Memo To SEPTA: Why Not “LevelUp” For Fare Collection?

November 13, 2012 | by Sandy Smith


Market East Station

Sure, fare barriers could be installed in Market East Station, though they might disrupt the flow of traffic and would prevent people from meeting friends on the platform… | Photo: Flickr user OZinOH, used under a Creative Commons license

Mass transit advocates like me have been eagerly waiting for SEPTA to finally roll out its New Payment Technology –its project to leapfrog over existing cashless, stored-value electronic fare collection systems in use on other mass transit systems with a technology that would work with a wide variety of payment media.

As the agency has lurched towards actual implementation, now set to start late next year, one of the thorniest issues it has had to deal with is how to apply the system to the Regional Rail network. The lack of fareboxes or barriers on the Regional Rail system has had SEPTA’s techies scratching their heads over how to adapt a technology that relies on such devices to make sure everyone pays a fare.

The people in charge of the fare system project–I’m not sure they’re techies themselves–have decided to add fare control to a key part of the Regional Rail system in order to make it fit NPT: Riders will “tap in” and “tap out” of the system using contactless readers installed at the five central stations–University City, 30th Street, Suburban Station, Market East, and Temple University.

The advantage of this system is that it takes fare collection out of the hands of on-board personnel. But it’s still somewhat ill-suited to the Regional Rail system, where most stations cannot be reconfigured so that no one can enter the platform without paying a fare. Since that’s the case, why not adopt a practice and a technology that encourages self-enforcement?

I have in mind what’s known as proof-of-payment fare collection, or “the honor system” as it’s sometimes called in error, which is pretty much how Regional Rail operates now: fares are paid at a station ticket window before boarding, if you’re lucky and the ticket window is open when you arrive. You are then issued a proof of payment–the ticket. Don’t have one? On-board personnel, who check all passengers for proof of payment, can sell you one for an additional charge over the fare.

…but what do you do at a station like Doylestown? Proof-of-payment fare collection solves the problem – and there’s a technology out there that could make it paperless, a key goal for SEPTA. | Photo: Sandy Smith

With modern proof-of-payment systems, on-board personnel don’t check each and every passenger for fares; instead, they serve as roving inspectors conducting random checks of passengers. If they find a passenger without proof of payment, that rider’s $2.50 trip turns into a $250 one once the inspector writes a ticket for the violation. This system is used widely across the world.

Contactless fare collection, at least in SEPTA’s eyes, is designed to eliminate the need for paper. Personally, I don’t understand the paperphobia, though saving trees is greener. But a paperless proof-of-payment system could still be implemented under NPT with a related technology – the QR-code-based system used by LevelUp.

Many of you have no doubt heard of LevelUp by now: Philadelphia was one of the two cities where the company first launched its service. To pay with it, you load an app onto your phone that produces a QR code, linked to a payment card, that’s read by a participating merchant’s cell phone app. When the payment is processed, the app generates a receipt that you can view on your phone if you choose.

On Regional Rail, riders would use the QR code-based payment system at platform-side readers to register their fare payment; the reader could handle rider input about final destination and total fare. Then, if requested from on-board personnel, the rider could call up the cell phone receipt to show the inspector. No receipt? Ticket for violation. Simple, and aside from the ticket, there’s no paper involved at all.

I’m not arguing that SEPTA should adopt LevelUp specifically as part of its NPT implementation; rather, I’m showing that there is a technology already out there that could handle the problem that most vexes the designers seeking to apply NPT to Regional Rail. But if it did use LevelUp, there would be a bonus for riders: LevelUp works as an online rebate program–participating merchants offer credit for paying with LevelUp, usually a nominal amount on first purchase, then a rebate of up to ten percent each time a spending threshold is reached. Doing this with SEPTA fares would hurt the agency’s bottom line, true, but the loss could be made up in increased ridership as non-riders discover how commuting just got truly rewarding.


