Full-time students at Swarthmore College will receive free SEPTA passes this semester, as the school becomes the first higher education institution to participate in the transit agency’s Key Advantage program.
“This program will make it easier and less expensive for students to travel to destinations across the region,” SEPTA general manager Leslie S. Richards said in a news release on Wednesday.
Swarthmore’s approximately 1,600 students can use their passes throughout the academic year, with a 240-ride limit a month.
The “UPass” program is open to any school or university in the Philadelphia region that SEPTA serves, said Jennifer Scimone, manager of business development in the financial operations department at SEPTA.
Swarthmore was the first school that indicated an interest in participating in the program.
The agency is in “active discussions” with half a dozen other schools in the city and suburbs, said Scimone. She hopes to have 15 colleges and universities join the program in the first year.
Typically a monthly all-access SEPTA Key card would cost $204 a month, but schools are offered a steep discount through UPass. The agency is able to offer this discount because UPass depends on universities signing up all full-time students, not just those already using SEPTA, said Scimone.
“We’re hoping to gain ridership with this young group of people and establish those patterns while they’re in college,” said Scimone. “Hopefully they’ll continue on in their career in the area, and then they’ll be using SEPTA when they start out in the workforce.”
UPass is an extension of SEPTA’s Key Advantage program, which offers businesses the opportunity to purchase discounted Key cards on behalf of employees. Key Advantage was launched with Penn Medicine, Drexel University, and Wawa in March 2022 and later expanded eligibility to any business in the region.
The program was envisioned as a way to increase ridership, which has been slow to recover since the pandemic, as well as a perk that companies can use to help attract and retain employees.
Increasing ridership on public transit is a key concern for the agency’s leaders. SEPTA is expected to run out of federal pandemic relief in April 2024, and could face a $240 million structural deficit in 2025.
Twenty-two employers have joined the business program since it was launched last year, said Scimone. The transit agency reports that those who have been offered the card are riding SEPTA an average of 13% more than they were before joining the Key Advantage program.
“They’re not just using it to commute to and from work,” she said. The agency has seen an uptick in ridership on weekends and evenings.
In addition to Swarthmore College, the city of Philadelphia will also participate in the Key Advantage program beginning in September. The city will offer zero-fare transportation passes to 22,000 city employees, making it one of the largest employers in the program.