Pittsburgh is the competition. Let’s steal their best idea: free student and faculty transit

Last spring, I waxed rhapsodic on the similarities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while calling for strengthening the transportation ties between the two cities. But today, I want to recast the Steel City as villain, not hero. Let’s take the Yinzers, for the moment, as our municipal rivals for our most precious resource: human capital. Because they’re doing it right, and we’re not.

When the wide-eyed college froshling matriculates at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, or Chatham, they receive a student ID that acts as a free pass onto any Port Authority Transit bus or LRV. It’s not actually free; there is a small fee attached to their tuition bill that funds it to the tune of $180 per year. The same froshling’s twin, going to Penn, Temple, Drexel, St. Joe’s, or USciences? Gets a 5% discount on a SEPTA Transpass, which at $91/month is a terrible deal for the average college student taking occasional rides.

Now, not many students are going to pick Pitt over Temple, or CMU over Drexel, just for free transit alone. But being able to live in the neighborhood of your choice (or, at least, within one’s budget), and being able to access all that the city has to offer? The prospect of easy, painless navigation of the entire city without needing to keep a car on hand can be very attractive. Put another way, when Temple doesn’t have free transit and Pitt does, Philadelphia isn’t in competition with Pittsburgh, Lower North Philadelphia plus a tiny sliver of Center City is in competition with Pittsburgh. That’s a much more lopsided comparison, and not one in Philadelphia’s, or Temple’s, favor.

Now, granted, some of this state of affairs is because the Port Authority of Allegheny County is ahead of the technological curve, and has smartcard readers that are compatible with the student IDs, and SEPTA does not. But SEPTA will have closed that gap by the end of this calendar year.

Philadelphia’s new Urbanist PAC The 5th Square, which I wrote about in January, and whose Advisory Board I just joined, has made implementing this idea part of their political platform, and it’s right to make it a priority. That being said, it really shouldn’t have to become a political issue. It should just be a series of bilateral agreements between the universities and SEPTA.  However, it’s increasingly clear that somebody needs to give the universities a good hard shove, in order to get the ball rolling, and that role can easily be filled by a Mayor (or a City Council) looking for an opportunity to exercise their leadership in managing the sometimes-fractious relations between the universities and the neighborhoods surrounding them.  Free transit for students and faculty would radically change the incentives for housing and land use in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, where the first few blocks beyond the campuses are increasingly an academic monoculture, rendering them unaffordable even as entire neighborhoods suffer through disinvestment and neglect a mere half-mile away.  While not many students or faculty are specifically looking to move to Kingsessing or Carroll Park, a handful willing to try could do wonders for the stability of those neighborhoods, encouraging investment and slowing the displacement that is actually occurring in our city, which is driven much more by blight than by gentrification.  City Hall might be skeptical, in its traditional habit of being afraid of all change, but blurring the geographic boundary between town and gown can only benefit a strapped city government that needs to rebuild a tax base to fund schools, infrastructure, and services, with 500,000 fewer people than the city was designed for.

A lot rides on SEPTA’s willingness to play ball, but SEPTA officials speaking on background have expressed readiness to come to a reasonable accommodation with any university or major employer.  SEPTA may have its plate full with the ongoing rollout of SEPTA Key, the technological substrate on which any agreement would rest, so it would take a minor miracle (or a particularly open checkbook) to get an agreement in place for Fiscal Year 2016, but the timeline for Fiscal Year 2017, a/k/a/ the 2016-2017 academic year, should have plenty of room in it to come to a deal.  (That timing would also have the advantage of being simultaneous with the next scheduled triennial fare increase, which requires a review and rewrite of the operating tariff anyway.)

SEPTA has many of its own reasons to want college students to take transit.  The most obvious is to create the habit of riding in younger adults who may be new to city living, so that they carry on that practice for the rest of their lives.  Another is simply that residential student populations are inexpensive for SEPTA to serve.  They generally don’t travel all the way into the Center City core, which is good for managing crowding, and they tend to travel in off-peak hours, which renders many concerns about crowding moot.  There is a concern about commuter students, who make up most of SEPTA’s existing University Pass user base, but the anemic uptake of that program indicates there just aren’t all that many commuters; of the big three schools, the highest number of commuters are at Temple, where SEPTA is best situated to absorb them, with the enormous untapped capacity of the Broad Street Line.

