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Philadelphia Gives Free Transit Passes to All City Workers

All 22,000 city workers in Philadelphia are now eligible for a free transit pass under SEPTA’s Key Advantage program. More than 10,000 have already signed up.

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SEPTA, the city of Philadelphia's transit agency, has launched a program that allows employers to purchase fare cards in bulk — and at a steep discount — and offer them to workers for free. (Albert Lee/City of Philadelphia)
In Brief:
  • Philadelphia is the biggest city in the country to offer free transit passes to all city workers.

  • The benefit is provided through SEPTA’s Key Advantage program, paid for by the city as part of a two-year pilot program.

  • Two dozen other employers have signed up for similar benefits, buying bulk passes at steep discounts.

  • If you work for the city of Philadelphia, you can now ride the bus for free.

    As of Friday, Philadelphia became the biggest city in the country to offer free transit passes to all city workers. It's part of a two-year pilot program meant to help the city hire and retain new workers and to increase ridership on a transit system that still hasn’t recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 22,000 city workers are eligible for the passes, which allow virtually unlimited monthly rides on all trains, trolleys and buses run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). The city is the biggest employer to join SEPTA’s Key Advantage program, which allows businesses and institutions to buy transit passes in bulk — and at a steep discount — and offer them to workers for free.

    Sandi Ramos, the city’s SEPTA Key Advantage program manager, says the program could have all types of benefits, like easing traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions and freeing up workers to spend more disposable income in the local economy.

    “Being able to provide SEPTA to the city’s workforce, that just makes the city of Philadelphia the employer of choice,” Ramos says.

    Bulk Passes to Help Increase Ridership

    Like other big-city transit systems, SEPTA saw ridership tank during the pandemic. Bus ridership in April 2020 was less than 30 percent of what it was in April 2019; in the same month, ridership on SEPTA regional rail nearly disappeared altogether. As of this June, regional rail and subway ridership had only rebounded to about half of pre-pandemic rates, while bus ridership was at 76 percent, according to the agency.

    Last spring, as part of its efforts to bring riders back to the system, SEPTA launched Key Advantage, an institutional pass program that some transit advocates had been pushing for years. The first employers to sign up as part of the pilot program were some of the biggest in the city: Drexel University, Penn Medicine and Wawa, the locally beloved convenience store.

    A year later SEPTA opened up the program to all employers in the region, including small businesses. Over the summer it announced it was expanding the program to include college students, and enrolled Swarthmore College, just outside of Philadelphia, as its first participant.

    Passes are offered at “a significant discount” through the Key Advantage program, says Jennifer Scimone, manager of business development at SEPTA. The Anywhere TrailPass, which allows full access to the transit network, typically costs $204 per month. Through Key Advantage, employers can buy the passes for $27 per month per employee, Scimone says. The cost to the city is $9 million a year. SEPTA, like other big agencies, still faces a fiscal cliff, anticipating big budget shortfalls as federal COVID-19 relief funds dry up. Key Advantage is meant to increase ridership, but not to make up for the huge fare box losses the agency has endured over the last several years.

    “It was never intended to be a revenue generator for SEPTA,” Scimone says. “It’s revenue neutral, and the real reason for this program is to induce ridership back on SEPTA post-pandemic.”

    Benefits to Workers and the City

    With the city of Philadelphia’s enrollment, SEPTA now has 25 institutions enrolled in Key Advantage, with more businesses and universities likely to sign up soon, Scimone says. Later this year, it’s also planning to launch a version of the program for multifamily buildings, allowing landlords and property managers to sign up tenants for free passes.

    “One of the other benefits is that we’re bringing those employees and students back into the city, which in turn helps with the economy in the city,” Scimone says. “It’s a ripple effect.”

    SEPTA isn’t the only city providing discounted bulk passes to local governments and institutions. Similar programs exist in Boston; Denver; Columbus; and Santa Clara County, Calif., according to TransitCenter. Valley Metro in Phoenix is planning to launch a program for employers next year as well. The city of Seattle has offered a free transit benefit to public workers for years. Philadelphia is the only city that completely covers the cost of the free-transit program for its workers, according to Scimone.

    The city of Philadelphia is drastically understaffed, part of a trend of unfilled public positions across the country. As of last summer, 1 in 7 city jobs were unfilled, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report. City and SEPTA officials have framed the free-transit program as a “win-win” for workers, the transit agency and the vitality of the city itself.

    The city began enrolling workers in the program in July, working with a local group called Jawnt as the benefits administrator. As of last Monday, when the city and SEPTA held a press conference to announce the launch of the program, nearly 10,000 workers had signed up. By the end of the week, the number was close to 11,000 and counting, says Ramos.

    “It’s so fun to watch that ticker keep going up,” she says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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