SEPTA Key: Will Students Ride For “Free”?

Discounted transit for college kids could help keep them in Philly post-graduation.

Septa regional rail train

SEPTA Key—the transit agency’s next-gen fare payment system—is still in its pilot stage, two years after the transition away from tokens and cash was supposed to begin. Now, all SEPTA is saying is that it’s rollout is “expected” in 2015. Let’s hope we have electronic fares before the Pope.

But the long delays haven’t deterred speculation about the program. Over at Sic Transit Philadelphia, there’s a thought-provoking post about the looming changeover from tokens to plastic cards (or in self-explanatory jargon, the “New Payment Technology”). And the story brings good news. Michael Noda reports that SEPTA officials are open to granting more reduced fares within the new system, including to groups like university students, who might be able to ride on the cheap using their student IDs.

The new system will feature increased fares ($2.50 and due to rise again in 2016) for the general public. But college students may become huge beneficiaries of SEPTA Key. Right now, they can buy monthly TransPasses at a 10-percent discount, which, for a student living here year-round, would total up to about $1,000. The high cost is probably why only 50 percent of college students use SEPTA regularly and only 42 percent have a positive approval rating of our transit service, according to a survey by Campus Philly.

Pittsburgh and Providence are two cities that allow students to get “free” fares with student IDs. There is a flat fee applied to each student’s tuition cost, which is negotiated between the public transit agencies and consortiums of universities and colleges, after which unlimited rides are allowed. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Pittsburgh college students pay a $180-per-year fee to receive unlimited travel on its public transit system.

The advantages of giving students free-at-the-point-of-use transit could be several-fold. There’d be less students driving, and therefore, less need for campus parking. More importantly, the change might encourage students to live further off-campus. That could disperse and mitigate some of the negative externalities (aka gentrification) of students flooding certain swaths of West Philadelphia and North Philly—which are chosen for their proximity to campus. Here’s Noda:

City Hall might be skeptical, in its traditional habit of being afraid of all change, but blurring the geographic boundary between town and gown can only benefit a strapped city government that needs to rebuild a tax base to fund schools, infrastructure, and services, with 500,000 fewer people than the city was designed for.

Campus Philly also found that college students who felt a high degree of familiarity with the city were almost 20 percent more likely to stay after graduation. So maybe public transit is the secret to retaining our young talent? At least for college students, SEPTA Key might actually be worth the wait.