Before coming to Penn, my knowledge of the City of Brotherly Love was limited to the patriotic, carefully planned grade-school class trips to the Liberty Bell. I knew little about the ins and outs of actually living here. So, when — upon my first trip to Center City — someone handed me a small, oddly striped coin, I laughed.
SEPTA tokens are kind of kitschy, kind of cute, but never convenient. It just doesn’t seem right that the same tender used at Chuck E. Cheese’s powers the sixth-largest transportation system in the United States. They date our city like a feathered haircut. How can we be expected to be taken seriously by our East Coast peers of Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, all of whom have upgraded to the svelte convenience of plastic cards when we’re still living in the Gilded Age?
This month, the SEPTA board announced that it will borrow the $175 million necessary to make the long-awaited upgrade from tokens to smart cards. I can’t help but be skeptical, however, given that this futuristic idea was first announced in November 2008.
It’s been over two years and countless obstacles since then, and according to the The Philadelphia Inquirer, it will still be at least another two or three years until tokens will be absolutely obsolete. It’s 2011. Aren’t we all supposed to be flying around in aerocars anyway?
The long-time-coming attitude associated with this upgrade will (hopefully) result in one of the most state-of-the-art public transportation systems in the country. According to a statement from SEPTA, ideas being considered for the revamped system include payment with mobile devices and other “emerging smart technologies.”
College sophomore Simcha Katsnelson — a Philadelphia native who’s ridden SEPTA since childhood — is excited at the prospect of a modern fare system. “I think it’s cool to see how technology can impact even the smallest details of everyday life, like SEPTA tokens,” she said.
New York, which is looking to upgrade its 15-year-old MetroCard system, has spent four years testing an open-fare contactless card system, which would have passengers tap instead of swipe at turnstiles. MasterCard’s PayPass and Visa’s payWave technologies, which have been piloted at locations in the city, allow riders to use both their bank cards as well as their cell phones with memory cards or apps linked to their accounts to pay fare.
Given the time it has taken to experiment with these new methods of payment in New York and other major cities, I wonder — and worry — how long it will actually take for Philadelphia to be token-less. Especially since we’re making not merely a step, but a leap, forward from metal to microchip.
While Philadelphia has long been lagging behind, if we move fast enough, we could have the opportunity to serve as a model for 21st-century metropolitan transit.
It’s true, other major cities have smaller shifts to make, from smart cards distributed by their transportation systems to individual, bank-linked payment methods. SEPTA has a slightly bigger challenge. But we’re underdogs. We’re the city of Rocky, the ultimate underdog. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
SEPTA has praised the “open nature” of the smart card system and expressed their hope that the upgrade will “attract new riders.”
While “open nature” seems like a vague term, I think I understand what SEPTA is getting at. There’s so much planning involved to get tokens that the spontaneity of jumping on the trolley into Center City is a bit stifled. Being able to swipe a bank card instead of fishing around for a token will make getting around that much easier.
I just hope that SEPTA is equally “open” with the public about the challenges they’re taking on with this major project. We’ll see where we are in three years.
Rachel del Valle is a College freshman from Newark, N.J. Her e-mail address is delvalle@theDP.com. Duly Noted appears every other Friday.Comments powered by Disqus
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