Commuters use Wal-mart shopping carts as a makeshift seat while waiting at a bus stop in Northwest Philly in April 2018. (Getty Images)

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Key Card fare-payment system was intended to bring commuters to a paperless future, but some commuters feel locked out by the new system.

Currently, you can purchase the SEPTA Key Card and loard/reload fares through the Key website, customer call center, at station fare kiosks, external sale outlets, and SEPTA sales offices.

While cash is accepted at most of these venues, if you don't wish to pay for a Key Card, you'll always be paying the highest fare.

"You mean I have to pay a round-trip fare to go get my Key, come back and catch my bus?" from a rider who asked to remain anonymous. Gripes about having to use a credit card for the website, travel to Center City, and concerns about costs are becoming increasingly common.

 

SEPTA says they are responding to all riders' issues, but acknowledged it will take time for everyone to learn the new system.

"As we rolled out Key over the last two years, it has been a very deliberate, phased rollout so that we could listen to our customers," said SEPTA Deputy General Manager Richard Burnfield. "The minimum load had been $10, we reduced it to $5... we provided 750,000 Key cards for free for our customers... initiated a $4.95 charge to get a new card, but if you register your card within 30 days, you get that full amount back on your Travel Wallet."

After complaints were publicized of some third-party retailers charging riders "convenience fees," SEPTA said they dispatched 250 "secret shoppers" to crack down on that practice, which violates their contract. No retailer should ever charge a convenience fee, they said.

For riders accustomed to picking up tokens at the corner store, having to adjust to the new system of loading and reloading a Key card is a big adjustment. But SEPTA says by the numbers, Key is more convenient, not less, than the old system.

"When we were in the token vending business, we only had 52 token vending machines," said Leslie Hickman, SEPTA's Chief Officer for Revenue Operations."Today, we have 222 fare kiosks and there are at least two in all our subway/elevated stations, that has really increased the availability for all our customers."

Nonetheless, some say its the problems go deeper.

"There has to be a process used to help solve the problems of occasional riders, unbanked riders, low-income riders, people who don't have credit cards and don't ride in Center City," said Lance Haver, policy director at the Pennsylvania Save Our Safety Net Coalition. "Just announcing that they're going to have to adapt is unfair to the very people who have been riding SEPTA for the last generation."

Haver shared a litany of commuters' complaints including the terminating of paper transfers and moving all transfers ($1 apiece) to Key. You can still pay cash for a bus trip, but you can't use cash to get a transfer – you have to pay double-fare, Haver said.

"This is a tremendous example of elitism," he said. "They have not thought about how people ride and what people's lives are like."

Benjamin She, chair of local civic advocacy group 5th Square's Transit Committee, also said Key needs to be reconsidered.

"SEPTA stratifies a lot of its ridership into classes of riders depending on what mode they take, and I think they haven't thought about this in a holistic way," she said. 

"The fundamental lack of SEPTA Key vending machines and kiosks at more locations other than rail stations ... is a big oversight, considering that the majority of riders use buses in Philadelphia."

(The exact breakdown: is 182 kiosks in all 51 subway/el stations; 20 kiosks at 10 major bus and trolley loops; five kiosks in two trolley stations, five in Norristown High Speed Line terminals for use 20 hours a day. SEPTA's five Transit Sales Offices and four Center City Regional Rail Ticket Offices sell Key and related products).

She noted that Indego, Philly's bike-share program, accepts vouchers paid for with cash from chains like CVS, 7-Eleven and Family Dollar through a third-party financial company. The scattered 522 third-party retailers selling SEPTA Key aren't as convenient, he said. (SEPTA intends to eventually have a total of 1,500 retailers).

"You definitely see a lot of barriers to entry even to use SEPTA in the first place," he said.

But SEPTA believes that over time, everyone will learn the ins and outs of the new system.

"Most of our customers get it, but we need help getting the word out to customers who are either struggling to understand it or need more informatin," Hickman said. "We want our customers to understand how to use the system."

SEPTA urges riders with questions about the Key to talk to Key ambassadors at SEPTA stations, call the SEPTA Key Call Center at 855-567-3782 or visit SEPTAKey.org. If you still have problems, sound off to us, @MetroPhilly on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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