Increasing Transit Mode Share (Goal 9)

May 13, 2011

From an economic perspective, one way that SEPTA promotes prosperity is by mitigating congestion. In a 2005 US Census American Community Survey (ACS) estimate of longest average commute-to-work times, Greater Philadelphia (29.4 minutes) ranked fifth among large cities (population: 250,000 or more). The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) 2009 Urban Mobility Report found that annual hours of delay in the Philadelphia metropolitan area more than doubled between 1982 and 2007, costing the region 112 million hours, 71 million gallons of fuel, and $2.3 billion in economic productivity.

According to TTI, transit emerges as a valuable solution to this problem: in 2007 public transportation saved Greater Philadelphia 23 million hours and $473 million in economic productivity from its contribution to regional mobility.

Greater Philadelphia Congestion Indicators
Indicator Total (2007)
Annual Delay Per Traveler 38 Hours
Wasted Fuel Per Traveler 24 Gallons
Total Travel Delay 112 Million Hours
Total Wasted Fuel 71 Million Gallons
Total Congestion Cost $2.3 Billion
Public Transportation Delay Savings 23 Million Hours
Public Transportation Cost Savings $473 Million

Source: Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) 2009 Urban Mobility Report

And yet, more can be done to expand upon SEPTA's positive net impact on the regional economy. In SEPTA's five-county service area, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) estimates that 71 million daily vehicle miles (DVMT) were traveled in 2005, a 21 percent increase over 1990 levels. The estimate implies an average of 18 daily vehicle miles traveled per capita. By comparison, SEPTA's 2005 total of 1.5 billion annual passenger miles traveled (PMT) implies less than one daily transit mile traveled per capita.

Digging deeper into regional DVMT estimates reveals distinct differences between urban and suburban travel behavior - in 2005, the City of Philadelphia's per capita DVMT was 11; the four suburban counties ranged from 19 to 25.

These differences are not surprising. As described in the April 8 journal article, Greater Philadelphia is a region that grew up around its transit system, but one that has, in large part, aged around its highways. The resulting erosion of transit options and access has perpetuated a dramatic shift to automobile use. According to DVRPC, between 1980 and 2000, the number of automobiles in the region increased by 37 percent and the number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT) increased by 52 percent, despite a population increase of only seven percent.

Transit ridership steadily declined between 1990 and 2005, as auto-oriented land uses strained SEPTA's competitiveness with the car. Even despite a recent rebound in ridership, transit's regional mode share remains more than 50 percent below its peak mid-20th century levels.

As it relates to developing a strategy for ridership growth, this poses two distinct challenges for SEPTA:

  • Supporting the revitalization of older transit-oriented communities, thereby attracting new riders to an existing service network; and
  • Providing a competitive mobility alternative to newer auto-oriented communities, thereby attracting new riders to an expanded service network.

SEPTA's ability to serve as an effective regional sustainability solution - and to capture a greater share of regional travel - will be defined by its approach to these two issues.

Progress To-Date

As opposed to the April 8 journal post, which focused on SEPTA's role as partner in building communities, today's focus is on SEPTA's bread-and-butter: providing the region with the high-quality of transportation services it deserves.

The passage of Pennsylvania Act 44 in 2008 provided, for the first time, a reliable and sufficient source of dedicated funding for SEPTA to support its ongoing operations. SEPTA responded by implementing 65 new initiatives to extend, realign, and strategically increase service throughout the region.

While renewed financial challenges have precluded additional service expansion initiatives, SEPTA is moving forward with other cost-effective solutions for realigning routes to improve service in response to evolving travel demand. The "Transit First" partnership with the City of Philadelphia exemplifies this approach. Transit First committees evaluate technology and policy-based opportunities to improve day-to-day efficiency of surface transportation operations. Projects are evaluated based on their cost effectiveness and ability to improve existing service by improving the performance of targeted routes.

Last month, SEPTA and the City rolled out a Transit First pilot project on the Route 47 bus in South Philadelphia. Performance will be monitored with an eye towards broader implementation.

