A trip to Upper Darby, a Fare Hike tragedy in three parts

Friday night I went to visit some friends in Upper Darby who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. It was a pleasant evening, with games and the entertainment of small children, but I was struck by how heavily the effect of SEPTA’s proposed fare changes would have fallen on this trip, so I present it here as an example for discussion.

I took the subway from Ellsworth/Federal station, changing at City Hall, to 69th Street. From there, I had a choice between the NHSL to Parkside, one of several buses out West Chester Pike, or just a long walk. Since it was right at rush hour, the walk along the heavily trafficked stroad that is West Chester Pike wasn’t appealing, and since I wasn’t likely to get a seat on either transit mode, I opted for the NHSL. When it was time to leave, around 9:30 or so, I was tired, but my phone was dead and I wasn’t carrying an NHSL timetable, so I didn’t really want to walk a block in the wrong direction and wait an indeterminate time at Parkside, so instead I walked to West Chester Pike, now much more deserted, with the intention of taking the next bus to 69th Street. An eastbound 123 bus appeared presently, and whisked me back to 69th Street for the El to the Subway home.

Now, as it so happens, I have an April monthly Trailpass, so all of this was of zero marginal cost to me, and would have been under the new fare rules as well. But I don’t always get a pass; I didn’t in March. So if this shindig had happened a week earlier, I would have had to have shelled out a token and a paper transfer in each direction, for a total of ($1.55+$1.00+$1.55+$1.00=) $5.10, which isn’t so bad. (I might have thought longer about walking the last mile, but I don’t think I would have changed my decision; I’ve done the walk before and it’s hellish during heavy traffic.)

But imagine the world that SEPTA wants to bring to us in 2014. Imagine that I have opted out of a pass again, which will be much more likely with the Smart Media discounts to RRD fares. I have my SEPTA Smart Media Card, so I tap in at Ellsworth/Federal and ride to 69th. At 69th, I ride the NHSL, but instead of a $1 Smart Media Transfer, I’m assessed an extra $.50 for the “premium service” of riding a packed N-5 for exactly one stop. On the way back, when the first bus that peeks over the horizon is a 123, I have a choice between waiting for the next bus (and there’s no telling when that would be), or paying a $1.50 “premium bus route” surcharge for a one mile trip on a local bus (again, standing room only). So now the trip, assuming I took the exact same vehicles, is ($1.80+$1.00+$0.50+$1.80+$1.50+$1.00=) $7.60, a 49% fare hike. Something is wrong here.

But it gets worse. Let’s say I forgot my Smart Media card at home. Or I lost it. In any event, I don’t have it with me. Because I’m in a hurry and obstinate, I decide to just pay cash instead of paying $5.00 for a new card. Ouch. Now, because I’m paying cash, there is no such thing as a transfer fare. Instead, I drop ($2.50+$2.75+$3.75+$2.50=) $11.50 on my ride to Upper Darby and back, which in similar circumstances today would have cost me ($2.00+$1.00+$2.00+$1.00=) $6.00 (or, more likely, $5.55, because I’d buy tokens at 69th Street). That’s a 92% hike on the most regressive fare in the system; I’m probably going to decide that it’s worth the extra half hour to walk back to 69th St. and catch a later El train. Walking and waiting values my time right at the level of the present minimum wage, before considering the factors of it being cold and uncomfortable outside, and getting to sleep later in the evening instead of being good and getting to bed at a reasonable hour (which is what I did instead of writing this blog post!). I’ve heard it said that being poor or working class in the First World is mostly about having to spend much more time doing the same things as your middle-class neighbors; SEPTA seems to be content to perpetuate that condition. I can tolerate assessing a penalty for cash fares, because it does cost SEPTA more to collect and process them, but in a world where SEPTA itself admits that 10-12% of its riders pay the cash fare — and I suspect it’s far higher than that in some areas — there needs to be much more work done to show that the sky-high hikes in cash fares aren’t just a regressive tax on the poor.

As for me, I am the sort of person who blogs about transit issues, so I’ll probably just eat the hike come July. But someone very like me is probably going to strongly consider driving next time. And that’s a loss for SEPTA, and for everyone else.

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