18 July 2007

SEPTA fare hike "11 percent"?

Funding heads off SEPTA fare hike.

The public transit provider in Philadelphia, SEPTA, recently raised its fares; the article is saying that they won't have to raise fares again in September. In the media the fare increase was widely reported as an "11 percent" increase. And it basically was. People who hold a weekly pass for the buses and subways saw the price raised from $18.75 to $20.75; monthly pass holders, from $70 to $78. A one-day pass was raised from $5.50 to $6. (A rule was made that a one-day pass was actually only good for eight trips, though.) SEPTA also runs commuter trains from the suburbs. A typical fare increase there (zone 3, off-peak) was from $3.75 to $4.25; a weekly pass for such a commuter train went up from $34.50 to $39, a monthly from $126.50 to $142.50.

So far, all the fare increases I've mentioned were between 9% and 13%. So far, so good.

But how much of a fare increase will I, personally, see? Zero.

Why is this? SEPTA decided to eliminate the transfer. Currently, there are three ways one can pay for a single trip on SEPTA: pay a $2 "cash fare", use a token which costs $1.30 (but tokens are only available in quantities of more than one, and it can be astonishingly difficult to find someplace which sells tokens!), or use a transfer, which costs 60 cents but can only be used for the second or third vehicle in a trip that requires more than one vehicle.

The cash fare and the token will remain at $2 and $1.30, respectively. The transfer will be eliminated. Because of where I happen to live and where I happen to go on a regular basis, and the way SEPTA's routes are structured, I never need to transfer. (Also, I never figured out how to buy a transfer.)

SEPTA says only 6.8 percent of riders use transfers. This makes sense; under the old fare structure, if you needed to use a transfer for a round-trip five days a week, that came to $19 a week; compare $18.75 for a pass. These figures are quite similar, and I'm assuming that our hypothetical person never goes anywhere but to work. The people who get screwed are the people who ride less then daily but need a transfer when they do so; they'll have to pay $2.60 (twice $1.30) for their trip instead of $1.90, a 37% fare increase. And these are probably the people who can least afford it.

I would have preferred to see, say, the $2 cash fare raised to $2.20, the token raised to $1.45, and the transfer continuing to exist (at 65 or 70 cents). (I haven't done the math to know if this would actually bring SEPTA the same amount of money as what they're doing; I'm just applying the 11% figure across the board.)

The article says a hearing is being held to restore the transfer. I think that's the right thing. It's not the rider's fault that SEPTA doesn't have a single route that goes from where they are to where they want to be; designing a transit system such that everyone has a one-seat ride would be essentially impossible. A good transit system works because of these network effects -- two routes are more than twice as valuable as one, a hundred routes are more than twice as valuable as fifty. But only if you make it possible to use the system as a system.


Max said...

The idea of paying for a transfer is completely foreign to me. Everywhere I've ever lived has used a time transfer system (you have 60 or 90 minutes to transfer to/from as many busses as you like, including the same one, backtracking, etc), or a destination transfer system (you can use a transfer to go to any destination as long as it takes to get there, with as many busses/subways/etc. as needed, as long as you take the shortest route, with no backtracking). Charging people to do so seems rather silly.

The Probabilist said...


from what I understand of transit history in general, a Philadelphia-like system used to be common. The problem with the systems you describe is that they require modern fare-collection equipment; SEPTA has shown itself many times to not be interested in any sort of modernization. Or, if they are interested, they don't have the money to do so. I can't tell.

Max said...

The time transfer systems here are often enforced by driver inspection. The transfers are ripped off to indicate a certain time (with hours down one side, and minutes down the other), and the date is printed on top. Toronto, which uses the direction system, is done on really old equipment, generally. Bus drivers just have transfers that say which bus they were picked up on, and in which direction, although the subway stations have automatic printers.

frank said...

The buses and subways have places for people to swipe a card since this is how people with passes get on. So would it be that difficult to scrap tokens and run everything on a metrocard type system? Many other cities do this already.

I agree with the transfers affecting the poorest demographics. Also, a less publicized feature of SEPTA's brilliant new plan is that people riding a regional rail must pay the on board surcharge even if the station has no ticket office or ticket machine. This means that my formerly $3.00 ride to CC will now cots $5.00, a 67% increase!!

The Probabilist said...


it wouldn't be difficult for a competently run transit system -- but I'm not sure I'd describe SEPTA as such.

As for your problem -- which I had heard about, but didn't remember when I was writing this post -- why not stock up on tickets when you're at whatever Center City station you use, since they have ticket windows? (Of course, you'd still have to pay the surcharge in order to get to CC...) But people who don't use the Center City stations but commute between two outlying stations on the same line are definitely hurt by this. You can't expect people to use a ticket window if there isn't one.

p. squiddy said...

Hi, I just found your blog from Mark Dominus'.

I live in Portland, and our TriMet system is smaller than SEPTA, but has a very simple fare structure. We have a time transfer system (2hrs) that's enforced via tearoff tickets or timestamped tickets.

On the buses, the drivers inspect upon entry. On light rail and street car, it's an on-demand inspection system that's regular enough that everyone but miscreant kids buys tickets.

There are 3 zones that you can be in, and you buy either an all-zone ticket ($2) or a 2 zone ticket ($1.70), which means you can only go from one zone to another, but not to the third. It costs the same to go from the far east corner of the line to downtown as it does to go to the far west corner, but few people do this. Theoretically, it should cost twice as much to do this, but then someone that has a 2 hour commute also has to pay $4 each way.

These fares are also less expensive than average because 1.5% of our property tax goes to subsidize them (which I think is a deal, considering more roads and the cost of traffic is probably much more than this).

This system obviously wouldn't work for a larger system in a more urbanized area, and will probably change as the system grows and serves a larger area.