert was also cross-posted to the 105, despite the 105 not serving Valley Rd. since 2016.

This is just my own bus route, and there are similar, extremely out-of-date advisories posted across the whole system. Even worse, important information about planned track work and road work is often posted late, or never. And when it is, it’s awfully hard to access.

Imagine you’re a transit authority. You have to reduce service on a rail line for construction, and you want to get the word out. The first thing you would do is delete the canceled train departures from the affected stops on your data feed, then you would post a concise notification explaining the change. But, in nearly all cases (such as, during the July 4th fireworks this year), SEPTA prefers to leave the wrong schedule data up to confuse riders and post the real schedule in a PDF, linked in a webpage that can only be accessed via the website or in a tweet posted to the line’s Twitter account.

This slipshod and apathetic approach to communication breeds distrust among riders with ruthless efficiency amid the greatest ridership crisis in history. Winning back patrons means providing information channels users can actually trust. The good news is that some transit authorities have already done it.

On a trip to Boston, I had to take a ride on the MBTA’s “D Branch.” Unfortunately, the line had been shut down that day for track work. But instead of leaving a misleading data feed, MBTA removed all departures on the D Branch from third-party apps. Then, it programmed in a new route for the shuttle bus, complete with a schedule and stop locations. This allowed Google Maps to tell me exactly where to stand, no PDFs required. I got where I was going barely 10 minutes late, and if I hadn’t seen the notification, I might not have even known anything was wrong.

When there’s a bus detour, MBTA reprograms the digital route to reflect the change. When individual stops are affected, notifications are targeted to those locations. MBTA has also partnered with Transit App to improve the reliability of real-time tracking (something SEPTA could also take note of) and show live crowd levels on vehicles. When I returned to Southeast PA, the contrast was stark.

Thankfully, SEPTA seems to be inching in the right direction. It created digital routes for the substitute buses of the 101 and 102. And earlier this month, during track work on the Southwest Connection, SEPTA updated the digital schedules to reflect schedule changes on the Wilmington/Newark, Media/Elwyn, and Airport lines. So even though the notification fails to mention that the Wilmington/Newark and Airport Lines will board from the lower platforms, it’s an encouraging step forward for SEPTA. I can’t wait to see more.

Skirt the Schuylkill Expressway

It’s no secret that the bus routes running the Schuylkill Expressway are among SEPTA’s most unreliable. The 124 and 125, after traveling this erratic artery of single occupancy vehicles for 14 miles, routinely see delays in excess of 30 minutes. There’s no way schedule padding can fix that. But the real crime is that in the latest Bus Revolution drafts, SEPTA plans to double down on this traffic travesty by maintaining or even adding express service to the highway. There is a better way.

After reaching Gulph Mills, the 125 and 124 could skip the highway, instead traveling 2.6 miles over to Conshohoken, on the Manayunk/Norristown Line. Riders could then make a timed traffic-free transfer to Center City by rail. Just like the 124 and 125, the train stops at Wissahickon. And soon, Conshohocken will be wheelchair accessible.

There are only two snags. First is frequency. By alternating, the twin routes maintain a half-hourly mid-day frequency. So in order for this plan to work, the frequency would need to be doubled on the current hourly Manayunk/Norristown. It sounds expensive, but it’s important to remember that truncating the buses eliminates at least 70 vehicle hours per weekday, covering the cost of increased rail frequency.

The Delaware Valley Planning Commission came to the same conclusion when it studied this same idea back in 2009. Consolidating resources to a single, more frequent service will also build ridership along the rail line, something non-stop highway travel can’t do. A potential political barrier is that converting the 124 and 125 to rail-feeders could upset the delicate balance of service allocation between counties. All the more reason to make the switch next year as part of Bus Revolution.

As for the increased fare for travelers? That can be fixed too.

Revamp railroad revenues

SEPTA has long been criticized for the oddly high fares charged on regional rail trips between inner zones and center city. Regional rail trips within Philly often cost more than $1 per mile. But running on a tight budget, SEPTA is wary of potential shortfalls in fare revenue, so it continues the current fare structure. In doing so, SEPTA’s leaders have made an implicit assumption that, while high prices may deter ridership, they make up for it by milking more money from remaining passengers. Is this really true?

Nowhere does SEPTA adopt this fare philosophy more than with trips from Center City to the airport. Escalating to $6.50 (Zone 4) in only 8 miles, the pricing scheme is designed to exploit out-of-towners and people who don’t want to pay for airport parking (but can’t find a friend to drop them off). It’s a shakedown, so you’d assume the Airport Line is raking it in, right? Wrong.

Pre-pandemic, the Airport Line recovered only 15% of its operating cost in fares, the lowest among the 13 lines, which averaged 38%. If SEPTA’s goal was to make money, no other line did worse. This same effect is part of the reason why, despite their dense surroundings, outer city stations like North Broad and Angora are among the lowest ridership stops in the system. This is the natural result when fares are the highest where people are the poorest.

Pricing out a majority of potential riders was always a losing strategy, but in a world where more white-collar work now takes place online, it’s suicidal. To its credit, SEPTA knows and acknowledges the problem. But, has been slow to adapt, planning to lower Zone 1 fares by just 25¢. They’ve recently implied that Regional Rail fares will have to be changed as part of Reimagining Regional Rail, a long-term overhaul of infrastructure and service patterns.

