Why SEPTA Transfers Should be Free

Burnley: Eliminating transfer fees could make Philly's public transit system more convenient, more equitable and more popular.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Without a doubt, the most influential transportation project in Philadelphia over the last 40 years has been the Center City Commuter Connection. The tunnel, completed in 1984, made an unparalleled structural impact on travel in the region — unifying our regional rail system, pumping life into Market East, and transforming Suburban Station and Reading Terminal into the bustling hubs they are today. But, according to historian Jacob Kobrick, there was also a less jubilant outcome: “This project, more than anything else, helped to create the perception that Philadelphia’s mass transportation planning was biased strongly in favor of affluent, white suburbanites while paying inadequate attention to the needs of the inner-city poor.”

That’s because the trench was carved through Philadelphia’s downtown largely for suburban commuters — at a cost of $1.2 billion in 2016 dollars — while the poorest sections of the city were being serviced by oft-delayed buses and rickety trolleys. But this perception of inequality in the city’s transit system wasn’t only founded on infrastructure improvements. The price of inner-city traveling was also relatively regressive at the time. In 1987, the Inquirer found that the base fare on SEPTA was higher than the fares on transit systems in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s base fare now stands as the lowest among that same cohort — except for anyone who has to pay an additional $1 transfer. For these riders, the promise of cheap fares remains a mirage.

Once you incorporate the transfer fee into the cost of each city’s public-transit trip, Philly regains the unflattering title of being the most expensive of the bunch. (For the record, that’s $2.80 with a token or $3.25 with cash; a price increase of roughly 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively.) And there’s a simple reason why: None of the other agencies charge more than 25 cents for a transfer. Even better, in cities like New York, Houston and San Francisco, transfers are free.

Over time, critics of SEPTA’s fare structure have called on the agency to make transfers free. (For one quality take on the matter, read Jake Blumgart’s argument in Axis Philly from 2013.) It’s worth revisiting in 2016 for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the rollout of next-gen technology SEPTA Key is set for April (and we really, really hope it’s for real this time), which would make transfers so much easier to use. Plus, this spring also marks SEPTA’s triennial meeting on fare adjustment — where a free-transfer policy would need to be vetted.

For a transit system that has historically been lacking in equity, free transfers would be a step in the right direction. “The people paying for $1 transfers are often those who are not daily users or who can’t afford the pass,” says Greg Krykewycz, Manager of the Office of Transit, Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Granted, this group is a small portion of overall ridership — just seven percent of all trips involve a paper transfer, according to a 2012 DVRPC study — but it is also the most disadvantaged by the lack of a TransPass, which provides unlimited movement at no additional cost.

Of course, what seems fair to the rider might not be ideal for SEPTA’s bottom line. The transit agency makes $12 million annually off transfers, meaning it would be forced to compensate somewhere else, most likely through an increase to the fare price for all riders. (Asking for additional money from Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg  — especially for something labeled “free” — simply isn’t happening.) And, raising the base fare from $2.25 to, say, $2.50 risks backfiring on the very demographic the policy is intended to help: low-income riders. “You’re benefitting the folks who pay trip-by-trip and [are] making transfers, but hurting the people who’re paying trip-by-trip for the one ride,” says Krykewycz. “It’s a little bit robbing Peter to pay Paul no matter how you slice it.”

Then again, the revenue loss from transfers seems like a drop in the bucket at a time when SEPTA is currently discussing three transit-infrastructure projects with price tags of $500 million or more: the Bus Rapid Transit along Roosevelt Boulevard, an extension of the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard, and the connection of King of Prussia with the Norristown High Speed Line. Free transfers would likely grow overall ridership more than all three of these projects, according to their respective estimates — and at a fraction of the cost. The amount of discretionary users (i.e. tourists, suburbanites, occasional riders) who would become regular riders on account of free transfers would boost SEPTA ridership by 11 percent over time, according to the 2012 DVRPC study.

Comparing the financial impact of an operational change (transfers) to a capital expense (infrastructures projects) is not exactly congruent. But the fact remains that free transfers are a straightforward way to not only potentially grow ridership, but also to hopefully create a more equitable and healthier transit network. Riders would be incentivized to find the most efficient route, rather than taking roundabout, one-seat rides on a bus. The result would be more short, connecting bus rides to faster rail lines. Or, in practical terms, a lot more folks would opt for the underused Broad Street Line in lieu of an extended (and crowded) trip on the 47. Free transfers would speed travel times for riders, reduce demand on buses and, in the long-run, potentially eliminate routes. That could lower emissions and congestion, and eventually save millions of dollars for SEPTA.

Finding some way to pay for a free-transfer policy would bode well for the strength of the system overall. Ideally, it wouldn’t involve a fare increase. The 5th Square PAC has estimated that a discounted bulk fare program for local colleges could more than cover the costs of free transfers.

Still, smart money would not bet on transfers becoming free this year. When I met with Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA’s general manager, in November, he said that while the idea of free transfers is on his radar, the agency needs more data to understand the full impact of the revenue loss. Though SEPTA knows how much it makes on transfers — $12 million — the hit it’d take is more complicated. That’s because SEPTA doesn’t have a grasp on who is transferring to where or how many fewer riders would purchase TransPasses if transfers were included in the normal fare. “The Key will give us numbers to be able to evaluate where people are going, what kind of opportunities we have to deal with the loss of revenue with taking away transfers,” said Knueppel. “All along we’ve been discussing it and thinking about it. But [it] all comes down to doing something that wouldn’t hurt us.”

So it appears that free transfers will be tabled until at least 2019, when the next triennial fare discussions occur (and after the implementation of SEPTA Key). Financially, SEPTA’s hesitation is understandable. But operationally, it’s a shame, given that free transfers could in fact bolster SEPTA Key. “Peer agency experiences suggest that riders can be surprisingly resistant to adopting new fare systems for simple convenience; agencies that did not provide a financial incentive to use the smart card saw lower-than-expected adoption rates,” wrote the DVRPC in its 2012 report. If anyone who bought the new chip-enabled fare card was given the perk of free transfers, it would accelerate the adoption of the new payment technology. At the onset of this new generation of SEPTA, free transfers would be a worthy addition to the future of Philly public transit.