Non-service related initiatives have also had a positive impact on the quality of SEPTA's services. In recent years, a new and improved website, online customer support, and multiple outlets for real-time information have equipped riders with better access to SEPTA-related resources than ever before. Targeted outreach events, such as "Customer Connection," coupled with an increased social media presence have complemented these technological advances with new avenues for passenger interaction and feedback.

But perhaps the most significant upgrade is still to come. In January, the SEPTA Board approved an innovative financing plan to move forward with its New Payment Technologies program, which represents the transit industry's boldest step to-date in moving transit fare payment away from specialized fare media - tokens, passes and tickets - and towards a common retail purchase method using conventional bank cards and emerging smart technologies. The program will represent a breakthrough in regional mobility by eliminating barriers to use that have been created by an outdated, inefficient fare collection system. Upon implementation, the state-of-the art technology will:

  • Apply best practices from the broader consumer payments arena to a new customer-friendly merchant model for transit fare payment, leveraging the bank card network to assess fare payments directly against a credit or debit card account.
  • Incorporate measures to ensure the unbanked or underbanked citizen enjoys the same convenience, with prepaid cards that allow users to draw down an available balance and reload as necessary.
  • Be designed to have strong interoperability features for connection with other transportation payment systems, fundamentally transforming region-wide access to an integrated network of transit services.

A common swipe or tap of any card will represent an ease-of-use that promises to attract new discretionary riders. Based on prior experiences from fare modernization campaigns at peer agencies, SEPTA projects a five percent increase in ridership over three years - a significant step towards achieving SEPTA's goals for increasing regional mode share.

Baseline & Target

SEPTA is a committed stakeholder in the City of Philadelphia's Greenworks goal to reduce vehicle miles traveled in the region by 10 percent. SEPTA has established its own complimentary target to increase on annual unlinked trips per capita by 10 percent by 2015. Performance will be measured based on yearly ridership and five-county area population estimates. Progress will be tracked against a 2005 baseline:

  • 85.39 unlinked trips per capita

A Plan to Improve Performance

SEPTA has targeted a series of initiatives to achieve this goal:

Fully implement New Payment Technologies program. SEPTA's New Payment Technologies program will revolutionize passenger access and fare collection. Financing for the program is in place - vendor selection is anticipated this summer.

Further improve system safety. Despite limited resources to fund service enhancements, SEPTA has taken significant strides in improving system safety. SEPTA should target investments that improve facility cleanliness and lighting, often associated with safety.

Implement customer-service related initiatives. Despite financial constraints, SEPTA can pursue low- or no-cost service enhancements initiatives that attract ridership and, ultimately, improve the bottom line. Customer service-related initiatives, such as real-time information and the introduction of QuietRide cars on regional rail, provided riders with new amenities at minimal expense. An expansion of customer focused programs could further improve the rider experience.

Develop marketing plan to increase awareness of system and services. SEPTA will maximize the return on its investments in service initiatives by pairing them with a targeted marketing campaign.

Develop comprehensive parking vision plan to address system capacity constraints. As highlighted in a recent DVRPC parking policy analysis, the availability, cost, and convenience of parking impacts commuters' decisions about whether to take transit or drive. Understanding this connection, SEPTA will develop a comprehensive parking plan that evaluates the relationship between parking and public transportation and establishes a clear vision for ensuring sufficient capacity to meet future ridership demand.

Target cost-effective plans for an expanded system. Despite financial constraints, SEPTA's ability to attract new ridership markets will require a vision for targeted service expansion. Without robust long-range planning, SEPTA will be ill-equipped to satisfy evolving travel demands. The recent economic downturn served as a period to plan for the future; now, as the economy rebounds, SEPTA will be in a better position to pursue cost-effective expansion projects that improve overall regional mobility.

What's Next

Next week, we'll describe the relationship between SEPTA's infrastructure and the regional economy. In particular, we'll take a look at how SEPTA is addressing its various state of good repair needs in new and innovative ways, even despite significant capital funding shortfalls that continue to plague SEPTA's capital improvement program.

Next Week: Achieving an Infrastructure State of Good Repair