The schools, in addition to the additional feature for recruitment, would also have a major benefit accruing to them; the ability to reduce the considerable money and land they have to sink into parking.  With most campuses landlocked by force or by choice, expanding outward to accommodate new academic buildings — and new parking garages — is no longer an option.  Nor are parking garages a good use of scarce capital dollars, with average construction costs running well north of $30,000 per space.  Better to renew campuses by removing existing parking, but that can only happen if people have an alternative to keeping a car on campus, or driving to work.  The schools may also choose to get out of the business of running their own duplicative transit services, which have their own non-trivial costs associated.

Finally, free-at-point-of-use transit for students and faculty can serve as a showcase for other large employers, who might want to negotiate their own deals with SEPTA for transit. Pittsburgh’s PAT does not charge riders on its light rail system between Downtown and the stations on the North Shore. Major North Shore institutions, like Rivers Casino and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, pay a relatively small sponsorship fee every year to keep it free. In Philadelphia, where major employers are building new office towers and competitively recruiting new employees, the ability to draw top talent can rest on providing good reasons to come to Philadelphia, instead of Silicon Valley or New York. While some would characterize a system where Comcast, Aramark, and FMC are paying for their employees to ride SEPTA for free as creating a privileged class of riders, I would say instead that reducing the number of cars on our streets benefits all Philadelphians, and undermine a much more damaging and insidious privilege given to those who are wealthy enough to own a car, and misincentivized enough to drive it.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’ll speak as a Temple student here, since it’s the only school I have familiarity with. I have a University Pass currently, and the savings are 10% vs buying a monthly trans/trail pass:

    Temple University Pass prices:

    Trans Passes:
    Bus $ 327.60
    Zone 1 $ 363.60
    Zone 2 $ 486.00
    Zone 3 $ 586.80
    Anywhere $ 687.60

    (This doesn’t change your point, just stating it’s 10% not 5%)

    Frankly I’d be pissed off if I was a student who didn’t use public transit at any given university, and I was paying a fixed fee per semester to subsidize public transit users. Yes, I know we could point out parking garages being an indirectly subsidized cost as well, but it doesn’t constitute a line-item fee for “Parking garage” or “Parking” that everyone has to pre-pay for (even if they do indirectly pay for it)

    I am all for the positive benefits of a University-wide push towards public transit usage, but that assumes that said University has adequate public transit connections from anywhere commuters would be coming from. The only figures I could find for Temple is 82% off campus living, but that doesn’t really help to discover what percentage of that 82% has access to public transit that can get them to school in an adequate amount of time.

    Those not in a position to have access to a regional rail station like myself (which I drive a car to and park at anyways) face a multi-hour, multi-transfer bus-ride from some Philadelphia metro area locations. Given the choice between multi-hour bus rides I’ve already paid for, or the convenience of a car + increased costs, I bet many would still choose the car.

    1. Early drafts of this post contained a long section about how Regional Rail was a bit of a fly in the ointment, with its non-flat cost structure and its limited scope, and proposed several ways of dealing with that, but I decided to cut it for the sake of length. I should probably have left a greater mention, but briefly: I’d be content to at least partially exclude Regional Rail from a free student transit program, if that was necessary for the sake of equity (i.e. limiting the amount by which non-commuters subsidize commuters). But if that were the case, there should be thoughtful consideration of what kinds of price points for upgrading a pass to a Trailpass are feasible and equitable.

      Different schools may have different conclusions on what is best for them, based on their proportion of commuters, and what they see happening to those numbers in the future; Drexel has transitioned hard from commuter to residential, and Temple seems to have inclinations that are similar in direction if not quite in magnitude. There might not be a one-size-fits-all solution possible.

      My opening proposal would be to have the university transit fund pay a certain amount, and then have the student pay the full cost delta (without SEPTA’s 5% or the school’s 5%, total 10%, as you mentioned is currently the case) between semester-long passes. For Zone 1, that would be $40/semester; for an Anywhere, $400/semester.

      Having never been a commuter student myself, I have only the faintest notion as to whether that would fly, but that’s where my head is. Since I’m almost certainly missing something, I’d take it as a kindness if you were to explain to me what that was.

  2. Let this grad student testify: university free transit passes are the absolute best. Anyone with a SUNYCard can ride CDTA (in Albany and other Capital District cities) for free, with the exception of the commuter express buses to/from Saratoga County. The same is true for almost all of the other schools in the area too. According to survey data a professor shared, about half of students took the bus to campus on a daily bases despite ample free parking and a campus that’s near-inaccessible by foot. I noticed that on recent days when the school had implemented a snow emergency plan, the buses were much more packed. UAlbany operates its own bus system too, but it’s mostly skeletal.

