A Tale of Misery, Woe, and Elusive Contactless Farecards

Last month, I went down to Philly for the day. This isn’t exciting in and of itself—I live in the suburbs, so I go to Philly fairly often—except most of the time I wash up somewhere in Center City, so I basically never have reason to use anything other than Regional Rail. This time, however, I was in town for a concert at the Fillmore…outside Center City, five minutes’ walk from the Girard MFL* station in Fishtown. So I said to myself, self, today might be a good day to get a Septa Key.

So, like any good tourist, I checked the Septa website to see what’s going on with the rollout. I was aware it wasn’t completed yet, that you can only get new cards at certain places…one of which, it turned out, was Suburban Station. However, the website was considerably more vague on what options were available, and where. In addition, it didn’t look like it had been updated since fall of last year, so I then had concerns that the information on the website no longer accurately reflected the on-the-ground reality. Nevertheless, in my ignorance, I figured I would be able to get a Septa Key card with a wallet that day.

Upon arrival at the Suburban Station sales office, I asked the nice person behind the counter for a card. “Weekly or monthly?” she asked.

“One of the ones with the wallet?” I said.

“Not here. They’re at 1234 Market Street.”

So I went to 1234, had the same conversation with the gentleman there. Turns out, he said, there aren’t any Keys with wallets there, either, and a weekly pass is $24. Which, given how often I’m on the subway, would come to $8 a ride for me. So I gave up and went to Fishtown using tokens.


  • Their first mistake was marketing the Travel Wallet as a Special Feature and the Weekly/Monthly pass as the default. This is literally the opposite of how the civilized world does it. The Octopus Card in Hong Kong and Pasmo in Tokyo, for example, have what we’d call the Travel Wallet as the default and don’t treat it as anything special, just How Contactless Farecards Are Supposed To Work, and I think the Septa Key people’s failure to understand that meant the current [thoroughly avoidable] teething problems were pretty much inevitable.
  • Consequently, they should have rolled out the wallet first and the weekly/monthly passes later.
  • Information about what options are available where shouldn’t be buried deep in the website on a chart or an FAQ, it should be on a scrolling headline thing right on the septakey.org front page.
  • The information on septakey.org should clearly be current. When something that happened in August is referred to using the future tense, I begin to think what you’re saying is outdated.
  • This will likely be rolled out later, but you should be able to get a fresh Key using one of the vending machines. The machines at 15th, 8th, and 5th Streets only allowed for reloading an existing card.
  • As of today, you can get a fresh Key at 69th Street without having to buy a pass. I think. For a while I heard conflicting reports about that one.
  • This ship has long sailed, yes, but I still feel stupid calling it Septa Key. They should have branded it the Liberty Card when they had the chance. Reflects Philly’s role in American pop-history; nice mirror of PATCO’s Freedom Card, and so forth.

*Aside: that we’ve decided to shorten the names of our subway lines to “BSL” and “MFL” never ceases to amuse my inner puerile twelve-year-old.


About theoditsek

I like going places.
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