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The SEPTA Key system punishes poor commuters | Opinion

The SEPTA Key overcharges and neglects many of Philadelphia's riders.

Commuters swipe their SEPTA Key cards at the 69th Street in June, SEPTA stopped selling tokens and paper transfers less than two months later.
Commuters swipe their SEPTA Key cards at the 69th Street in June, SEPTA stopped selling tokens and paper transfers less than two months later.Read more / File Photograph

In 1960, James Baldwin wrote: "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor."

Almost 60 years later, Philadelphians — who live in the poorest big city in America — are relearning Baldwin's insight as SEPTA surcharges low-income riders who don't have Key cards.

Since this spring, SEPTA commuters have had to exchange the tokens and paper transfers they'd relied on for years for SEPTA Keys — chip cards for travel. Before this transition, SEPTA had more than 500 locations where riders could buy tokens with cash or card, and every rider could buy paper transfers for the lowest price. No longer. SEPTA stopped selling tokens and paper transfers. They have replaced both with Key cards, which are available at far fewer locations than the old options were. The Key cannot be easily loaded — unless you have a credit card, live or work in Center City, or ride the Broad Street line or El. For the rest of us, the change means we will often be surcharged.

A majority of SEPTA riders live outside of Center City and ride a bus, making it tough to find loading zones. SEPTA has offered an alternative to in-person loading — registering your card to an online account, where you can add money with a debit or credit card. But that's hard for un- or under-banked Philadelphians, who make up an estimated 28 percent of the city and may disproportionately include black and Latino families. An online account, of course, requires internet access — another resource many city residents don't have, especially those with an annual income below $35,000. Forty-two percent of SEPTA's riders fall in that income bracket.

These commuters who can't conveniently purchase or reload their Key cards end up having to pay more. The Key cost is $2 per ride, while the cash fare is $2.50, a 25 percent increase. The surcharge for a transfer is even higher, at 150 percent. It's $1 with a Key card, $2.50 without. If riders don't own a Key card, or have too low a balance, they have to pay $2.50 for the first ride plus an additional $2.50 for the connecting. A Key card rider pays $6 for a round trip, while a cash rider pays $10. SEPTA tokens did not have that surcharge. Customers have reported that some businesses selling Keys tacked on surcharges of $2 to $4 to load their cards — a claim SEPTA confirms, as its own investigation found that 10 percent of the locations where it checked for this problem were charging extra. SEPTA has terminated two of the outlets that would not agree to cancel those fees.

You also can't pay for yourself and someone else with a Key card, as SEPTA will not let you swipe the card twice in a row. No longer can one rider pay for another and still get the lower price.

Other cities that have shifted to electronic cards have done much better in considering the needs of riders without bank accounts and credit cards. Seattle still offers paper transfers. Portland allows riders to load cards at supermarkets and convenience stores and has a low-balance alert. New York City's Metro card system tells riders their balance on turnstiles and runs special buses with card loaders throughout the city.

SEPTA is considering requests from Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez and advocates that they investigate how the Key card is delivering for the city's low-income riders. Mayor Kenney should support the request and, if need be, have the SEPTA board members he appoints demand clear protections for the working poor who use SEPTA daily. An administration that says it is attempting to lift people out of poverty should find it unacceptable for SEPTA to surcharge those who can't use the Key system.

No SEPTA rider should be forced to pay 66 percent more per ride because the new system was poorly designed. None of the emerging flaws — the lack of a low-balance alert, SEPTA's failure to reach its goal of establishing 1,500 sales outlets, stores preying upon riders with added fees, glitches with fare collection — are the fault of SEPTA's riders. Why should they have to pay for them?

Lance Haver is policy director for the PA Save Our Safety Net Coalition.