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Philadelphia City Workers Are Getting a Free Ride (Literally)

The city of Philadelphia has launched a two-year pilot project that makes free transit passes available to its more than 20,000 employees. The program promises a wealth of data and a lifeline to public transit.

A SEPTA train at the station
City workers in Philadelphia will have access to free public transit, in a move to reduce traffic, absorb transportation expenses for workers and boost transit ridership.

Philadelphia launched a two-year pilot to subsidize transit passes with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) for its more than 20,000-employee workforce. Already, more than 10,000 employees have signed up for the benefit.

“We now have over 10,200 employees enrolled, and growing literally minute by minute,” said Sandi Ramos, project manager for the SEPTA Key Advantage program, as the project is known. The program begins Sept. 1 and is expected to cost the city around $9 million per year.

“Almost half our workforce is interested, enrolled and ready to hop on the bus or the train. And that is really exciting,” Ramos added.

The pilot project is structured around the SEPTA Key card, a reloadable card. In this case, the city provides workers with a Key card, which largely functions as a monthly pass.

Jawnt, a Philadelphia-based technology platform, will serve as a third-party benefits administrator by managing customer service and answering rider questions, as well as serving as a source for data collection to be used by both the city and SEPTA. Jawnt is also the technology platform supporting a program to make it easier for employers to incentivize use of Philadelphia’s bike-share program.

A key part of the pilot will be data collection to enable city officials to better understand the transportation needs of its employees. A new mayor takes the lead in January, which could usher in new ideas around the transit benefit.

“I’m sure that whoever is mayor next is going to look at this program and also be excited about it,” said Michael Zaccagni, human resources director for the city of Philadelphia. “But we really do have to get the data back after the two years as well. Which is why we’re doing a pilot, and it’s why we’re doing it for a substantial period of time, so that we can get some good data back, in order to make a determination.”

It’s hard to say exactly how many city workers use SEPTA on a daily basis. A program that allowed employees to place pretax earnings toward a commuter benefit program had about 2,000 employees participating, which is far less than the more than 10,000 workers who have already signed up for the Key Advantage program.

The move toward encouraging transit use “is really in line with our policies,” said Zaccagni, as the city tries to encourage more use of public transit to reduce traffic, congestion, greenhouse gases and other public benefits.

“And it’s just a great benefit to add to our, already, I think, wealth of benefits we offer to employees,” said Zaccagni.

All indications suggest SEPTA — like so many public transit agencies — can benefit from a boost in ridership which took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not yet recovered. By the end of 2022, SEPTA ridership was still down nearly 48 percent, compared to 2019 ridership, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association.

SEPTA is also pitching its Key Advantage program to other employers hoping to convince them to support their workers and transit.

“SEPTA is thrilled to launch this exciting new program, which will provide real benefits for people working in our city and region,” said SEPTA General Manager and CEO Leslie S. Richards, in a statement. “This has the potential to provide a significant boost in ridership, which is critical to ensuring that SEPTA can sustain and grow service as we recover from the pandemic.”

And putting more people on buses and trains has a “safety-in-numbers” effect, helping to improve transit safety, say officials.

“If there’s safety in numbers, and all the city workers are now moving toward SEPTA, well then, transit is going to be that much safer for both our youth and for us. So that’s incredibly exciting to us,” said Ramos.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.