There's no getting around the clumsy design of SEPTA's new fare gates | Inga Saffron

As SEPTA prepares to expand its Key card to Regional Rail, the five biggest stations are being retrofitted with new fare gates. But it will be a tight squeeze in many places, including the SEPTA concourse in 30th Street Station.

It’s now been two years since SEPTA rolled out its electronic Key card, almost long enough to forget the payment system’s lengthy and problem-plagued gestation. Who cares that the fare card’s debut was four years late or that the accompanying website was a clunker (and remains less than optimal)? Those little, turquoise-colored pieces of plastic have become an indispensable part of our lives, as close to a badge of Philadelphia citizenship as anything we have.

SEPTA always expected the Key card to be more than just a city tool, however. The fare cards were envisioned as an E-ZPass for public transit, uniting all the region’s modes under one fare system. But because of the daunting technical issues, SEPTA’s Regional Rail, PATCO’s High-Speed Line, NJ Transit, and Amtrak had to be left out of the original Key network. The card could be used only on SEPTA buses, subways, and trolleys.

Now SEPTA’s Regional Rail passengers are about to be brought into the fold. If you’ve wandered into any of its big five stations lately — 30th Street, Suburban, Jefferson, Temple, and University City — you’ve probably noticed that SEPTA has been installing turnstiles and fences at the entrances to the train platforms. The $283 million project, which includes $124 million for physical infrastructure, is the first step in expanding the Key’s reach.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer
New turnstiles are being installed on the SEPTA concourse at 30th Street Station.

Sometime this summer, the validator screens will go live, and anyone with a turquoise card will be able to tap their way onto the trains. This means the days of standing in line at a SEPTA counter to purchase a paper ticket and then submitting the little card to a train conductor to be hand-punched will soon be over. The cost of the trip will simply be deducted from your Key card balance when you step through the turnstile. As a bonus, improvements to PATCO’s ticketing system should soon make it possible for its riders to use their passes on SEPTA.

As exciting as the fare-card expansion is in concept, the reality on the ground is another matter.

The issue is the design of the new fare enclosures.

Because the vast majority of Regional Rail passengers pass through one of the five big stations, SEPTA decided those stations would have to be outfitted with barricades and turnstiles to deter fare evaders. (Outlying stations will be equipped with validators, but no turnstiles.) The barricades are intended to delineate the “paid zones” and control access to the platforms. But the result of all that fencing is a maze of walkways, in various colors, materials, and configurations.

Ideally, the railings should have been sleek glass constructions that helped SEPTA rebrand itself as a modern transit system. Instead, the designs, by Sowinski Sullivan Architects, are fussy and over-scaled, and clumsily hark back to the past with nostalgic details. The problems are not merely aesthetic. In some stations, passengers will feel they are being herded like cattle through a chute because the walkways are so narrow.

It’s the designs that you notice first. Rather than go with a standard railing for the paid zones, SEPTA decided to create custom fences that played off the distinctive architecture in each of the five stations.

Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
The bronze-colored steel railings at Suburban Station makes a poor contrast with the building’s original Art Deco trim.

Almost as soon as you step into Suburban Station, you sense that something is amiss. The new railings are meant to mimic the station’s lustrous art deco brass work. But, to save money, they were made from bronze-colored steel, which lacks the heft of the real thing.

The railings at Jefferson were intended to celebrate the colors and rhythms of the station’s wall mural, but in the end, the mix of glass and steel just adds to the visual chaos. Perhaps the design would have worked better if SEPTA had installed the neutral gray floor tiles shown in the rendering. But SEPTA retained the red quarry tiles that were installed when the station opened in 1984. How much cleaner a simple glass railing would have been in this location.

Camera icon Sowinski Sullivan Architects
Renderings show a gray floor at Jefferson Station, but the colorful new enclosures clash with the station’s original red floor tiles.

Although the turnstiles are not yet operational in any of the stations, several commuters told me that passing through them is a tight fit.

One reason may be that SEPTA opted for old-fashion turnstiles, rather a European-style, retractable gate system, which allows for a smoother flow. SEPTA believes turnstiles are more robust and require less maintenance. Only one turnstile per entrance will be equipped with a gate to serve people with strollers, suitcases, and disabilities.

Camera icon Zwarts & Jansma Architects
In Amsterdam, the transit system uses swing gates rather than turnstiles, for easier pedestrian flow and a cleaner look.

Even though SEPTA has sound reasons for preferring turnstiles over gates, it might have made an exception for the South Street entrance to the University City station. The station is used heavily by residents of Southwest Center City traveling to the airport, yet SEPTA decided to install ceiling-high rotor gates. It’s nearly impossible to get a suitcase or stroller through the narrow cages. The alternative is to walk another block to the station headhouse.

Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
The most cumbersome arrangement is at University City Station, which serves the airport. New rotor gates make it difficult to access the platform with a suitcase or stroller.

In SEPTA’s defense, retrofitting the five stations with turnstiles was an enormously complex task. Architect Richard Sullivan said the project required elaborate computer models to figure out how to fit the turnstiles and fences into the cramped concourses.

Because the stations were built for a more gracious age of rail travel, they are equipped with an abundance of staircases and elevators. In Suburban Station alone, there are 23 staircases. That multi-block retail concourse is also a popular public space that serves as the unofficial cafeteria for thousands of Center City office workers. SEPTA had to figure out how to maintain access to the shops, restrooms, and ticket counter while securing the platform entrances.

Similar conditions exist at 30th Street and Jefferson. Instead of gating off the entire station, as SEPTA does with its subway stops, it had to build free-standing corrals around individual staircases or groups of staircases.

Camera icon Sowinski Sullivan Architects
This rendering shows the railing planned for the SEPTA concourse in 30th Street Station.

The placement of the turnstiles was also complicated. Because of the way trains are scheduled, people flow into stations in surges, rather than in a steady stream. The designers had to make sure the paid zones were big enough to handle the crowds, without people backing up on the stairs. SEPTA acknowledges that the conditions aren’t perfect. Most of the time, the level of service will be rated C or D, which is considered acceptable. But it could deteriorate during a heavy rush hour, said Kevin J. O’Brien, SEPTA’s senior program manager for new payment technologies.

Given the space constraints in the five stations and the project’s complexity, is there anything SEPTA could have done to make the paid zones feel like less of a squeeze? That’s where clean, well-designed railings and turnstiles would have helped. The Key card has vaulted SEPTA into the modern world. Unfortunately, its design sensibility hasn’t kept up.