SEPTA is considering making the Key compatible with PPA kiosks Credit: SEPTA

After a series of meetings between SEPTA and Xerox through next week, the companies will determine when the new Key digital payment system will launch.

But will the new fare system be accessible in all languages?

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said instructional handouts will be printed in both English and Spanish and fare kiosks located at stations for the Market-Frankford line, the Broad Street line and Regional Rail Center City hubs will give customers the option to translate purchasing directions into Spanish.

In addition, he said, the SEPTA Key Call Center Interactive Voice Response (AKA the system people can use to add money to their Key card) will offer English, Spanish, French and German. Its customer service center is also staffed with both English and Spanish-speaking customer service representatives.

But those languages don’t cover a large swath of Philadelphians who speak other languages, many of whom report not knowing English well. According to census data, Spanish is the second-most frequently spoken language in Philadelphia with more than 145,000 residents speaking it as their primary language at home. Of those, some 60,000 say they’re not fluent in English.

Just over 21,000 people speak French, French Creole and German as their primary language at home. Meanwhile, more than 29,000 people living in Philadelphia speak Chinese and another 15,000 speak Vietnamese — neither of which are offered through the new Key system. In total, nearly 75,000 Philadelphians speak an Asian or Pacific Islander language as their primary form of communication.

Here’s a look at some data from the census bureau of the common languages spoken by Philadelphians, along with how many of those residents report they’re not fluent in English as well.

(This graph doesn’t include Spanish — it’s by far the most spoken language other than English with 145,000 speakers in Philadelphia.)

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Busch said anyone looking to add money to their Key account or to purchase credit online can use both and the SEPTA Key website which have language translation capabilities through Google translate. He said that will help the company communicate with customers in 280 languages. 

SEPTA won’t say exactly when its digital fare payment system will launch, but PlanPhilly reported in December that officials running the project — which has lagged years behind schedule — said it could launch in April.

The Key is those reddish-orange-bordered LCD monitors that you see popping up in Market-Frankford and Broad Street line stations, as well as on buses and trolleys. Once those systems are fully installed, SEPTA riders will load money onto a Key card and tap the card on a turnstile to pay for their ride instead of fumbling around with cash, tokens or a TransPass.

The system was first conceptualized in 2007 — yes, nearly a decade ago — and SEPTA has been careful not to fully roll out the Key until they’re sure it’s ready so its launch isn’t disastrous like Chicago’s Ventra system. SEPTA has said it wants the Key to be a step up from digital payment systems in New York, Washington D.C., and even Boston, which implemented a contactless payment system in 2007.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority offers English and Spanish on its machines, as well as two of these languages that were selected based on census data for the station location: Italian, German, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Hebrew or Japanese. Meanwhile, D.C.’s Metro system simply offers language assistance for those who have a limited ability to speak or understand English and the onus is on the rider to ask for assistance.

Boston also uses Google Translate to offer language assistance and Chicago’s Ventra system is offered in English, Spanish, Polish and Chinese.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.