FY2014 and NPT: The Monthly Pass Break-Evens

One measure of unlimited passes is: at what point do they become cheaper, per ride, than paying for rides individually? This ratio is one that calls for balance from any transit agency. Lower pass prices encourage the prepayment of fares, which is good for the agency financially, and increases discretionary ridership that drives mode shift to transit. But on the flip side the agency may be leaving revenue on the table if riders were willing to pay more, and also may increase cost liability if riders with unlimited passes make heavy use of their privileges. As SEPTA’s famously complicated (but also increasingly oversimplified) fare system comes up for a refresh, it’s worth running through some numbers and seeing where SEPTA is setting — and moving — that line for its riders.

I’m restricting myself to monthly passes in this post, and not running the weekly numbers, because monthly passes are far superior deals, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. And because after having made this batch of calculations, I already want to stab my eyes out.


  • All single rides are calculated at the token/smart media rate (transit) or at the advance purchase one way ticket rate (railroad) except where indicated otherwise.
  • Direction indicated is AM Peak.
  • Bold indicates a change of more than one (1) ride per month.

...............................Rides Pass req'd Rides Pass req'd
Broad/Ellsworth - City Hall... | 54 | Transpass | 52 | Transpass
Drexel Hill Jct - 34th/Market. | 33 | Transpass | 33 | Transpass
19th/Market - 54th/City Line.. | 45 | Zone 1... | 52 | Transpass
Matsonford - Bryn Mawr (NHSL). | 54 | Transpass | 44 | Zone 1
Bridgeport - 69th St.......... | 51 | X-County. | 44 | Zone 1
Gulph Mills - Valley Forge.... | 54 | Transpass | 41 | Zone 2
13th/Market - King of Prussia. | 51 | Zone 3... | 41 | Zone 2
East Falls - 30th Street...... | 23 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
Suburban Station - Sedgwick... | 21 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
University City - Airport..... | 14 | Transpass | 16 | Zone 1
Sedgwick - Suburban Station... | 29 | Zone 2... | 29 | Zone 2
Swarthmore - Market East...... | 29 | Zone 3... | 29 | Zone 3
Temple University - Wilmington | 25 | Zone 3... | 26 | Zone 3
Suburban Station - Trenton.... | 18 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Neshaminy Falls - Market East. | 29 | Zone 4... | 29 | Zone 3
Wilmington - Temple University | 29 | Zone 4... | 30 | Anywhere
Ridley Park - Claymont........ | 24 | IM-1..... | 32 | X-County
Paoli - Overbrook............. | 28 | X-County. | 32 | X-County
Lansdale - Suburban Station... | 31 | Anywhere. | 30 | Anywhere
Trenton - Suburban Station.... | 22 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere
Wayne Junction - Ardmore...... | 24 | Zone 2... | 16 | Zone 2
Manayunk - Trenton............ | 17 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Colmar - Bala................. | 21 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere

I think the first object lesson has to be that, if you don’t transfer and don’t incur a zone charge (or “premium route fare”), the Transpass is a terrible deal compared to tokens. The second is that the changes to Intermediate and Via Center City riders were clearly pulled from a hat in 1234 Market, because clearly no design or thought went into them.

I should acknowledge Ben Kabak’s 30-Day Metrocard Challenge as an inspiration for this post, which is much more one-dimensional than this, probably to his great relief. (I can’t find the relevant post, but after the most recent MTA fare hike on the first of this month, the break-even point on 30 Day Unlimited Metrocards inched back down to 48.)


FY2014 and NPT: City and Suburban Transit Divisional tariffs

The transit side of SEPTA’s July 1 fare hike is, mercifully, easier to write about than the railroad side. One almost sees why SEPTA has such a mania for oversimplifying its fare structure. But such is the lot of the (alleged) transit professional: while Your Humble Blogger gets to complain about typing volume, the accountants and lawyers writing up the new tariff drafts are being paid to create the best fare structure for SEPTA and its riders, not their own convenience. But despite the simplicity of the task before it, SEPTA still managed to get some things in its new transit fares profoundly wrong.
Continue reading FY2014 and NPT: City and Suburban Transit Divisional tariffs

FY2014 and NPT: Railroad Division tarriff

Going into further depth on SEPTA’s proposed fare changes, I am seeing disturbing trends. Apart from the flaws in the technical implementation of NPT (another post in itself), SEPTA’s changes to fare rules and structures indicate an attitude of not wanting to deal with the complexity of the world it exists in and the ridership it serves.
Continue reading FY2014 and NPT: Railroad Division tarriff

SEPTA releases proposal for July 1 fare hike and NPT-related fare rule changes

Updated 2013-3-16 7:00p

After months of speculation, and not a little bit of pleading from this blog and others, we are finally learning some of what is waiting in store for SEPTA riders when NPT rolls out later this year. This is coming wrapped up with fare hikes and rule changes that SEPTA will be implementing on July 1 as part of its policy to increment fares every two or so fiscal years to keep up with cost inflation. Details are available at http://www.septa.org/notice/asp/hearings-asp.html.

