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A train pulls in to Penn Medicine Station on October 7, 2021.

Credit: Roger Ge

 In his latest budget address, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city’s plan to provide SEPTA passes for all city employees and for 25,000 low-income Philadelphians. This initiative will utilize SEPTA’s Key Advantage program, which launched last year to help large institutions provide SEPTA passes as employment benefits. Assuming the City Council approves the proposal, Philadelphia will join Drexel, Penn Medicine, Wawa, and five Philadelphia institutions that already provide Key Advantage. Now is the time for Penn to sign up too.

SEPTA’s Key Advantage program establishes a seamless structure for employers, colleges and universities to provide every student, faculty, and staff member with free transportation anywhere in the city. The program is part of a national effort to shift transit fares away from riders. Cities including Boston; Kansas City, Miss.; and Washington are already eliminating fares from select bus routes or from their entire transit systems. Since SEPTA recovers over 20% of its operating expenses from fares and is facing decreasing ridership from COVID-19, it would be unable to eliminate fares without a significant increase in public subsidy. As an alternative to fare-free transit, large employers and institutions can pick up the slack to make transit a more economical and convenient option for employees and students alike. 

Encouraging transit use is environmentally conscious, economical, and socially responsible for Penn, and would quickly become a beloved perk among the campus community. Penn should offer SEPTA Key Advantage to all faculty and staff, then expand the program to graduate and undergraduate students. 

In particular, graduate students’ need for subsidized transportation is greater than ever before. At the end of this semester, Penn will close Sansom Place West, the only graduate student housing on campus. This means that 16,000 graduate students will live entirely off campus and will have to pay for transit, private car parking, or ride share services to access campus. Enrolling all graduate students in SEPTA Key Advantage would give students the freedom to find safe, affordable housing across the city and reduce travel cost burdens across the student body. 

SEPTA Key Advantage is also a ready-made program to help Penn combat climate change and give back to the City of Philadelphia. Transportation accounts for almost 40% of national greenhouse gas emissions. Enabling seamless transit ridership for Penn community members would immediately reduce local pollution and be an essential step towards Penn’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2042. Likewise, supporting SEPTA’s initiatives will help the agency invest in better, cleaner vehicles, more service frequency, and justify improvements like real time bus arrival boards at University City stops. 

By joining Key Advantage, Penn can help SEPTA recover from its post-COVID-19 ridership slump and stabilize its future funding. In 2024, SEPTA will expend its federal COVID-19 relief funding and be forced to cut service by 20% and significantly increase fares — only robust local support and increased state subsidy can avert this scenario. Consider Seattle, where over 60% of transit trips are paid for by employers, rail ridership is back to pre-pandemic levels, and local voters are funding the new construction of four times the existing rail capacity in the region. Seattle is an example of how anchor institutions like Microsoft, Amazon, and the University of Washington can support transit, and Key Advantage provides a framework for pursuing a similar system in Philadelphia. Penn is starting to change its financial posture towards Philadelphia institutions, evidenced by their commitment to provide PILOT-style funds to the School District of Philadelphia, and Penn can extend their commitment to the wellbeing of Philadelphia by joining Key Advantage.

Joining Key Advantage will provide tremendous benefits to the Penn community, to SEPTA, and to all Philadelphians. Whenever Penn is ready, SEPTA has Key Advantage for us. 

JONATHAN ZISK is a graduate student in the School of Design studying city and regional planning. His email is