In Philadelphia, evaluating a one-way transit fare

Philadelphia's transit authority, SEPTA, is evaluating the use of a one-way fare on its regional rail transit system. Can it work?

Philadelphia is in the midst of a major upgrade to its aging public transit fare collection system, moving from the hard token to an RFID "smart card" that does its best to take cash out of the equation.

But as the city's transit authority, SEPTA, investigates deploying the technology, it's facing questions about exactly how to implement it. One model on the table: a one-way fare collection system.

Anthony Campisi writes at PlanPhilly that the authority is investigating three different models to roll out a farecard on the city's regional rail system, which connects surrounding suburbs to downtown:

  • A two-way zoned fare collection system;
  • A two-way system that uses printed tickets, much like New Jersey Transit or New York's Metro North, requiring the installation of ticket vending machines at each station;
  • And a one-way zoned fare collection system, for which inbound trips would be free and riders would pay double on outbound trips.

It's that last one that's most interesting, because you don't see it too often on public transportation.

Cities have different fare scenarios. In New York, riders pay a single flat fare upon entering a station (or bus) and have subsequent access to the entire system. In Washington, riders pay a variable fare that adjusts based on distance traveled; it's called zoned pricing and it requires the straphanger to interact with turnstiles both when entering and leaving the station, not unlike EZPass and other fast-fare schemes seen on the nation's highways.

But one-way fare system, that's a model traditionally seen on bridges: drivers leaving a city often don't have to pay to cross the bridge, but drivers entering it do. (This is the model used by bridges between Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, in fact.)

But when it comes to limited financial resources, one-way fares are actually optimal, Campisi writes:

SEPTA's analysis found that one-way fare collection would be the cheapest, requiring $22 million in capital costs to set up. Two-way fare collection would cost $24.9 million.

The [Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers printed ticket] approach would cost $51.4 million, in part because of the cost of installing the ticket vending machines, which SEPTA estimates will be $53,000 each. The first two operating scenarios envision fewer machines installed primarily at the Center City stations.

SEPTA also calculated that $6 million of additional revenue would be gained by installing turnstiles at the Center City regional rail stations.

SEPTA estimates that the switch to one-way fares would cost $2.5 million upfront, but decrease over time: $1.6 million in the following year, and so forth. From the looks of things, riders will still be required to "tag out," as the new one-way system will still be zoned.

ACS Transport Solutions, Cubic Transportation Systems and Scheidt & Bachmann USA are all bidding on the project.

One question that bubbles up is how this affects city residents on a cultural level. The new system effectively encourages people to come into the city, in direct contrast to its bridge fare scheme, which bases revenues on the inherent demand of regional drivers entering the city for work or entertainment.

(Above all this, though, a smart card scheme will certainly encourage people to travel more along the system, as the city's current fare scheme is disjointed at best.)

Will it affect the way residents travel? Or is it, to use a transportation metaphor, just another route to the same destination?

This post was originally published on