Why SEPTA’s annual open house drew fewer riders than your morning train

Ben She is on the transit committee for an activist organization called 5th Square. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ben She is on the transit committee for an activist organization called 5th Square. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA averages close to 700,000 riders daily but attendance at the transportation authority’s annual open houses on Tuesday could barely fill a train car.

SEPTA advertises the public forums as an opportunity to learn about proposed changes to bus and rail schedules, routes and other services. It’s one of a few times a year when the general public gets an invite into the agency’s Center City headquarters to hear updates on the network’s operations and share feedback.

This year, that invite apparently didn’t travel far. Only 32 people signed in to the two open houses held at 1234 Market Street.

That’s a problem, riders and advocates say. People who rely on the agency’s buses and trains everyday missed the chance to be in the room with SEPTA officials.

“It was very cool to get to talk to SEPTA employees about their new standards,” said Joe Gallagher, from the Philly Transit Riders Union, a transit advocacy group. “It would’ve been useful to many more people if they would’ve known to show up.”

Gallagher showed up at SEPTA’s board room for the evening session, where only 10 individuals signed in, including at least one affiliated with SEPTA.

Gallagher complained the listing was buried on the website. He also pointed to a 2018 SEPTA survey that identified communication as an area of improvement for the transportation giant.

Customers rated SEPTA’s communication 6.6 out of 10, the lowest rating out of six categories. Cleanliness was the next lowest at 6.8, and the overall rating was 7.3.

Erica Watson relies on SEPTA daily to commute between her North Philadelphia home, work and school. She said she never saw or heard any announcements about the open houses though they took place just blocks away from her bus stop at Seventh and Market streets.

She suggested that SEPTA dip into its advertising budget a little more to communicate with customers.

“Why should I have to follow you to keep up,” said Watson, “especially for something like an open house? I would think that that would’ve been something that they would’ve purchased some airtime for. It’s not hard to put a package together and make a commercial.”

It does takes some digging to find the announcement for the open house on SEPTA’s website and currently SEPTA only advertises public hearings, but SEPTA says its working on improving its communications with customers.

The agency just unveiled a beta version of its Key website designed to be more intuitive and easy to read, and multiple social media accounts responded to questions lobbed at the agency online.

The agency’s main Twitter account, SEPTA Social counts 29,000 followers. Another 70,000 follow the agency across two Facebook accounts.

But getting offline and out of Center City to talk to customers where they are is even more important, said Mark Cassel, a director of service planning and schedules for SEPTA.

“We’re working on strategies as part of this process to do that going forward,” he said.

The agency is “cognizant” that better outreach to their riders is an area of improvement, said Dan Nemiroff, senior operations planner.

“I think there is a good chance that later in the summer we’ll do a little more outreach to areas we don’t typically go, knowing that not everybody can come to SEPTA at noon on a weekday or at five on a weekday.”

Route changes under consideration

One of the topics likely to come up in those outreach sessions is the future of four experimental routes now under consideration for permanent status.

The routes that could become permanent include:

Route 40: A change to the alternate routing utilizing Pine Street during times when South Street is congested.

Route 73: A change to the routing to enter the Shoppes at Wissinoming Shopping Center during business hours for improved access to a full service supermarket.

Route 104: A change to the end of line at West Chester University is proposed to address a University proposal to close a street at the previous end of line at Church Street and University Avenue. The new end of line would keep buses on High Street to and from the Swope Performing Arts Center.

Route 131: Service was added to a portion of Egypt Road and Shannondell Boulevard to improve service to the Audubon Village Shopping Center and Shannondell at Valley Forge. This was implemented in conjunction with improved off-peak and weekend service.

The route changes are scheduled for an approval vote by the SEPTA board at a public meeting planned for May.

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