    The flip side of that ample, free parking, of course, is that only 11% of faculty and staff take transit, despite having the same benefits. The faculty/staff unions have fought fiercely to preserve free parking, too (thanks for the progressivism, guys!). But integration is seamless with the CDTA fare system, and it generally works really well. Obviously this is all much easier logistically on a relatively small system like Albany’s than in Philly, especially when the base 10-ride fare is only $1.30. But it’s a really basic way for transit systems to bump up their ridership numbers and base–and to create, hopefully, lifelong transit riders.

    1. May all that is good and holy preserve us from unions seeking free parking benefits.

      Taking a guess, from what I know of the Capital Region, academia, and development patterns: the students, being young and not well off, congregate in older, denser parts of Albany which still have conveniently frequent bus service. A scatterplot of student residences would be shaped like a comet, with the head on campus and the tail trailing off along the major corridors towards Downtown Albany. Many of the faculty and staff, being older and settled in life, live out in the so-called “crime-free” suburbs, where the frequency of bus service is a sick joke. A scatterplot of their residences would look like a lumpy donut with a bite or two taken out of it. That’s all pure speculation, but am I anywhere close? (Pardon me while I go spit to ward off the evil eye.)

      1. Not bad at all! Most of the undergrads are concentrated in what’s known as the Student Ghetto, responsible for stuff like this (http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2011/03/14/scanning-reaction-to-the-kegs-and-eggs-riot). That’s made up of both UAlbany and St. Rose undergrads, and runs along Washington and Western avenues roughly from Manning Boulevard to Lake Avenue. The buses on both Washington and Western are frequent, every ten minutes or so, and most run directly into campus. A few grad students (including me) live in the slightly more upscale Center Square area, between Washington Park and the Empire State Plaza, also with good bus service. I have my choice between a bus two blocks away that runs every half hour and another one four blocks away that’s every ten minutes.

        A significant number of professors do live in the suburbs, but many live in the ritzier areas of Albany along New Scotland Ave. and Buckingham Pond. Those areas have OK bus service–but it’s entirely oriented towards downtown. It’s hard to commute by transit from there to campus, which is part of why I don’t live there, even though I’m an observant Jew and that’s where the Jewish community is concentrated. Then again, my transportation planning prof lives a block from a bus to campus that runs every ten minutes and still drives, so convenience will rule if one has midday meetings at the DOT I guess…(there’s a bus that goes directly from campus to the DOT, but it’s half-hourly at most).

    2. I drove CDTA buses for a spell out of the Albany garage. My low seniority guaranteed me a seat behind the wheel of a route 11 (UA to Downtown) pretty much every weekend on the late shift (5p – 1:30a). We packed those buses.

      An interesting knock-on effect of the forgot-you-paid “free” ride was that CDTA would collect significant cash revenue, even on route 11. Students’ out-of-town friends would also ride along to the bars, and non-student late shift workers also found the service useful. I remember a Boston Market cook that would hop on at around 10:00 every night, always with a hot plate of food for the driver! Needless to say, he didn’t pay a fare, but you get the idea. Extra public transit service tends to attract riders at the margin just because it’s there. That’s something that can’t be said about University-operated “shuttles.”

      1. Definitely. In my experience the buses from campus tend to be crowded until at least 10 at night; I’ve been on buses leaving from Collins Circle around then that are standing room only, and I even once saw one so crush-packed no one could get on. The demand’s definitely there for non-peak service, even at relatively low headways (the 12-Washington runs every 10-15 minutes until pretty late). It’s definitely a key component and enabler of the student experience at UAlbany.

        The challenge for CDTA is that those buses tend to empty out near student housing, or at Lark at the latest; there’s just so little going on in downtown Albany. I’m usually one of the last 2-3 people on the late-night bus, and I get off at Dove. That means you’re running an empty bus for the last couple miles of its route. The 11 doesn’t have that problem because it ends at the downtown campus (which is a pain for me, trying to get back to Center Square–if it just extended to Lark it could double the frequency of buses I could use!), but the 12 does.

  3. Pittsburgh is certainly beating its competition in that tiny subsector. Other than Philly, its major competition is Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Public transit between campuses in Buffalo is awful, and to the largest — UB’s North Campus — essentially nonexistent. I dunno about the other cities though.

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