SEPTA is saving itself a round of public hearings by folding both the preprogrammed fare hikes and the NPT changes into one plan, but is not doing itself any favors in terms of PR by linking the two moves in the public consciousness. NPT-related changes will go into effect on July 1 2014, or 60 days after SEPTA gives notice that NPT rollout is complete, whichever comes first.

There are a lot of details to keep straight, and I’ll be diving into those for the next week or so in follow-up posts, but the key takeaways are as follows:
On the transit side:

  • The venerable SEPTA token will spend its last few months in circulation at $1.80, up from $1.55. The cash fare will go up from $2.00 to $2.25 on July 1, and up again to $2.50 when the NPT rollout is considered complete.
  • Transfers will remain $1.00, but NPT will deep-six the paper slip, and also put a 90 minute limit on transfers (there is a poorly-enforced 120 minute limit with the paper transfers today).
  • The Monthly Transpass is going up from $83 to $92. This makes the break-even point for riders who don’t transfer a little more favorable, at 52 single-seat rides per month instead of 54.
  • The Norristown High Speed Line and the Premium Bus Routes (123, 124, 125, and 150) will now have one flat charge for all riders, higher than the current maximum fares, even for short-distance travel.

On the railroad side:

  • Zone 4 is being abolished. Six stations are being moved to Zone 5 (which will then be renamed as the new Zone 4), the rest are being moved to Zone 3.
  • Trailpasses for Zones 1, 2, and 3 are going up. Anywhere Trailpasses are staying the same. Most Zone 4 passholders will see fare reductions as their home stations are moved to Zone 3; the remainder will pay more for an Anywhere Pass. The Cross-County Pass will now come in Weekly as well as Monthly flavors. The IM-1 Intermediate Monthly pass is being eliminated.
  • Occasional riders of Regional Rail will see marginal increases in ticket prices, but those paying with NPT Smart Media cards will now be paying rates that were previously reserved for Ten Trip ticket purchasers.
  • Gender stickers on passes are headed to the dustbin of history where they belong. To prevent abuse, “unlimited” passes will be limited in software to 50 uses for a weekly, 200 for a monthly.

A note for SEPTA non-professionals: SEPTA’s public hearings are not a joke, and they are not a show trial. While some things, like the overall amount of revenue to be collected, are fairly fixed, new fare rules can, and do, get modified due to public outcry and public pressure.

Why isn’t PATCO free?

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, South Jersey drivers are moving away from their cars, at least when crossing the Delaware. Car traffic on the Delaware River Port Authority’s four bridges was down 1.76% in 2012, and PATCO ridership was up 1.6%, in the first full year after a 10% PATCO fare hike and a 25% bridge toll hike (from $4 to $5 round-trip for ordinary cars). So far, so standard Economics 101. But DRPA is missing a bigger opportunity to mode-shift people out of their cars: it can increase the cross-subsidy of PATCO to 100%, and reap the environmental, congestion, and pro-urban benefits of zero-fare transit. And it can do it for only one more dollar in tolls.

PATCO's unnecessary fare system, the FREEDOM card
Governors Christie and Corbett: TEAR DOWN THIS GATE

According to DRPA’s own 2011 Annual Report, PATCO fares in that calendar year generated $24,004,000, while bridge tolls brought in $267,685,000. That order of magnitude difference means that the extra 9.76% revenue generated by half a year of increased tolls is more than PATCO brought in all year. Thus, it stands to reason that another toll hike of approximately the same absolute magnitude (i.e. $5 to $6 for passenger cars) could offset the removal of PATCO fares altogether, in a budget-neutral or budget-positive way for DRPA.

There are two primary risks in this approach. One is that making PATCO free might make it a runaway success, causing unsafe crowding conditions at rush hour. That is a serious concern, but it is the kind of problem we should be glad to have. There are other methods of constricting PATCO demand, mostly through appropriate pricing of PATCO’s vast parking facilities in South Jersey. The NJT Atlantic City Line, which reaches peak load at Lindenwold, is woefully underutilized across the Delaware, and bringing NJT’s $5 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare down into line with PATCO’s current $3 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare ought to be a DRPA priority in any event. Crowding relief may be the impetus to implement the plans to build an NJT platform at Woodcrest PATCO Station. If crowding is still an issue, NJT Bus Ops can probably be convinced to run extra service to Philadelphia at peak hours, in exchange for the cost savings of truncating to Walter Rand TC in the off hours.

