Why SEPTA doesn’t let seniors use a driver’s license to get discounts

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Pennsylvania Lottery funds a program giving seniors free or discounted transit rides. Some 70,000 of these trips are taken every day in Philadelphia, according to SEPTA’s figures. But many others are missing out on the perk due to a quirky SEPTA policy.

Right now, seniors have to flash a Social Security card, Medicare card, or a special transit ID card to take advantage of the deal. Missing from the list? A regular old Pennsylvania driver’s license.

SEPTA’s Andrew Busch says there is some logic to this omission. He says a driver’s license forces transit workers to do the date-of-birth math in their head, potentially causing delays. Busch says another reason is that some seniors are not comfortable showing their license to a stranger.

“If you think about an operator having to look at a person’s individual license and having to examine the detail on that, as opposed to someone holding up their Medicare card,” Busch said.

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An official from the state Department of Transportation confirmed that a Pennsylvania drivers license under its rules could be used by SEPTA, noting that other transit systems allow them.

SEPTA’s Busch says drivers licenses will be accepted for age verification once it installs its smart card system called SEPTA Key. “Our fare system hasn’t kept up with a lot of other technology, so when we make the transition over, then we’ll be able to accept those swipes,” Busch said.

When it finally launches some time this year, seniors will be able to slide their licenses in SEPTA card readers, and that’ll be enough for senior status to pass muster.

“What will happen is, someone will tap and pay their regular fare and a green light will go off. If it’s a driver’s license, or a senior photo ID, a different color light will go off,” Busch said. “The driver, or the conductor, will kind of just look to make sure the person isn’t just a 20-year-old who stole his grandmother’s ID.”

Until then, however, some seniors may find themselves dismayed that a state driver’s license isn’t enough to enjoy a free subway trip. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the free and discounted senior riding program started two summers ago. In fact, it started in 1991. There were fare increases two years ago, but they did not impact the senior riding program. 

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