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SEPTA on the Technological Cutting Edge?

December 5, 2011

Regardless of how you feel about public transit, you’ve probably wondered why SEPTA is, technologically, the fat kid walking the track in gym class. The nation’s seventh largest transit system by ridership, it is somehow still selling tokens at cash-only kiosks and hole-punching tickets on commuter rail. Waiting for a train or bus is a guessing game. In-station information is sparse. Indeed, it can feel like a small wonder that SEPTA has a website. SEPTA is cheaper than most of its counterparts, but should that doom us to Rocky-era technological status?

Mercifully, the answer is no. Over the last year, SEPTA has started to pull a Jonah Hill and push the pace with the big boys. About a year after the debut of its new Silverliner commuter train cars, SEPTA has awarded a contract for design and implementation of cutting edge payment technology. Philadelphia will be first in the nation, along with Chicago, to offer riders “contactless” payment, which will be rolled out in phases over the next few years. Rather than buy a token or swipe a SEPTA-issued card, riders will be able to pay directly with credit cards, mobile phones, and other modern payment methods, just tapping at turnstiles and fare boxes upon starting a trip and then again upon finishing.

At the same time, SEPTA has made realtime data available to software developers. That move has already borne fruit, in the form of a number of web and mobile apps that make accessing SEPTA schedule and delay info easy. On top of all that, SEPTA has installed surveillance cameras across its stations and vehicles to improve safety and reduce fraudulent injury claims. With such rapid progress, one wonders what there will be left to do for all of those $55,000-per-year SEPTA booth attendants?

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