Last week, dozens of advocates from various groups packed SEPTA’s board meeting to send a unified message. They went to tell SEPTA there’s one policy change that would immediately improve the customer experience, enhance equity within the system, and lay the groundwork for an efficient, robust transit network: Eliminate the burdensome cost of transferring from one public transit vehicle to another.

After three years of advocacy from 5th Square, our focus on winning free transfers for every rider is coming to a critical point. SEPTA is expected to propose changes to its fare structure by the end of March, and we want to see it commit to abolishing this counterproductive penalty once and for all.

When SEPTA charges a fee to transfer, that’s an unfair burden for all whose homes aren’t on the same route as their job, family, school, grocery store, doctor’s office, or place of worship. Instead of enabling riders to use SEPTA as a true network, we have a fragmented system where countless riders stay on longer bus trips because they can’t afford the transfer fee.

The transfer fee is a penalty. It is outdated, a legacy rule when public transit was split among multiple private operators. That’s why nearly every peer agency across the country has already eliminated them. A 2019 Pew Trust report found that even while paying a “discounted” fare with SEPTA Key, the $3 total fare for a trip with transfer is higher than the equivalent trip in other major cities: Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

The transfer penalty hurts the poor. The Pew report also found that the transfer penalty disproportionately affects low-income riders in North and West Philly. It especially hurts commuters who work outside Center City and University City, because they are more likely to be dependent on SEPTA to get to those jobs.

The transfer penalty is burdensome for families. Councilmember Kendra Brooks pointed out during her campaign that in a city where young children are required to pay full fares, paying extra to transfer means it can actually be cheaper for families to hail an Uber or a Lyft than to take transit.

In contrast, free transfers will improve ridership. With bus ridership in free fall over the last four years, nearing a 20-year low, SEPTA needs to take immediate action to turn things around. Free transfers allow for a more efficient system; this is crucial in light of SEPTA’s upcoming Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign. Those long, redundant bus routes designed for a one-seat ride also cost a lot for SEPTA to operate. They are existing resources that could be reallocated to improve bus service to underserved neighborhoods around the city, feeding into faster subway/El service and dependable crosstown routes.

As noted in the Philadelphia Bus Network Choices Report, produced for SEPTA by transit planner Jarrett Walker, “The most efficient and effective network is one in which passengers are encouraged to change buses as needed to reach their destinations most quickly. ... Changing buses is an activity that SEPTA needs to encourage, it makes no sense to charge extra for it.”

Free transfers have the support of city government. Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, from the 3rd District, advocated for eliminating the transfer penalty at the hearing, while proposing a reduced-fare program for low-income riders and free rides for children under 12. Mike Carroll, a SEPTA Board member and the city’s deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, echoed the call for free transfers and noted its inclusion in Mayor Jim Kenney’s CONNECT plan.

SEPTA should include in its fare proposal an unlimited number of free transfers within two hours from first tap, covering the majority of trips. Every rider should be able to access the whole city on one fare.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll is the chair of 5th Square a statewide PAC focused on issues around land use, mobility, and the built environment. She lives in South Philadelphia with her family. @bikemamadelphia

Daniel Trubman is a Philadelphia resident and organizer with 5th Square’s transit committee. @dmtrubman