I rode public transportation nearly every day as a student at Brown University and never paid a dime. Just one swipe of my campus ID took me to anywhere in Providence—or the rest of Little Rhody, for that matter. It was a luxury that I used and abused. Woonsocket? Why not. Day trip to Little Compton? The name alone is justification. And the vast coastline (all 40 miles of it)? Don’t mind if I do and thank you very much.
That de facto transit pass became one of the most formative parts of my college experience. Without that freedom, I would never have explored my first alt-weekly stories. Nor would I have participated in community service on the opposite side of Providence. Nor bothered to leave campus as routinely as I did. And it wasn’t just at Brown. Anyone attending 11 colleges and universities in Rhode Island receive the pass as part of their tuition, a product of an agreement between the schools and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
Providence is not alone. In Pittsburgh, college IDs double as unlimited fare cards as well. Students are automatically opted-in to the program, paying a $180 fee to their university as part of their tuition each year, which covers the cost of a discounted pass from the public-transit authority.
Beyond the improved town-and-gown connectivity, both cities and universities benefit from these programs in myriad ways. They increase sustainability goals, help retain graduates and reduce brain drain, and even curb gentrification (more on this later).
All of which is why a petition (with 1,080 signatures and counting) on change.org is trying to galvanize support around a congruent program in Philly. It’s calling for SEPTA to sell semester- or year-long passes to universities and colleges at a steeply discounted rate of 50 to 75 percent. In turn, the universities would charge students a nominal fee in their tuition payment—or potentially, nothing at all. “Universities may have other funds from programs like parking garages and other funds that they’ve allotted for sustainability purposes that might be able to fund something like this,” says Herzog. “We’re not necessarily sure that it will raise tuition rates.” In either case, students would receive unlimited SEPTA rides by swiping their students IDs, just like in Providence and Pittsburgh.
Both cities and universities benefit from these programs. They increase sustainability goals, help retain graduates and reduce brain drain, and even curb gentrification.
Walking was the most common form of transportation among Philly college students, according to a 2014 Campus Philly survey, which also found that only 42 percent of students surveyed gave SEPTA a high approval rating. Odds are that number would be much higher if the transit system was more inviting to young newcomers. After all, 78 percent of people in an AxisPhilly poll in 2013 gave SEPTA good/excellent marks.
Sponsoring the petition are members of SEPTA Youth Advisory Council (SEPTA YAC), an organization tasked with being a liaison between young people in Philly and the transit authority. “The YAC is committed to identifying barriers to access and affordability among the youth demographic,” says Will Herzog, an undergraduate at Haverford College who serves as executive vice-chair. “I think the student fare program really ties into our mission.”
Outside of students themselves, there’s been a growing chorus of people pitching the program as a step forward in Philly’s push to be an exemplar of alt-transit. The 5th Square endorsed the idea earlier this year, as did resident transit aficionado Michael Noda of Sic Transit Philly—who wrote a prescient column back in the spring about why Philly should enable free-at-the-point-of-use transit for college students. Among the reasons why: less driving by students, less driving by institutional vehicles (imagine class field trips on the subway, instead of UPenn buses) and the potential to curb rapid gentrification in some areas. His argument is that free transit could break up some of the dense clusters of off-campus living around Clark Park or North Philadelphia East near Temple—and instead, facilitate a dissipation of that wealth to make the university feel less invasive. Noda writes:
“Free transit for students and faculty would radically change the incentives for housing and land use in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, where the first few blocks beyond the campuses are increasingly an academic monoculture, rendering them unaffordable even as entire neighborhoods suffer through disinvestment and neglect a mere half-mile away. While not many students or faculty are specifically looking to move to Kingsessing or Carroll Park, a handful willing to try could do wonders for the stability of those neighborhoods, encouraging investment and slowing the displacement that is actually occurring in our city, which is driven much more by blight than by gentrification.”
A 2010 Campus Philly survey illuminated another potential benefit. In “Choosing Philadelphia,” nearly 20 percent of students who felt a high degree of familiarity with the city said that they were more likely to stay after graduation. Herzog thinks the program could not only convince students to stay, but help get them here in the first place. “To show students the ID card and say, ‘this is your ticket to the city.’ It’s a very powerful tool,” he says.
Right now, the best deal for college students in Philly is a 10 percent discount. That’s for a semester-long TrailPass (regional rail) or TransPass (intra-city transit), but even that comes with a catch. “If you lose that pass, you’re out the full $300-plus value of that pass, because there’s no recovery of any value on it,” says Jeff Kessler, executive chair of YAC and a student at University of Pennsylvania. For most students, the risk of going $300 in the hole is not worth the reward of a ho-hum discount. “I know of one person out of the insanely large student body at Penn who purchases that pass.”
Only 3,000 to 3,500 students have purchased these passes each semester from the city’s three largest universities (Temple, Drexel, Penn) —which, as PlanPhilly reported last year, equates to roughly 3 percent of their combined student bodies. “It’s an ineffective program,” says Herzog. “We have thousands of students in the Philadelphia region and not even 1 percent of the total number of fares collected in the city transit and regional rail division are from the current student fare program.”
Nearly 20 percent of students who felt a high degree of familiarity with the city said that they were more likely to stay after graduation. “To show students the ID card and say, ‘this is your ticket to the city.’ It’s a very powerful tool,” Herzog says.
A little more than two years ago, SEPTA YAC began plugging a student fare-discount program. Realizing that any program would be governed under SEPTA’s fare tariffs, which are updated every three years, YAC targeted the summer of 2016—the next voting period for the tariff—as the moment to actualize such a program. Kessler, Herzog and others have been meeting separately with SEPTA and various local universities to get pledges of provisional support for the program. While the discussions have been promising, Kessler wouldn’t go as far as to say that all the parties are on board. “I think the better term, for SEPTA at this point, is unopposed,” he says. “But anybody who knows how this process works, knows being unopposed is a major step forward.”
Call that the optimism of youth or not showing your hand with the press. Regardless, adding potentially hundreds of thousands of new riders to SEPTA could contribute up to $60 million to the City Transit Division, according to the 5th Square. With upwards of 450,000 college students in the metro area — SEPTA YAC is hoping suburban schools will opt-in to the program, in addition to city schools — that figure seems reasonable if you do the math. But that requires buy-ins from universities and colleges. And soon.
“Right now is when the schools and SEPTA are going to be developing their operating budgets for the upcoming academic year and fiscal year,” says Kessler. “Realistically, SEPTA is not going to want to develop such a program unless they know the colleges are on board with it.”
They should be. In fact, maybe they should go even further and cover the cost of it: Colleges and universities don’t pay taxes, after all. Finding a way to keep their graduates in Philly could be a way to give back.
Header Photo: Flickr/jpmueller99