SEPTA still filing rough edges on Key fare system

The beep of a SEPTA Key card’s swipe is becoming as familiar a sound on city transit as the clink of tokens and curses from people who forgot to carry exact change.

After a two-week rollout in March of the fare card’s most flexible function, Travel Wallet, Key cards are active on the city’s buses, trolleys, and subways, and are in the hands of about 63,000 riders, more than 10 percent of transit ridership. 

“We’re trying to encourage folks, if you buy a Key card …,” said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager and treasurer, “you never have to wait in line.”

SEPTA has also found a ready audience for the Quick Trips one-way fare card, also dispensed by the Key kiosks and scheduled to be available on the Airport Line on April 17.

The rollout hasn’t been trouble-free. Kiosks dispensing the cards aren’t easy to navigate. The website where Key holders register their cards is frustrating. SEPTA has acknowledged it got the website wrong.

“We’re talking about a whole different approach to the website,” said Kevin O’Brien, SEPTA’s senior program manager for the Key program.

The industry has generally been impressed with Key, said Walter Allen, whose company, Acumen Building Enterprise of Oakland, Calif., installs similar systems, but it was disappointing that the interfaces were hard to use.

“That’s critical or your customers won’t use it,” he said.

It is not clear how much fixing the kiosks and website will cost or when it will be done, SEPTA officials said. In December, the agency approved the most recent of 14 adjustments to the original contract that boosted the cost by $3.9 million. Building the Key system is already $27.1 million more expensive than the original $122 million price tag. With other related expenses, the Key system has cost more than $220 million so far. The delays and added costs created tension between SEPTA and the contractor, with the transportation authority saying it may take legal action over the delays and additional costs.

Looking ahead, suburban transportation has to be brought onto Key, including all Regional Rail stations. SEPTA set aside $99 million in the coming fiscal year’s budget for Key card-related expenses.

The immediate issues with the kiosks are confusing wording and unclear instructions.

In June 2016, SEPTA gave 10,000 cards to early adopters, who provided feedback. They were likely transit enthusiasts, said David Schuff, professor of management information systems at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, and not a great test group to represent a cross-section of users.

“This has to be usable by people who may not like technology at all,” Schuff said.

He contrasted SEPTA’s system to the touch screen at Wawa’s sandwich counter, which is so easy to use even a committed Luddite can order a hoagie.

SEPTA agreed early input might have been too kind, and is now working with Conduent, the recent Xerox spin-off now handling the Key project, to reprogram the more than 300 kiosks in the city. Each kiosk has screens specific to its location, said O’Brien, so some changes must be done machine by machine. Workers must also test each machine to ensure it was correctly updated.

The work will take time, O’Brien said. As will updating the website.

The website needs different technology, a different programming language, and different software to make its interface easier to use. SEPTA’s original contract for Key was inked in 2011, and tech has changed since then. Additional demands include making the site adjust to mobile devices’ different screen sizes.

Conduent, a New Jersey company, did not comment for this story.

Introducing Key to suburban transportation will be an undertaking. According to SEPTA documents, Key cards should be usable on Regional Rail by September. Burnfield fudged that, saying it would be active by the end of 2017 at the latest. Kiosks are now being installed in the University City station, and 90 card readers are in suburban train stops. Eventually, the five Center City stations will have 97 kiosks and Key stations, and vehicles throughout the ‘burbs will have 727 card readers. Key cards won’t be sold in the stations outside Center City due to the expense of installing kiosks at every stop.

The Key timeline in SEPTA’s latest change order has a notation beneath December 2018 that says, “Project complete.”

Between then and now, much work remains, including phasing out the existing fare products and building an app. That will be a significant undertaking, experts said, because the product will have to be compatible with every variety of smartphone, from the latest iPhone to Androids. O’Brien said work has barely started on the app.

“We just want the basic website functioning for our customers before we get too fancy,” he said.

Schuff credited SEPTA for the slow rollout. It may frustrate users, he said, but it was likely a smart approach to minimize disruptions.

“I don’t think it’s discouraging,” he said. “It’s probably in their best interests to roll things out piece by piece.”