SEPTA has awarded a $3 million contract to Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates Inc. to help lead a project transforming the authority’s bus system following board approval Thursday.

The firm will aid SEPTA on its “Comprehensive Bus Network Redesign,” a plan “to create a frequent, interconnected, and easy to understand bus system,” according to a staff summary of the agreement. The contract lasts for up to three years and begins early next year, said Jody Holton, SEPTA assistant general manager for planning.

“This is an opportunity for a fresh look at all of our bus services,” she said. “Riders can expect that we’ll be looking to increase frequency of service at certain locations, much like our frequent bus network does today, where it makes transit that much more convenient. You can get on without looking at a schedule.”

The step forward comes after a lengthy report from Jarrett Walker & Associates in 2018 that laid the groundwork for changes SEPTA should make at a time when bus service struggled with slow service and riders left transit for rideshare.

Recommendations to consider included all-door boarding, bus stops at every other block, increased bus service to transportation hubs and Regional Rail stations, as well as more direct routes that are easier to understand.

The report also advised SEPTA to eliminate a transfer penalty that incentivizes riders to seek out one bus that may take longer to get to a destination, instead of making a connection that would be faster but costs more.

SEPTA eliminated one transfer fee for Key Travel Wallet users as part of its latest fare restructuring.

The bus network, though robust, can be confusing or intimidating to navigate, especially for those not from the Philadelphia region. Routes to Whitman Plaza or Pier 70 may not mean much to newcomers, while conflicting arrival times from SEPTA’s app and Google Maps can lead to a frustrated rideshare request.

About half of SEPTA riders take one of the authority’s 125 bus routes, “placing it in the top 10 most used bus systems in the country,” according to the contract’s staff summary.

Redesigning a bus network is likely to involve trade-offs for some. SEPTA plans to include riders in conversations as part of its process, to ask passengers questions like whether they’re willing to walk a little farther for more frequent service, said Jennifer Dougherty, SEPTA manager of long-range planning.

“We have lots of different customers, and I think it’s going to affect different people in different ways,” said Dan Nemiroff, SEPTA senior operations planner. “Some routes will change a lot, some might go away, some routes might not change at all. It’s about us being open-minded, really listening to our customers and our potential customers and our stakeholders.”

Transit Forward Philadelphia, an advocacy coalition, has put its full support behind SEPTA’s bus network redesign, highlighting an inclusive public engagement process, better service reliability and signage, faster speeds, and ADA accessibility as goals it’s championing for the project.

“Buses are a lifeline for Philadelphians, and for everyone in the Greater Philadelphia region, and they’re able to connect people to jobs, health care, school,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, the coalition’s organizer. “... Our bus network hasn’t been evaluated in over 30 years, and it’s not responding to the needs of today’s riders.”

The system now “has its origins in the city of Philadelphia’s early 20th century streetcar,” according to SEPTA.

The network redesign comes as SEPTA is expected to continue to have low levels of ridership from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ridership on buses, subways, trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line are down about 65% from pre-pandemic levels.

Commuting habits have changed during the pandemic as more workers telecommute or prefer private vehicles, making future SEPTA ridership even more uncertain.

“When riders don’t have to rely on a schedule, and riders don’t have to rely on a timetable,” Zarrinkelk said, “and they just know that they can just show up at a bus stop and just know it’s going to arrive within 10 minutes or less, that’s going to get more riders back on board.”