About the Author

Sandy Smith Sandy Smith has been engaging in journalism and its hired-gun cousin, public relations, in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. He started award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a team and at Widener University all by himself. He has a passionate interest in cities and urban development, which he gets to indulge as editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, and in trains and mass transit, which he indulges wherever and whenever he gets the chance. (You may know him as "MarketStEl" if you lurk on Philadelphia Speaks.)


  1. Lauren says:

    I think it’s a great idea…the only problem I suppose would be for riders who do not own a smart-phone. Perhaps a paper option could also be available, like Bolt Bus and Megabus do?

  2. John says:

    I live in Philly and use LevelUp all the time, whether its at the local corner store, Reading Terminal Market, or wherever. Its great. I’ve always thought that Taxis should all use LevelUp to make payment quicker and easier. That said it also has a location based feature that could be used to locate the nearest SEPTA stations/stops.

  3. Drew says:

    Another area Septa was struggling with was how to identify and charge senior citizens and reduced fare riders so the appropriate fare was charged. Patco issues a stored value Freedom Card with the reduced fare rider’s photo on it. Out of town reduced fare riders currently must show a Medicare card to qualify for the reduced fare, so with the new system an infrequent or one time only visitor would be requird to obtain a stored value card at 1234the Market. We all know how fast things move at 1234the Market.

  4. Devin says:

    Sandy, I was under the impression from the information released by SEPTA that the turnstiles would only be found at the central stations and that there would be “tap in” and “tap out” readers on each train for use at other stations. I like the idea of using LevelUp, but I would expect that they would probably consider developing their own e-ticket app instead.

    1. Sandy Smith says:

      Frankly, Devin, I’m not that keen on turnstiles at the central stations either, as I think they will cause problems with the traffic flow. But I do know there are other cities that use them in this fashion; Paris and Sydney come to mind. (This brings up the larger issue of whether we might get more benefit out of Regional Rail if we ran it more like rapid transit. That’s a topic for another time.)

      And I have heard from some techie friends that a QR code-based system may not be as efficient from the operator’s standpoint as I think it is. But I do think, as SEPTA apparently doesn’t, that proof of payment will work fine. The agency has had some time to wrestle with this problem, and the fact that it’s still trying to figure out the details now suggests to me they haven’t been thinking creatively enough.

  5. Devin says:

    I see what you’re saying about the turnstiles, it would require a rethinking of most of the central stations. It sounds like the best idea would be to have a system at central stations and on trains themselves to tap in and out of the system instead.

    I have to agree with the paperless decision on the part of SEPTA, why go in that direction when people can use smart phones and proprietary fobs/cards? If said machines could sell cards as well, that would be even better.

  6. Sick Transit says:

    Part of the “rationale” for SEPTA’s insistence on an overly-complex Regional Rail fare system is a long-term fixation on capturing as much revenue as possible from existing riders versus making the system attractive to potential new riders. That fixation in part justifies the current practice of charging extra for riders who pay with cash while simultaneously making it inconvenient to purchase less-expensive alternatives like tokens and Regional Rail tickets. SEPTA’s current crazy-quilt payment system has been cited by study after study as a significant impediment to increased ridership.

    The concern that P-O-P would allow more fare evasion is legitimate, but it’s not balanced by any recognition of whether a simpler payment structure might outweigh any associated shrinkage by increasing the number of casual and otherwise irregular riders. It would be very interesting to know what the experience has been in cities such as Baltimore or Berlin that rely on partial or complete P-O-P systems.

  7. Veillantif says:

    Fare payment & collection on the R lines are not beset with the same problems as the buses/subways/trolleys. It seems like all they need to do is make TransPasses that can be read on the new fare machines (like the combination Metrocard/LIRR/Metro North passes you can buy in New York), and we’d be all set.

  8. matthew says:

    septa is going to a pre loaded card for those who do not use the system ever y day folks . its just like using the mtro in d c . you either pay just like you do now for a all day pass . multi trip , off peak ect . whats the big deal?? its not that complicated . on rr the conductors wave a scanner over each card . done

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