I will never forget the day I had to walk over 3.5 miles from Central High School to my family’s home in Frankford.
Like a lot of Central students, I spent much of my free time doing extracurricular activities after school. That day, I stayed later with friends from orchestra and grabbed some pizza at the now-closed Mario’s across the street, and I just lost track of time. In a pre-cell phone era (at least for me), I didn’t even realize that I had crossed into the time of day where my bus, the 8, was no longer running, and my student token was no longer valid for travel. After pleading my case with the strict subway attendant, I began the long trek home.
That was 17 years ago, but I am sure this has happened to countless other students around the city.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Last week, SEPTA and the School District of Philadelphia announced the rollout of new student SEPTA Key cards, which replace older magnetic strip cards that had to be renewed weekly. This is a long-overdue step, but it doesn’t go far enough. To better support Philly youth, the district and SEPTA should provide full TransPasses to all eligible students, allowing them to ride free on SEPTA at all times.
» READ MORE: SEPTA Key 2.0 is coming
While the student eligibility period is more generous now than when I went to school, the current student passes still cut students off at 8 p.m. and don’t include weekends. That might seem plenty late on a school night, but you might be surprised by how active students can be.
My friends and I would take the Broad Street Line into Center City after school and try to score student rush tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Saturdays might be spent at Temple University, which frequently hosted mock trial events. That’s without taking into account the many students who work after school and on weekends, something especially pertinent considering the nationwide surge in teen employment.
Today’s teens need this freedom just as much as my friends and I did — and a TransPass would open up the city to them in a way that might not happen otherwise. All of this was an essential part of becoming more independent and discovering ourselves. The fact that so much of the city was accessible to us via SEPTA made it all possible.
Critics of fully funding TransPasses for students point to the potential costs, or that the School District has no obligation to provide rides to students for noneducation activities.
But even if most students never use their passes outside of school hours — an unlikely proposition, in my view — broadening this program, which is funded through the federal Department of Education, would still be worth it.
Not only would it open up the city to students, it would also help foster a lifelong habit of transit use. Many students already use SEPTA in their everyday lives. Allowing students to use their passes on weekends, holidays, and even over the summer would turn them from users into aficionados. It also would burnish one of the key advantages of being a city parent, which is not having to serve as a chauffeur for kids old enough to travel alone.
If Philadelphia is serious about rebuilding its transit ridership, a category where we’ve underperformed every other American city during my lifetime, losing 100,000 riders since 1970, then we need to start making decisions that promote transit use. There’s no better potential source of riders than the students who already use SEPTA to get to school and are eager for the freedom a TransPass would provide.