SEPTA Key Advantage: A Driving Force for a More Equitable Philadelphia

Access to reliable transportation is crucial to maintaining stable employment, achieving educational goals, accessing healthcare and social services, and participating in community life. With a per capita median income of under $30,000, transportation costs can be a significant burden on Philadelphians. How do we reduce that burden, while also maintaining a transit system that’s taken a huge hit in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

In other cities, unlimited access passes have been shown to increase ridership and improve access to economic and educational opportunities, while at the same time reducing traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, and transportation costs. Our team at ESI has spent the last couple of years researching peer transit agencies in places like Seattle, Boston, Columbus, Minneapolis, and Chicago. From these examples, we’ve pulled together best practices to help create an institutional pass program for Philadelphia. While there’s still plenty of work to be done in developing an array of universal pass solutions for various target groups (employers, students, developers and landlords, even business districts), SEPTA has recently taken a great leap forward with announcing the upcoming Key Advantage pilot.

As we continue to work with SEPTA on the launch of the pilot and the development of a permanent Key Advantage program, we anticipate three key benefits: less cars on the road, reduced costs, and a brighter future for SEPTA.

Less Cars on the Road

  • Public transportation can help reduce congestion. These last two years have been full of uncertainty, forcing many businesses to rethink their operations. While we continue to better understand what a future of living with COVID looks like, one thing is certain: Philadelphia will need a solution to accommodate return-to-office plans, especially for the many businesses located in the Center City and University City areas.
  • Parking can be freed up for those who need it. More often than not, finding parking in the city can be both expensive and challenging. For institutions like Penn Medicine (one of the Key Advantage pilot partners), reducing the need for employee parking opens more spaces for patients who need access to healthcare facilities.
  • It’s more sustainable than driving. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bus transit on average emits an estimated 33% lower greenhouse gas emission rate per passenger mile than the average single occupancy vehicle. Public transportation can therefore reduce carbon footprints not only by providing a low-emissions alternative to driving, but also by facilitating compact land use, reducing the need to travel long distances.

Reduced Costs

  • Cost-sharing across an organization lowers costs per person. While a monthly SEPTA pass can range between $96 for the TransPass (good for travel on Buses, Trolleys, the Norristown High Speed Line, the Broad Street and Market Frankford Lines) to $204 for the TrailPass (covering both Transit and Regional Rail), this new pilot allows employers to purchase six months of SEPTA all-access passes for their employees for as little as $140 for the full length of the pilot. The only catch is that employers must purchase these passes for all of their employees – not just those who currently use public transportation.
  • Rising gas prices have less of an impact on individuals. Gas prices have skyrocketed to record-breaking levels in recent months, up nearly 50% from one year ago. While individuals may be able to cut back on unnecessary trips, some cases such as travel to jobs, healthcare, and essential services can’t be avoided. No-cost transportation eliminates the cost burden to people, so they can sufficiently get where they need to go.
  • Transportation can become a competitive benefit to retain talent. The Great Resignation of the last year has been costly to employers. Recruiting, onboarding, lost productivity, and lost engagement add up. Offering free or significantly reduced transportation costs can become a competitive advantage for employers to help reduce turnover.

A Brighter Future for SEPTA

  • Institutional passes can help stabilize revenue. Transit ridership has dropped heavily across the country due to the pandemic. For transit agencies with institutional pass programs, however, revenue changes were less volatile.
  • More riders can lead to a safer experience. As Jane Jacobs’ said, in order for a street to be a safe place, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street” (Jacobs, 1961). The same sentiment of public spaces holds true on our buses and in our underground subway stations. More riders will lead to a greater feeling of safety.
  • Induced demand can lead to increased service levels. This spring, SEPTA service levels will get close to pre-pandemic levels. The potential increase in ridership that might come about with the Key Advantage program could lead to improved service times to meet the growing demand.

SEPTA has already made great strides in reducing the burden of transportation costs in recent years. The agency decided to hold off on price hikes due to the pandemic. Children under 12, if accompanied by a fare-paying adult, can now ride SEPTA for free. Additionally, a rider’s first transfer is now free. SEPTA has also extended the time window for a transfer from 90 minutes to two hours.

In tandem with these progressive strides, a new institutional pass program that allows employers, universities, or landlords to offer low or no-cost transit is just one more step forward in making SEPTA more accessible and improving equity in Philadelphia.


Tiffany Hudson | [email protected]

Tiffany Hudson is a senior analyst at ESI. Ms. Hudson provides expertise in economic development, marketing strategies, infrastructure planning, as well as business and government strategies. Her experience dates back to 2013 when she was a sales analyst and category manager for Kao, USA. Ms. Hudson has 8 years of professional experience in project management, data analysis, client management, spatial analysis, design thinking, and strategic planning.

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