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For Philly’s poor commuters, SEPTA fare ranks among most expensive in U.S. cities

SEPTA’s transfer fees and the distribution of jobs in the region combine to make commuting by public transit more expensive in Philadelphia for the people who can least afford it, a new Pew study finds.

Passengers board a SEPTA bus at the Olney Transportation Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.
Passengers board a SEPTA bus at the Olney Transportation Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

For some Philadelphians, SEPTA’s fares are a bargain — nearly the cheapest public transit among American big cities.

For the city’s poorer residents, though, the math is different. SEPTA’s transfer fees and the distribution of jobs in the region combine to make commuting by transit more expensive for the people who can least afford it, a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts released Wednesday found.

“The main takeaway is that the current fare structure is comparatively high for riders who pay transfer fees, especially if they can’t buy weekly or monthly passes,” said Seth Budick, a Pew researcher and the study’s author.

Among the study’s findings:

  1. Philadelphians spend a higher percentage of their income on transit than do residents in other large American cities, largely due to the city’s low median income.

  2. Low-income jobs are dispersed around the city and region, making it more likely low-income earners have to pay transfer fees.

  3. The neighborhoods where commuters spend the most on transit tend to be where incomes are low, people are less likely to own cars, and getting to work requires a transfer. Hardest hit are West and North Philadelphia and the Kensington Avenue corridor.

Pew shared the study with SEPTA and city officials, and it is sure to play a role in a slow-burning debate over whether to eliminate transfer fees next year when SEPTA reevaluates its fare structure. SEPTA is in the midst of a multi-year revamp of its bus network following four straight years of declining ridership.

SEPTA typically charges transfer fees for trips that require a switch involving at least two vehicles. Moving between the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, and between those lines and trolleys, can be free, but any trip that involves a bus at some stage likely also includes a transfer fee.

In New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, transfers for people with fare cards are free, the Pew report stated. Boston and Chicago offer transfers for less than $1 or free.

The City of Philadelphia wants to eliminate transfer fees, arguing they make transit too expensive for the poor — a position supported by the data in the Pew study. City officials say ditching transfer fees would attract riders and improve job access.

“Our position remains the same," Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday. "We want to see the transfer penalty removed, and the Pew report provides the data to back it up.”

SEPTA officials, though, are concerned that the lost transfer revenue, about $14 million a year, wouldn’t be made up by improved ridership. The organization is considering alternatives to transfer fees, officials said.

“SEPTA strives to maintain the lowest possible fares while achieving a balanced budget,” said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager, in a statement Wednesday. “With respect to the report’s findings regarding the impact of transfer fees and job access, SEPTA has committed to studying both issues.”

>>READ MORE: An end to transfer fees? City says yes, but SEPTA’s wary

The Pew study compared SEPTA’s fares to those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, and Seattle, and found that while fare structures were varied among different modes of transportation, SEPTA’s monthly or weekly passes and its single-ride Key card fare on city transit of $2 represented some of the cheapest public transit trips among those cities. Even its single-ride fare for people paying cash — $2.50 on a city bus, trolley, or subway — was a deal.

SEPTA’s fares look less attractive, though, when transfers are taken into account. People paying cash have it worst. SEPTA does not offer a transfer discount for riders who pay with cash, so they pay the full price for every leg of their trip. A two-vehicle ride on SEPTA in the city costs cash users $5. Only New York City is more expensive. For travelers using the Key card, which discounts the transfer fee to $1, SEPTA is still the second most expensive, after Washington.

SEPTA’s weekly or monthly passes give travelers more rides than a person could use commuting, even with transfers, so these riders are essentially exempt from the transfer fee. But only 39% of SEPTA riders pay with those passes.

At first glance, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods seem to have great transit access. Residents of North and West Philadelphia can get to Center City without transfer fees, thanks to the subway and trolley lines. The problem is: That’s not where the jobs are. The Pew study found about two-thirds of workers earning $35,000 or less went to jobs outside of Center City or University City. Of people earning $75,000 or more, 72% worked in those two neighborhoods.

“Many of those riders are people traveling to low-paying jobs located outside the center of the city,” Budick said. “That was one of the more surprising findings.”

If a commuter doesn’t work in Center City, South Philadelphia, or West Philadelphia, odds are the person will have to pay a transfer fee, and that’s even more likely if a person has a low-paying job. The costs for the poor are even greater if they’re not using a monthly or weekly pass, or a Key.

The number of people affected is significant. Almost half of SEPTA’s riders, about 819,000 boardings a day in the city alone, have household incomes of $35,000 or less.

>>READ MORE: How do you put a price tag on traffic congestion? Philly says it’s in the millions.

The discrepancy between the cash fare and the Key fare has drawn complaints from advocates for the poor. They argue that the initial cost of a Key — almost $6 — could be prohibitive, particularly if people have to buy multiple cards for children. The Pew report found more than half of commuters making less than $25,000 a year used weekly or monthly passes. Previous SEPTA reviews of ridership patterns showed low-income Philadelphians tended to take more transfers, and a study from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission concluded they were twice as likely to pay cash for their commutes than higher-income riders.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at