The other is the obvious political problem of selling it to already-unhappy toll paying drivers. My initial uncharitable instinct is to tell them to go pound sand, that their North Jersey brethren are paying $13 to the PANYNJ to cross the Hudson, they can suck up $6. But of course, DRPA can’t quite do that. It can point out that it is now providing a free alternative, but it is also competing against the (ludicrously low $2) Tacony-Palmyra bridge, and might actually lose a fair bit of money as drivers switch modes or switch routes. Again, my first instinct is to declare victory, but in the eyes of people for whom the control of these four bridges is and has been considered a licence to print money (and then disperse it corruptly to pet projects), this is a fate to be avoided. Fortunately for them, there are alternatives. Most pertinently, giving off-peak EZ-Pass drivers a discount from the full rate, which is just good policy, and differentiating toll structures for the strongly-demanded Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges into Center City Philadelphia, while providing slightly lower rates on the off-axis relief routes over the Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges, which again is just good policy. On the other side of the political issue, side, there might be worries out of Collingswood and Haddonfield of Camden’s, er, “undesirables” spilling out from a free PATCO. In this case, my reaction to tell people to go pound sand will be unrestrained: criminals do not ride transit, they drive. Working people take transit, and I refuse in all cases to have good transportation policy held hostage to racism or classism. Fortunately, the on-line communities mostly understand and support the extent to which their own prosperity is linked to the existence and convenience of PATCO.

Taking out the fares and throwing open the gates on PATCO would save payment processing and maintenance costs for DRPA; the 2007 introduction of the FREEDOM card was a step forward from the late 1960s-era magnetic ticketing system, but has not provided the benefits PATCO envisioned. Nor have SEPTA or NJT expressed any interest in adopting the system; on the contrary, PATCO has been making noises about scrapping the FREEDOM card after only 7-8 years in service, and adopting SEPTA’s open (and as-yet unbranded) NPT system, after it rolls out this year. That’s a stunning testimony on PATCO’s evaluation of the success of its own system. DRPA won’t go broke on PATCO’s credit card fees, but they do add up. And the personnel required to collect cash out of fare vending machines, fix broken faregates, and otherwise administer fare collection, all cost DRPA money. And reducing total DRPA expenditures should be considered a major budgetary win, on both sides of the Delaware.

ETA: To directly answer the question posed by my title, i.e. “why isn’t PATCO free now?”, the answer, of course, is that DRPA’s leadership, at the agency level and the political level, is hostage to the windshield perspective mentality that dominates all discussion of transportation issues in this country. (Noted carborne menace Gov. Chris Christie is a notorious perpetrator of this, and he controls half of DRPA’s board.)
Until the idea that politicians and government agencies represent and serve people, and not the cars those people drive, comes back into fashion, PATCO will continue to charge revenue-maximizing fares, discouraging its own ridership, and leaving South Jersey locked in its autocentric spiral.

Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?

SEPTA is performing maintenance on the Market-Frankford Line in Center City this weekend, and will be running shuttle buses from 11th Street to 30th street all day Saturday and Sunday while through service is suspended. Additionally, single tracking will occur 8th St-15th St after 22:00 Friday, and 8th St-13th St Saturday and Sunday. See the Service Advisory on septa.org for all the details.

While I approve of SEPTA taking proactive measures to achive and maintain a state of good repair, and a full weekend shutdown will give plenty of time for repairs too complex to be done overnight, I have to object to the use of shuttle buses to bridge the gap between the 69th-30th and FTC-13th services. The Market St corridor is the main commercial axis of the City of Philadelphia, and is served by three rail transit modes: the MFL, the Subway-Surface trolleys, and the RRD Center City tunnel. On weekdays, each serves a different travel market and runs at capacity at rush hour, with each complementing the other two. On the weekend, with none of the three running anywhere near capacity, it should be possible to compensate for the loss of the one solely with the other two, without resort to busing.

Continue reading Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?

Thomson’s ghost

SEPTA had a rough morning yesterday on the Paoli/Thorndale Line, with a broken rail taking one track out of service during the morning rush. Shuttle buses provided service between Thorndale and Downingtown, but the eye-opener of the morning came from this tweet SEPTA sent out:

That made quite a bit of sense; it let SEPTA concentrate on shuttling peak-direction passengers out of Thorndale parking lot, and Amtrak got to be a good host to SEPTA passengers on its line. And on Amtrak as on SEPTA, peak direction is towards Philadelphia in the morning, so there were plenty of empty seats on Keystone 605, although it did arrive in Harrisburg 19 minutes late.

But this co-operation in a pinch, while admirable, points out a defect in our transit system: it doesn’t happen every day. On the outer Main Line, Philadelphia-bound commuters are forced to choose between SEPTA, which is cheaper, more frequent, makes the local stops Thorndale, Whitford, and Malvern, and directly serves Suburban and Market East Stations, versus Amtrak, which is significantly faster and more comfortable, but more expensive and less convenient to Center City. This makes little sense for the riders, and less sense for the Commonwealth, which is subsidizing both services. A better system would permit passholders to ride either SEPTA or Amtrak. Metrolink and Amtrak California co-operate like this in Los Angeles: they call it the Rail2Rail program. It makes more sense there to let Metrolink passholders on Amtrak trains, since the prices are closer and the schedules sparser. But letting Amtrak riders ride SEPTA trains that fit their needs better is a win all around.

The Thomson of my title is Edgar Thomson, first Chief Engineer of the PRR. Needless to say, when Harrisburg trains and Paoli trains all ran under the PRR/PC banner, Paoli-Philadelphia passholders could ride any train they pleased. A sad reminder that, despite how far we’ve come since the age of steam, a few things really were better.