How the entrance to Erie Station would look under the new rebrand

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SEPTA is looking to collectively rename its subways, trolley routes and a light rail as the “Metro” — part of a $40 million effort to make the public transit system easier to navigate.

The rebrand would affect six SEPTA routes: the Market-Frankford Line, the Broad Street Line, city trolleys, the Norristown High Speed Line and the Media-Sharon Hill Line. In addition to their new collective name, each route will be identified by a new color and a single letter.

“What Metro says is: Frequent, affordable, all-day, flexible rail service,” said Lex Powers, SEPTA’s strategic planning manager. “What we want people to think of is a light rail-style network that you don’t just use for commuting into Center City for an office job. It’s for seeing friends, going to the doctor, running errands.”

The proposed change comes after a year of research revealing that riders just don’t understand SEPTA’s current signage. After interviewing riders and even watching them attempt to decode signs, they realized that the rail transit network was widely misunderstood — and confusing signs were partially to blame.

“If you were to go out and ask someone where the rail transit network is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about,” Powers said. “That’s a really good indication that it’s not a great term.”

The end game, for SEPTA, is to make the rail system easier to navigate for new riders, as well as for people with disabilities and people who don’t speak English. Officials figure with a more cohesive brand, it might not be so challenging to use.

The new name isn’t totally finalized. Before SEPTA actually finishes the project, they’re engaging in a two-month feedback period with pop-ups at stations and an online portal. That way riders can share how they feel about the rebrand.

“Here’s to hoping we’ve done enough homework that it’ll go over well,” Powers said. “We’re definitely expecting a lot of feedback.”

Under the new plan, city trolley lines would be symbolized by a green T Credit: Courtesy SEPTA

The Metro: Each line repped by just a letter and a color

There are… a lot of problems with SEPTA’s current signage.

Many of the signs rely on full English phrases or sentences to communicate, Powers said, which complicates the process for non-native English speakers. The maps are convoluted — often presenting information about the entire SEPTA system, instead of the relevant next steps on the rider’s current journey.

One of the single most confusing aspects of the system? Arrows on signs that don’t seem to point where they should.

“The weirdly shaped arrows are one of the biggest problems that we identified,” Powers said. “People spent so much time looking at arrows and trying to figure out what they mean.”

SEPTA surveyed transit-focused groups like the Transit Riders Union and 5th Square. They asked around at immigrant organizations like SEAMAAC and HIAS, and at neighborhood associations like the Center City District and North Broad Renaissance.

SEPTA even conducted a study with the University of Pennsylvania, where riders wore eye-tracking glasses to show the transit authority which signs they had to look at for the longest time — helping them determine which were the most confusing.

During the study, Powers saw a man who only spoke Chinese navigate the SEPTA by tracing the words with his fingers and looking for those same shapes later. That’s when it hit him: Using symbols would fix a lot of their problems.

The old symbols repping each line are detailed drawings of the specific trains that run on them, images that are basically meaningless to regular people: “It requires a detailed knowledge of rolling stock to be able to navigate,” Powers said.

Now, the routes will be identified by just one letter and plain background color:

  • The Broad Street Line: B with an orange background
  • The Market-Frankford Line: L with a blue background (since people usually call it the El or the L)
  • The Center City trolleys: T with a green background
  • The Route 15 trolley: G with a yellow background (because the route runs along Girard Avenue)
  • The Norristown High Speed Line: M with a purple background (M for Montgomery lines)
  • The Media-Sharon Hill Line: D with a pink background (D for Delaware lines)

To kick off the two-month feedback period, SEPTA is installing examples of the new signage at seven stations. You can peep the potential rebrand at 15th Street/City Hall Station, 69th Street Station, Allegheny Station, Olney Station, the 40th Street Trolley Portal, and the Norristown High Speed Line’s Gulph Mills stop.

All the new signs will feature QR codes, directing riders to a website where they can share their thoughts. SEPTA also promises to deploy crews to stations periodically to ask for feedback in person.

But it’ll be a minute before we see any system-wide changes. Powers estimates it’ll be late 2022, maybe even 2023, before they launch the full rebrand.

“The reason we’re being so painstaking about these decisions is because this has to be the foundation on which we build a much larger communication program,” he said. “You might as well do it right, take your time, do your research, incorporate public feedback and then shoot for the stars.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...