This post was guest authored by volunteer Jacob Pritchett.
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On Friday, September 29, SEPTA began accepting multiple contactless payment methods across the transit system. SEPTA riders are now able to use contactless payments on the Broad Street Line, the Market-Frankford Line, the Norristown High Speed Line, trolleys, and buses, with support for Regional Rail slated for early next year.
In contrast with SEPTA Key Tix, a feature that launched earlier this year that allowed riders to purchase single-use tickets from the SEPTA app, using this new feature will not require you to download an app or wade through a unique user interface. All riders need is a smartphone or smartwatch with a digital wallet—like Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay—or a contactless bank card. Simply tap at the turnstile or payment reader; Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover credit and debit cards are accepted.
An exciting part of this new development is the expansion of benefits previously only available with SEPTA Key wallets and tickets: cheaper fares and free transfers. SEPTA riders who tap their phone or bank card to pay will only pay $2.00, and if they tap it again for the next leg of their trip within two hours, they'll have no additional charges as long as they use the same card.
SEPTA Key cards will continue to work, and riders who use Reduced Fare or Key Card Passes will want to continue to use those. But for those who would normally pay standard fares, the benefits of the new contactless payments capabilities are substantial. Visitors, new Philadelphia residents, and people who use transit infrequently will benefit from a more simplified way to pay that’s as easy as buying coffee. And those who primarily ride the bus or trolley won't need to search for a fare kiosk to reload their Key card balance. Plus, the technology brings Philadelphia up to speed with other American cities that have adopted contactless bank card payments for transit, including New York City, Chicago, and Portland.
This upgrade has been a long time coming for SEPTA. When ACS Transport Solutions Group, a division of Xerox that today is part of Conduent Inc., was awarded a $129.5 million contract (which eventually ballooned to $238 million) for SEPTA Key, the eventual implementation of contactless bank card payments was part of the pitch. At the time, it was new technology and it hadn’t been utilized anywhere in North America. SEPTA riders eventually got a form of contactless payments in the form of the SEPTA Key Cards starting in 2016, but by then, other American transit agencies had already adopted their own contactless payment systems with support for even more payment methods.
One notable limitation of the current SEPTA Key system when it comes to contactless payments is lack of support for Apple Pay Express Mode. According to SEPTA, this is due to the nature of Conduent’s proprietary technology and the high price tag for certification for Apple devices. SEPTA is currently seeking bids from vendors to develop a new generation of SEPTA Key they’re calling “SEPTA Key 2.0,” which should expand their capabilities in this area. The new request for proposals asks for open source technology to avoid issues with proprietary tech, as well as improvements that would allow SEPTA to offer more upgrades to riders, including integration with regional partners, a more flexible fare structure, and modernization of SEPTA’s website and mobile app.
Contactless payment reduces touchpoints for SEPTA riders in the latest update of what has so far been a convoluted rollout of SEPTA Key. With time, this technology can reduce the burden of the cash transfer penalty (riders paying cash have to pay for each leg of their journey), create a path toward fare-capping, and advance other major priorities of Transit Forward Philadelphia for more equitable transit.