SEPTA Key: Prioritizing Advertising Over Access

Published: 3 minute read

A few weeks ago SEPTA began an advertising pilot program on 20 of 300 fare kiosk machines along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines. SEPTA riders attempting to purchase a ticket at these machines are forced to watch an advertisement before they can continue to live their lives. If recent American history is any guide, this advertising program will ultimately be expanded, with more public funds spent to ensure our public systems can be efficiently monetized by private interests for private benefit.

It’s offensive to see that SEPTA is prioritizing fare kiosk advertising before addressing very real issues with the entire SEPTA Key system. Since the elimination of cash transfers in August 2018, there is a significant financial penalty assessed on anyone attempting to ride SEPTA with less than $10. If you have $10, you can purchase a Key card for $5 and you must load a minimum of $5 on to the card. If you don’t have $10, each trip will cost you at least $2 in the most ideal scenario. More likely, you’ll end up paying the cash fare of $2.50.

If you have to make just one transfer and you don’t have $10, your trip will cost $5. If you do have $10, that same trip will cost you $3. This penalty on poverty is familiar to anyone who has tried maintaining a bank account while living paycheck to paycheck. With the introduction of SEPTA Key, they’ve brought the stress of private bank account minimums to our public transit system: if you can’t afford to have money set aside, it’ll cost you.

The excuse for expanding advertising is a familiar one. We often hear “the money’s just not there” for everything from public education to public parks (for critique of this refrain, see Inga Saffron’s March 14, 2019 column, “Who runs Dilworth Park is more important than who runs its new coffee kiosk”). We’re told that we have no other option but to sell public infrastructure to private interests. The reality is that from transportation, to banking, to housing, our civic leaders choose to subsidize private wealth at the expense of the public good. They can choose not to.

SEPTA should immediately reduce cash fare to the ticketed fare price of $2. If collecting transfer fees would complicate this, transfer fees should be eliminated entirely. At recent City Council budget hearings, SEPTA’s General Manager stated that transfer fees bring in $12 million a year. To put this in perspective, ending the 10-year tax abatement in Fishtown and Northern Liberties alone would bring in the $12 million needed to pay for all transfer fees. If we as a city we are serious about eliminating inequalities and encouraging sustainable development, City Council should fund the reduction in cash fare and the elimination of transfer fees within the City of Philadelphia.

This unpublished op-ed was submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer by a Philly Transit Riders Union member in 2019