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While it is true that Regional Rail can’t be priced as low as PATCO until it runs like PATCO (no conductors or low platforms), SEPTA has more room for immediate change than it lets on. The key to that reform is, well, Key.

Before SEPTA Key was implemented on Regional Rail in 2020, it was critical to have a fare structure that conductors could keep track of. Comprehension is the reason intermediate (not through Center City) trips are $3.75, regardless of trip length. It’s why peak prices remain in effect mid-day. It’s the reason there are even zones at all.

In fiscal year 2023, SEPTA should take advantage of the hundreds of millions invested in SEPTA Key, and adopt a new system with fares based on the number of zones traveled, regardless of which zones. Here’s my proposal for how to do that.

Current fares (with SEPTA Key)

Notes:

  • No transfers between Regional Rail and other modes.
  • Airport line does not get an off-peak discount.

Suggested new fares (With SEPTA Key)

Notes:

  • Fares increase $1 at rush hour (6:00-9:30 a.m. & 4:00-6:30 p.m.) only in the peak direction of travel (excluding Airport Line)
  • When transferring from rail to bus/metro routes, the bus/metro section is free.
  • When transferring from bus/metro to rail, the Regional Rail fare is discounted $2 (essentially refunding the bus/metro fare).
  • New Jersey trips are $1 extra. (New Jersey does not subsidize the Trenton or West Trenton lines.)

While not perfect, this new system I’m proposing solves a few major problems while preserving fare revenue. It lowers fares more in the inner zones, where high prices are most destructive to ridership. It spares reverse commuters, who are on average poorer, from peak pricing. It brings zone pricing to intermediate trips, instead of the current flat $3.75. And it breaks down the price barrier between Regional Rail and other modes by providing the same transfer discount the rest of the system currently enjoys.

So yes, for the most part, this is a fare cut. However, I’m specifically targeting the fare cut to the types of trips that are now artificially uncommon, thanks to high prices. It’s for this reason that I think a fare restructuring like this would not reduce revenues. In fact, revenues may increase. If SEPTA wants a short-term compromise between the realists and the idealists, it’s my hope that they’ll take a look at this proposal.

Get creative with accessibility

Like other legacy transit systems, SEPTA is working to upgrade stations to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, one by one. Every station that’s overhauled is rebuilt with ramps, elevators, or high platforms to make it wheelchair accessible. But, it’s slow going. SEPTA’s current strategy is to bundle accessibility upgrades with full station reconstructions, pushing full accessibility well into the 2030s.

In response, some have suggested that SEPTA do accessibility upgrades first as separate projects. That would mean doubling the number of construction projects, increasing costs and route disruptions. Thankfully, there’s a technique SEPTA can use to reach accessibility fast and economically.

Across the world, when passenger railroads rebuild stations, many install temporary high-level platforms to maintain accessibility. For the Third Track project, Long Island Railroad has constructed temporary platforms out of steel scaffolding. At Paoli station, Amtrak built high-level scaffold platforms before the concrete ones were finished.

SEPTA can do the same, fast-forwarding to near full accessibility across the Regional Rail network. Many stations could receive full-length scaffold platforms. Where a full platform won’t fit, SEPTA can install mini-high platforms to provide level boarding at the front door. Even at stations requiring clearance for freight trains, SEPTA could equip the mini platforms with bridgeplates to span the gap. But of course, platforms aren’t the only obstacle.

On the Norristown High Speed Line, all 22 stations have high platforms, but thanks to stairs, only six are wheelchair accessible. At many stations, SEPTA could construct temporary scaffold overpasses, or in many cases, connect scaffold ramps to an existing road crossing.

The toughest stations are along the Broad Street Line, where low ceilings and tight corridors leave no room for ramps.  None are more pressing than City Hall Station. Arguably SEPTA’s most important transfer point, making this three-dimensional labyrinth ADA compliant is going to be a logistical nightmare.

Instead of forcing Philadelphia’s disabled community to wait it out, SEPTA should investigate installing stairlifts. For only a few thousand dollars, there are models available that can easily fit on the 40-inch wide staircases leading down to the BSL platforms. They could be user-operated, or if SEPTA (understandably) doesn’t trust the general public, staff operated. Vandalism is a risk, but no more than for SEPTA Key validators.

Of course, SEPTA should keep plowing ahead with station reconstructions and elevator installations. But, for SEPTA’s disabled riders, there is enormous value in having a scaffold platform now while they wait for the concrete one. To anyone who says we can’t keep ugly scaffolding up for years on end, try telling that to New York City.

SEPTA can make these changes

Across the world, transit leaders are used to getting grilled for problems they have little control over. SEPTA receives a steady stream of complaints about bus stops maintained by municipalities, service levels controlled by state funding, delays caused by cars, and anything that happens on their property. I imagine it’s exhausting.

But, the four examples outlined here are of the rare variety where there really is no signal to wait for. These problems, and their solutions, are completely internal to SEPTA. If we wanted, we could make nearly every station accessible, modernize our regional rail fares, get buses off I-76 and finally bring SEPTA’s rider communication into the 21st century. We could do it this year, and we wouldn’t need permission or help from anyone.

Alex is a member of 5th Square studying urban planning at Rutgers, and a graduate of WHYY’s Summer Journalists Program.

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