The SEPTA Key Trip Cap Is an Outrage! (Well, Maybe Not.)

Shouldn’t a monthly or weekly pass let you ride all you want? Well, with only four riders hitting the monthly limit right now, maybe SEPTA’s effort to cut down on pass-sharing is defensible.

Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA general manager, uses a SEPTA Key for the first time at City Hall.

Photo: Brian Thomas

In case you missed the memo — and you shouldn’t have, since SEPTA publicized it widely back in 2013 — if you load your monthly or weekly TransPass onto a SEPTA Key card, your pass now has a ceiling on it.

I knew this, too, but that didn’t make me any less upset when, on December 31st, I tried to board the Broad Street Line at Walnut-Locust only to have the reader tell me my Key card was declined. It seems that I was attempting my 241st trip on SEPTA that month, and the maximum number of trips you can take on a monthly pass is 240. (For weekly pass holders, the number is 56.)

So as I went over to the sales booth to buy some tokens, I vowed I’d do something to bring this absurdity to light. After all, in just about every other city where riders can buy passes, the passes are good for all the rides you care to take during the period the pass is valid. (In most places, that period is tied to the date you purchase the pass rather than the calendar, but that’s a subject for another essay.) When I shared my experience in a post to Facebook, a retired Toronto transit professional expressed surprise that any transit agency had a trip cap on passes.

That was before I heard about the “office pass.”

Anyone who remembers the bad old days before SEPTA and the state’s other mass-transit agencies got a dedicated funding stream should be able to sympathize with SEPTA’s concern with getting as much revenue as it can (and should) from its own operations. One of the ways the agency lost revenue was through people sharing passes.

It worked like this: A person buys a pass, and when he or she is not using it, leaves it where others can use it if they need. Those others then avoid having to shell out a fare for their trips, and SEPTA’s bottom line takes a little hit. Enough of these hits and you’re talking serious money.

“We had the [male/female] stickers before because we would hear secondhand stories about there being an ‘office pass,’” said SEPTA deputy general manager and treasurer Rich Burnfield. “If you had to run errands during the day, you could use it.”

But the gender stickers were a blunt instrument at best; Burnfield noted that one could simply buy two passes, one for the men in the office and the other for the women. And when SEPTA got rid of the gender stickers after riders, especially transgender ones, complained about them, it became even easier for riders to share passes among a household or a group of friends or co-workers.

And so it was that when SEPTA rolled out its initial fare options for the new payment technology, it decided to slap a cap on the number of rides a pass-holder could take. “We originally set lower limits,” said Burnfield, “but based on the feedback we got through the public hearing process, we increased the trip limits, and when we did, we set limits that would not impact 99 percent of our customers.”

So if I understand this right, this past December was the first time I’ve ever been part of the One Percent.

As it turns out, however, I was part of an even smaller minority. Because of the difficulty in enforcing the limits, SEPTA had decided not to set them when it discussed the idea in previous years. But the Key technology makes tracking use simple, and so when I asked Burnfield how many people tripped over the cap in December, he had numbers for me.

“In December, there were 2,364 individuals who had a Key card with a monthly TransPass. Four of them exceeded the 240-trip pass limit. You were one of the lucky four.”

So that made me part of the 0.2 Percent.

And since SEPTA started keeping track of that stat in July, the percentage of monthly TransPass holders who ran out of rides before they ran out of the month has never been greater than 0.2 percent. The highest number to date has been five, in September and October.

Burnfield said that more weekly TransPass holders go over the 56-ride cap, though the figures vary: “Some weeks there have been two or three, one week we had 10, another 14, another 15. But the number of individuals with weekly passes is roughly double what we have with monthly passes, so in terms of percentage, it’s still no more than two-tenths of a percent.”

Now I might argue that this is still two-tenths of a percent too many — once Key is fully implemented, that percentage implies that a few hundred people a month might hit the monthly (and weekly) caps. But given that the agency’s farebox recovery ratio — the percentage of operating costs covered by fares and other non-subsidy revenue — has been falling in recent years, as it has at just about every other agency its size, I for one am willing to begrudge them that two-tenths of a percent.

Besides, I can’t quibble with Burnfield when he argues, “I think you’re getting a very good discount when you purchase a weekly or monthly pass and put that on your Key card.” The trip caps are set so they work out to eight trips per day (slightly less for a monthly in a month with 31 days), and if you took every one of those trips, as I did in December, you’d end up paying just under 38 cents a ride. That’s well below both the $1.80 fare if you pay using tokens or the $1.40 per trip segment you pay when buying a transfer after depositing your token.

Which means that even with the cap, SEPTA Key passes remain a good deal. Should you find your Key card being declined in the months ahead, consider that as you sound off to the agent in the station booth.

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