SEPTA tests mobile payment technology

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SEPTA is planning a technology trial in September that will allow passengers to pay with their smartphones to ride buses, subways, trams and the Norristown high-speed line – a much-anticipated alternative to the plastic key card.

Chicago’s transit and regional commuter rail systems have offered a mobile payment option since 2016, and New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority began accepting mobile tickets on its buses and subways in 2019.

One feature of mobile payment in Philadelphia should be popular immediately: the ability to “multi-tap” and pay fares for up to five passengers at once, a convenience for families and friends traveling together. Key cards can’t do that.

“It’s something that has always been at or near the top of the changes customers have wanted to see throughout the Key Card introduction process,” said SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch.

READ MORE: SEPTA’s keycard program just got another $29.5 million. It’s way over budget.

Today, the agency is looking to recruit 200 to 300 volunteers to test mobile ticketing starting next month. You can register here. In May, approximately 200 SEPTA employees tested the technology. Busch said he received good reviews, although at times cell reception was spotty on moving buses. Signals have been strengthened in hotspots, he said.

If all goes well in the last pilot, pay-by-phone technology would be available to everyone on city and suburban transit — possibly as early as October, Busch said. The goal is to equip regional train stations with mobile ticketing by spring 2023, Busch said.

Initially, it will only be available via a Key Card account linked to the official SEPTA app. Later, the agency plans to accept payments through Apple Wallet and Google Pay apps, as well as debit and credit cards, Busch said.

SEPTA also said it installed fare readers on high revolving doors at eight stations, including at 30th Street and 15th Street. These doors are usually locked, so the change will allow riders to take shortcuts.

Plastic key cards don’t disappear immediately, and people who want to continue using them can, Busch said.

Key has suffered from glitches and cost overruns since its introduction in 2016 – two years later than expected. SEPTA paid approximately $239 million, nearly double the originally negotiated price of $122 million.

It was because of the changes that SEPTA asked the contractor to fix initial issues, such as a confusing user interface in stations and on the web, as well as keep the system up to date. Developing software and installing new fare validators, or readers, that can handle mobile ticketing at transit stations costs about $5.75 million, Busch said.

Meanwhile, the operating system is nearing the end of its lifespan, and SEPTA is already drawing up plans for a next-generation payment system it calls Key 2.0.

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